Education Opinion

Joe Manko, Principal, Liberty Elementary School, Baltimore City Public Schools

By Sara Mead — May 19, 2014 9 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

After a decade of focus on teacher quality, policymakers and education leaders are increasingly recognizing the critical importance of school leaders to student learning. As principal of Liberty Elementary School, a high-performing, high-poverty elementary school in Northwest Baltimore, Joe Manko has lead his school in implementing innovative strategies to meet students’ needs, including using technology in new ways to support student learning and taking over a community center to provide wrap-around and community services. Raised in Southern California, where his first job was selling hot dogs at Disneyland, Manko, 34, came to Baltimore as a Teach for America corps member and has been there ever since. He lives with his girlfriend and cat in Baltimore.

Tell me a little bit about your school and the students you work with?

We serve 422 students grades in grades prek-5th. Our Student population is 93.5% free- and reduced-price lunch and 99.9% of our students are African American. Out of 158 schools in Baltimore, we were the 10th highest performing on state exams--one of only two or three high-poverty schools that achieved similar results.

I’m lucky to have a fantastic group of veteran teachers to work with. The average years of experience for our teachers is 14 years in the classroom. They make my job a lot easier because they are so good at what they do. I’m one of the few principals who can tell parents with confidence that their child can go from pre-k through 5th grade in our school and have a good teacher every year no matter what classroom they’re in.

We also run one the largest field trip program in the city: our kids go on eight to ten field trips a year. And we have the most robust set of technology offerings in public schools in the city--people are surprised to learn that a small elementary school in Northwest Baltimore is leading the way on technology, rather than a magnet high school or middle school. We have wireless internet throughout the school and Promethean boards in every classroom. With 300 ipads and 60 laptops we offer the closest thing in Baltimore to a one-to-one experience. Almost every kids gets exposure on a day to day basis. As a true blended learning school, we use data on the back end to identify where we can meet the kids strategically, to help differentiate learning and to help kids focus with a different set of tools than are typical in most schools.

Tell me about your relationship with the community?

We’re a community school; every time we do something we look at it as a full community effort. We’ve taken over a recreation center that is attached to our school. After the school day ends at 3:30, there’s a 3-hour afterschool program. Kids can be at Liberty from 8:00 in the morning until 6:30 at night and get breakfast, lunch, and dinner at school. The recreation center stays open until 9:00 and hosts a variety of community classes and activities: zumba, GED classes, a senior program, a marching band. We rent on the space on the weekends and use the funds we generate to support our programs. We have a massive food pantry program that gives away 16,000 pounds of food each month. Our families come to the school to do their grocery shopping. Everyone who uses the food pantry gives us four hours of volunteer service, and that’s how we support the rec center. So far this year we’ve had over 1,000 hours of volunteer support a month.

All of these programs--the blended learning, the field trips, the rec center--we developed over the past four years since I’ve been here. But the core of the school--good instruction, warm climate--those things were in place before I got here, and that’s given me the ability to do everything else. None of this is possible unless you have an efficient group of teachers and a strong school environment.

You also have an early childhood program, right?

We’re strong believers in early intervention, doing what we can to meet kids needs earlier, helping parents understand the importance of early childhood, of books, nutrition, etc. I have two wonderful pre-k teachers, but we realized that kids are coming to pre-k already behind. So I partnered with the YMCS of Central Maryland to run two Head Start classrooms in two vacant classrooms we had at the school. That way kids can start at Liberty as young as 3 years old. Now we’re working to cobble together federal and foundation grants to open an early learning center to serve kids as young as 6 months old. Kids could go from Liberty infants, to Liberty toddlers, to preschool, to kindergarten. Then we wouldn’t have an achievement gap because it would never have developed.

I think a lot of people would be surprised that you’re leading the way on technology innovation with such a veteran group of teachers.

A lot of teachers are not digital natives, but they are excited to learn and try new things--that’s something you can’t easily duplicate. Not all of our teachers feel comfortable with technology, but that’s something we’re working through. The ipads help a lot; they are far more intuitive than a netbook or desktop, they’re reliable and they don’t break down. In selecting programs and software to work with, we’re also very selective in finding tools that enable kids to be independent and self direct. We also have four technology teachers who are classroom teachers but serve as technology leaders in the school. They all went through the Digital Harbor Foundation’s Ed Tech Fellows program. More than just training, the confidence that they are the tech leads in the school has elevated them in the minds of other teachers. Their classrooms become the laboratory for our school, and the other teachers know they can go to them for help. We’re becoming more sophisticated over time. A couple weeks ago we launched an initiative where teachers tweet out what they’re doing throughout the day. It’s great for our learning community because the teachers can see what’s going on in each others’ classrooms, ask questions about it, and celebrate success. It’s an easy, high-yield strategy that costs nothing.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face?

We have a great staff and school culture, but we’re still a school in a very impoverished neighborhood in Northwest Baltimore and our kids come to school with all the things you’d associate with growing up in poverty. But we’re able to provide very early interventions so that academically we can make up some time for kids who are challenged. Our teachers are also very strong in dealing with student behavior.

At the school level, we spend a lot of time grappling with things, to get to the right outcome for kids. For example, I’m meeting on Saturday with a couple of my math teachers and some math experts outside the system to debrief and talk about our next steps for math as we transition to Common Core. Sometimes that grappling means we try things that don’t work, but if you don’t fail, you never learn, and you never move ahead. At our school, on the other hand, we realize that sometimes we will fail, but that this enables us to learn so that we can do what’s best for kids.

What do you see as the role and potential of technology to improve education for your students?

I have a different perspective than lots of the people who are advocating for education technology. A lot of people are looking at technology as the means to achieving higher academic performance. I see it as more of an equity issue. Our kids are going to be growing up living in a technological world. It’s an injustice if we don’t provide them access to those tools. I’m fairly confident the tools will improve learning because the kids are more engaged and have access to experiences they wouldn’t otherwise have. But even in the absence of that we’d still use technology because kids in wealthier suburbs and independent schools are getting access to technology. Our kids shouldn’t lack access to those experiences just because they come from a high-poverty neighborhood. It’s the same reason that we take the kids on field trips.

We’ve been deluded into the idea that everything’s data-driven, that this narrow band of standardized testing is how we should be measuring results for kids. But sometimes you just have to do things because they’re right for kids. We get to this rabbit hole where people who support arts education are arguing that we should have arts education because it will improve test scores. But you should learn art and you should learn to play the violin because it’s beautiful.

I have the luxury because the school is so high-performing and we have the autonomy and to give kids these kinds of experiences. But we should want a world where all of our kids can have these experiences.

How did you become an educator?

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. I thought that I would go back and teach at the high school that I graduated from. But when I was in college at UCLA I ended up participating in early outreach programs where we visited schools in Watts and South Central. I realized that my passion was working with kids who had less opportunity and faced greater challenges than I had. I applied to Teach for America and was placed in Baltimore. This is my 12th year here. I spent seven years teaching and then did New Leader for New Schools to become a principal. I’ve been at Liberty ever since.

Who are some of your heroes/mentors/people you respect whose examples shape your work?

One of the things I love about education is that there are so many great thinkers. When it comes to educational philosophy, I’m a big constructivist at heart, a John Dewey follower. I love reading Paulo Freire and his ideas about pedagogy and empowerment. A lot of my thinking over the past 4-5 years has been motivated by stuff that I read by Paul Tough. His writing gets me to think more clearly and to think outside the box. Our community schools wrap around programming has been inspired by Geoffery Canada and the Harlem Children’s Zone.

What do you hope to be doing 5-10 years from now? What do you hope to have accomplished?

This is my fourth year at Liberty. When I got here I told myself that I’d like to stay 10 years and see what we can do in this school and this neighborhood. So I have another six years as long as the community will have me. I think we’ve build something really cool here. The great thing is that I don’t know what this will look like in six years. If you asked me four years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to predict some of the best things we’ve done since I’ve been here. We just started our technology initiative three years ago and it’s gone far beyond where I expected. Our early childhood initiative is still new. It’s exciting work and it’s new every year. As long as we are trying to challenge, push, try new things I’d love to be here.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.