Field Trips Are as Important as iPads at This School

The principal of a Baltimore elementary school takes an innovative approach to student success.
Joseph Manko with students in Baltimore. (Photo: Courtesy Joseph Manko)
Oct 31, 2016· 5 MIN READ
Jodi Helmer is a North Carolina–based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, E: The Environmental Magazine, and Urban Farm.

Some of the stats that describe Liberty Elementary School can be downright discouraging: More than 93 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, and 12 percent are chronically absent.

The school is in the inner-city Baltimore neighborhood that saw looting and protests in the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody; almost all of the students come from families whose household incomes are 185 percent of the poverty line or less, which means they qualify for food assistance.

Principal Joseph Manko refuses to let poverty hold students back.

Under his leadership, Liberty Elementary School is among the top performing elementary schools in Baltimore for five years running. It ranked 10th out of the 150 Maryland elementary schools that took the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, a Common Core assessment tool.

Part of the success can be attributed to the high-tech tools available for students, including iPads for each of the 464 students in prekindergarten through fifth grade. In September, all of the students started class with their own tablets, and the school has the largest field trip program in the city. Beyond tech tools, the school has found innovative ways to help kids and families invest in their community for the future. Manko's students get a shot at getting out of their neighborhood through field trips that are used as incentives to improve student participation and to show them the world beyond.

Manko got his start in schools in Baltimore, after moving there from Los Angeles in 2002 to teach with Teach for America, and he spent seven years in the classroom in an inner-city location. The former Fulbright scholar and America Achieves fellow has figured out how to work with lean budgets to inspire teachers, parents, and the community to take action for their kids. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

TakePart: Why did you get involved in urban education?

Joseph Manko: I feel like education is the only way we can change and transform things. It’s my passion and my calling to be part of fixing the system.

Urban education has a strong social justice component. Educational inequity is at the heart of so much of the inequity in this country. Working in urban education, I have come to view everything through that social justice lens; it is the greatest gift I have been given as an educator.

TakePart: How did you end up as the principal of Liberty Elementary School?

Manko: I did a residency with New Leaders for New Schools, a program similar to Teach for America, but it’s aimed at developing school principals. At the end of the residency [in 2008], I joined Liberty Elementary School as the principal.

I had never been in a school without an assistant principal. [Liberty hired its first assistant principal this fall.] I walked in and thought, “How am I going to do this?” My staff said, “Don’t worry—we’ve got your back. We’ll make it work.” And we did.

TakePart: What makes Liberty Elementary School different from other schools?

Manko: Kids in urban settings get a bad rap but they are, for the most part, doing good work. In a lot of ways, we’re the same as other schools. Our kids are not a homogeneous population; we have a whole range of kids with a whole range of experiences, and we need to provide learning environments that reach all of them.

Being in the inner city means that our kids face the everyday grating effects of poverty. For many of them, the only meal they get is at school. They go home to houses that are infested with rodents. They know neighbors or family members who have been shot. These kids suffer the equivalent of PTSD because they are living their lives.

The fact that our kids have to contend with those challenges and the toll it takes on them on a daily basis means we can’t expect them to come into the classroom and sit like model citizens to do their math homework.

TakePart: here do you find the resources to turn things around?

Manko: What makes us different than most other schools, at least in Baltimore, is a lean administrative model.

Other schools have assistant principals, deans, teacher coaches [who work with teachers to develop strategies for classroom success]. For the past six years, we haven’t had those things. The salaries of assistant coach, dean, and teacher coach buy you a lot of field trips and iPads.

When I came here seven years ago, we had 270 students, which was considered under-enrolled, and our budget was small; there was no money to hire those additional roles.

We did a lot of recruitment and outreach, and the number of students jumped to 310, which meant we were over-enrolled, not under-enrolled. The enrollment numbers adjusted the budget, and we had $300,000 extra. I went to the teachers and said, “Let’s try something different. Rather than sinking this money into mid-level administration, let’s push it into the classroom.” The teachers agreed, and that’s what we’ve been doing ever since.

TakePart: Should other schools take this approach to increase classroom spending?

Manko: It won’t work at every school. You have to have the capacity in your staff. We can use a very shallow administration model because we have really amazing teachers—seven of the 56 National Board Certified teachers in Baltimore teach at Liberty. Most schools are not in that place.

The larger problem is that schools shouldn’t have to make the choice about whether to hire an assistant principal or pay for field trips for kids. Schools should be able to have both.

TakePart: How do these choices translate to innovations in the classroom?

Manko: We’re bending the odds and doing things not typical for schools in similar demographics.

Last year, our students engaged in 93 field trip experiences. So many of these kids don’t leave the four-block radius of their home. We want them to be able to see the world that is around them and learn by doing. We also use it as an incentive to ensure kids are working hard in the classroom and putting forth good effort.

The iPads help with engagement; teachers can use the technology to tailor worksheets to the specific learning levels and needs of each student. We also use technology to go beyond teaching basic comprehension and regurgitation by having our students go from consuming information to creating it.

Students use iPads to create iBooks and Prezi presentations and annotate text in Google texts. We have QR codes throughout the school that link to voice presentations and color-coded exercises based on their learning levels.

We don’t have technology in the classroom to increase test scores—though we hope it’s a residual effect. We have it because kids are growing up in the digital age, and we’re equipping them for that.

TakePart: What initiatives have you taken outside the classroom?

Manko: Our kids—and our community—needed options. When the parks and recreation department planned to close the recreation center attached to the school because there was no budget to keep it open, we stepped in. It wasn’t a good option for our community to close it.

We’ve transformed it from a rec center about to be closed into a volunteer-run, self-funded rec center with the most robust programming in Baltimore. We have over 200 kids engaged in after-school programming at the Liberty Rec and Tech Center.

A lot of great people stepped up to make it work. It has not been a panacea, and it’s not without its challenges, but it’s been a labor of love on behalf of our community for our kids.

We’ve also formed partnerships to get donated computers for Liberty families. It started as a pilot project in 2015. Towson University donated 25 computers, and we raised funds to get one year of high-speed internet access for families. We have another 25 computers ready to give out [through a raffle], so kids can do their homework and access educational programs outside the classroom. Families shouldn’t lack access to technology because they live in a certain zip code.

TakePart: You’ve been outspoken about the need for change in education policy and participated in the U.S. Department of Education’s Principal Ambassador Fellowship Program. How has that impacted your work?

Manko: I’ve always had an interest in education policy, and this seemed like an awesome opportunity to be able to help shape it. Federal education policy is like a pad of Post-it notes. You have to peel away one layer at a time to get to the core of the issue; I like to think that the conversations I engaged in [with federal leadership] had some impact on policy.

We talked a lot about testing. In October 2015, Obama came out with a statement that we over-test our kids; Secretary [John] King made a speech in June 2016 calling schools to build more maker spaces and encourage learning in art classes and libraries—all of these things we’ve been talking about for so long as important to kids and educators that have been neglected. It was empowering to think the things we talked about [as ambassadors] had an impact.

These little modifications and shifts are critical because that’s how we change the system.