Home Local News: Asheville and Hendersonville ‘Principal of the Year’ Luke Manuel is patient, toiling leader

‘Principal of the Year’ Luke Manuel is patient, toiling leader

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Luke Manuel, principal at Hendersonville Middle, learns he is 2018-19 Principal of the Year for Henderson County Public Schools at a pep rally. Photo courtesy of Henderson County Public Schools.

The local principal of the year is selected by peers. The 23 principals in Henderson County Public Schools nominate principals for the honor when meeting for the new academic year. This establishes finalists. Later, they vote electronically and secretly to selected the winner.

Manuel told The Tribune he was totally surprised that he was chosen, and was not thinking how the honor is given early in the academic year. Reading teacher April Paige said few among staff knew. She helped host a pep rally in the school gym, that is normal early in the school year. Assistant Principal Amanda Childers honored each school athletic team one at a time. Cheerleaders did a dance routine, that revved up the student crowd.

Caldwell and other school officials shrewdly entered the gym only just before it was award time, and stayed to the side and out of Manuel’s sight. He was in another corner of the gym. He later noted he did not see them enter the gym, nor figure at first he was to get an award.

Once the surprise was out Luke’s wife Beth joined him, making the honor more shared and special. They hugged at center court. Minutes earlier “when I saw my wife in the gym, I wondered why she was there,” Luke recalled. “Then when I saw Mr. Caldwell, I realized it was more than just a pep rally. I had inkling” it might be reward-related. Even once Supt. Caldwell was announced and was about to speak, there loomed possibility he might announce something else — such as a special grant for the school.

Initially, a surprised Manuel hugged Caldwell after the award was announced, then plunged his face into his hands in disbelief. The onlooking Caldwell also looked emotionally moved.

A moment later, Manuel shifted into celebratory mode. He surged a fist pump toward the rafters — as students stood and loudly cheered. He began chuckling. He circled around in front of students, then ‘high-fived’ cheerleaders.

Manuel told students and teachers how “humble and honored” he felt, to serve as principal in “one of the very best middle schools in all of North Carolina.” Staff gave him a cake.

“This is a huge honor,” local schools’ Chief Human Resources Officer W. Scott Rhodes noted. “Mr. Manuel has done an outstanding job leading” HMS. “He is a kind and humble leader, who loves his students and staff.”

Math teacher Katy Gash posted this recent message of Manuel on duty and optimism, on her classroom wall: “Be professional, be patient, be kind. Everything is fixable.”

Manuel supports teachers being flexible where they see it will get the most out of a student, on a case-by-case basis. He cited to The Tribune as an example giving a student with writer’s block extra time to finish a report. “We give our students every opportunity to learn.”

Language arts teacher Meryl McMahan likes Manuel the best of all principals she has worked for in 31 years of teaching, including charismatic ones at East Henderson. She is in her third year at HMS.

Manuel “cares about you as a person,” Mrs. Gash said. McMahan said Manuel makes teachers “feel appreciated” for various tasks in class and beyond. “He’s so appreciative,” she said. “He often says ‘thank you!’”

Manuel said he realizes teachers can “feel under-appreciated” at times, handling so many challenges that tend to go “unnoticed.” He tries to notice them, and express gratitude.

Bearcat pride extends to keeping classrooms and halls free of litter. “We do our best to maintain the integrity of the building, and its cleanliness,” Manuel said. The school was renovated and expanded a decade and half ago, with a second classroom building added.

He credits a positive and productive HMS atmosphere to staff and the two assistant principals, Childers and Matthew Ramsey who is also the athletic director.

Manuel sets an example as a dedicated go-getter, going the extra mile himself. Like many principals, Manuel helps in various areas such as directing traffic as parents pick up their children after school. A half-hour after that task last Thursday, he was busy helping sell concessions during the HMS Bearcats’ football game. “You just help” — wherever and whenever needed, he said with a chuckle.

HMS Bearcats defeated Apple Valley 36-6 — over two days last week. The teams played a mere minute and forty seconds on Thursday, before an electrical storm forced a delay. “The trainers have a weather app” on their phones, Manuel explained. “Whenever there is a lightning strike within a 10-mile radius, it alerts them. The game automatically goes into a lightning delay.” Weather soon worsened, raining very hard. “Then we saw lightning and rain.”

Above all, he said, “we make sure players and fans are safe, and are sheltered.” A.D. Ramsey enacted his advance plan to delay the game to the next day, once the storm did not pass through in reasonable time. The HHS field was again available Friday, as varsity Bearcats were off last week. Ironically, the elder Cats practice not on their game field but on an HMS field.

During the rain and delay with most others sheltered and dry, Manuel directed “wrapping up of concession stands and equipment.” As he noted, “it’s an undertaking.”

The Manuel family is often on the go, as much as Luke was scampering on Falcon option football plays back in the day. He finished his Tribune interview Sunday evening, while driving home from daughter Sawyer’s two victorious soccer matches in Spartanburg, S.C.. Sawyer is in fourth grade at Glenn C. Marlow Elementary. Son Truitt, the Manuels’ eldest child, is in seventh grade at HMS.

Luke Manuel, who has coached football, said he “tries to be hands off” and avoid meddling in coaching of athletics. Yet he is all for communication between a student’s coaches and teachers if any notice a dip in the youth’s performance or change in behavior. Home life and other factors might explain such shifts. Manuel said it helps that “we’re all in the know,” to better help a student overcome any obstacles and get back on track.

Manuel was a model student athlete. Many fans best recall him as a swift Falcon quarterback, making snap decisions. He led a potent option rushing attack that included big backs Philip Keefe and Jay Young, a current West varsity assistant. Keefe (Class of ’92) won a state football title in S.C. in 2014, coaching then-unbeaten Northwood Academy of Charleston, S.C.

In baseball, Manuel was a prime base stealer and starting left fielder for all four years at West. He was a freshman sparkplug on West’s 1992 state champion squad.

He was a gritty defender and rebounder in basketball, as a power forward going against larger foes. He and star shooter Joey Bryson were co-captains of the ‘94-95 conference title team. Manuel said of the Falcons, “We hung out together. We gelled as friends, and teammates.” Bryson soon starts his third season as West Falcons’ varsity hoops head coach.

Manuel graduated from Appalachian State, and earned a master’s in school administration from Gardner-Webb.

He promptly returned home, as an educator. He taught social studies in two high schools — in Hendersonville (HHS) in 2000-03, then at North Henderson for five years. He was an HHS assistant football and baseball coach. He was North Knight’s head football coach for four seasons.

He then moved into administration. He was assistant principal at HMS in 2008, and athletic director in 2012-13. He then held post of those posts at his alma mater, West, in ‘13-14. He ascended to be HMS principal in 2014, and in his fifth year at the helm. West’s main school color is blue; Hendersonville’s is red. Manuel said in 2014, he had to expand his wardrobe and buy more red shirts.

Essentially, he is like a head coach of the entire middle school. “My time as head coach at North Henderson somewhat prepared me for what I’d do as a principal” at HMS, he realizes. “I was in charge of players,” and now all students. “There is preparation for games, working with others, and coordinating events, team meals and travel.”

Manuel has a hand in all four high schools in Henderson County. He has worked in three of them. His ongoing influence on East Henderson is indirect, via Justin Heatherly who clicked with Manuel while HMS head football coach. Heatherly is in his second year at the helm of football at his alma mater, East.

His tremendous 5-1 start is best among the four local public high schools. He took with him the spread passing offense of HMS that mirrors that of HHS Bearcats.

Coach Heatherly “creates good relationships” with players and their families and assistant coaches, Manuel said. He said Heatherly also made strong “connection with the high school coaches,” and implemented the same offense for smoother transition of players up the ranks.

Coach Heatherly said of working with Manuel, while at HMS, “His work ethic is phenomenal. If something needed to be done, he didn’t sit around. He got on it. He got results.” Heatherly was also athletic director. He is grateful Manuel readily provided needed gear and equipment, for various HMS teams. “If they needed it, he made sure they got it.”

Manuel noted they made an inventory list, to determine “what’s safe, and what’s not” and needed repair or replacement. First for football in preseason, helmets and shoulder pads get reconditioned. “The ones that are deemed no longer usable get kicked out,” Manuel explained. “We want our athletes to use top-notch equipment. That’s huge now more than ever, with concern for concussions and other injuries.” Heatherly said safety “standards are higher. It’s important to keep equipment up to date.”

Offsetting some of HMS’ safety gear expenses are such cost-saving measures, as using HHS hand-me downs as football practice uniforms.

Manuel is like an extra coach, giving feedback on the (Friday) morning after HMS games, Heatherly recalled. “He’d talk about good and bad things he saw.” He said Manuel was “positive” in approach, with constructive suggestions. Also, she said, “Luke was very supportive of the FB team — win or lose.”

That is how many coaches were for Manuel at West, when he played there a generation ago. He calls himself a “product” of local schools, inspired by “great teachers and coaches.”

Rick Wood, the school board’s vice-chairman, was his basketball coach at West. The retired Wood is a “classy, professional person and great mentor” to this day, Manuel said. “We knew he was for us,” and was proud of players keeping solid grades.

Wood said “Luke is one of the special ones! He earned ten letters at West in three sports. He exhibited outstanding leadership qualities, back in high school.” Wood added, “I am so proud to have a former student and player achieve excellence” in any field — let alone education.

Manuel played for football head coaches Danny Shook then Don Millwood, and taskmaster Jim Hyatt in baseball. Hyatt was “known for his tenacity. But he also kept things loose and fun, at practice,” Manuel revealed.

Manuel said these coaches like Heatherly today may vary in personality, but they share key strengths of character. He said such leaders expect full effort, earn respect, and stick to rules and standards of conduct in deploying “tough love.” They build in youths pride in oneself, the team and school tradition.

Manuel describes his mentors similarly to how others now describe him, when he speaks of “patience,” extra hours of preparation and eyeing longer-term grand plans. “My former coaches put in the time and hard work,” he said. “They held you accountable for good or bad. If you did well, they’d praise you well. If you didn’t do well, they also let you know that” and how to improve.

“Sports mirrors life — hard work, perseverance, and how to handle wins and losses,” Manuel said. There is value in both. It takes reflection, to figure what to improve on. Students need to learn to respond to adversity, because it’s always going to happen. That’s huge.”

On his dealing with tough administrative days, Manuel managed to laugh in saying “there’s always that potential. Something might go wrong as easy as not enough pizza in the pizza line. Or someone (i.e. a student’s parent) gets upset. You say ‘we’ll do better, next time.’ You try not to make that same mistake.”

Eternal optimist Luke Manuel delegates and trusts well, too. He said the key is “surrounding yourself with good people, and trusting them. I know whatever situation arises, it’ll work out. We have such good people at Hendersonville Middle. The central office will steer you in the right direction, with good advice. They always help and support. We rely on good people, to keep good things happening here.”

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