A human catalyst for change and positive action, the leader from Victoria’s Wilmot Road Primary School is certainly well-acquainted with terminology that might turn around learning outcomes. 

Because, as Manuel admits, “sometimes you have to go to rock bottom to come back up”. 

The educator’s low point came in 2008 when, flicking through a copy of the Herald Sun, she noticed Wilmot listed as one of the state’s worst performers in reading.

Resolving to change this bleak stat, Manuel rallied her troops. 

“I said ‘well, we have got to do something’, so we thought long and hard about it and we decided that we needed to bring in really quality professional learning to help up-skill staff, build capacity and give them the confidence and the knowledge and skills to better support students with their learning,” she says. 

Engaging the expert services of Dr John Munro from the University of Melbourne, Manuel launched a school-wide push to lift literacy levels. 

“We built in a really strong professional learning team ... so we would be talking about students’ achievement, looking at student data, looking at the strategies and we would also do some peer observations…”

In those early days of change, Manuel says the biggest task for teachers was learning how to zero-in on students’ ‘point of need’ so they might select the right teaching strategy to best plug any gaps. 

When the next round of NAPLAN results were released, Manuel laughs recalling how she assumed there must have been some kind of printing error. 

“I think the first time I saw the results I didn’t really believe them!

“I remember someone saying ‘what did you put in the water that year?’ There was a massive shift in the amount of improvement … the whole school results showed that the impact was there, and that we had made a difference. 

“I suppose that then has given us that leverage to continue on that journey.”

Since applying the same professional learning strategy to numeracy about three years ago, Manuel says a strict ‘planning model’ keeps teachers – and students – on their toes.

“Every five weeks the teachers in each planning department are released with an expert … and they plan for their students for that next period of time,” she shares.

As a nod to Manuel’s enduring efforts to lead Wilmot back from the bowels of low achievement, the educator picked up Victoria’s Outstanding Primary Principal Award for 2016. 

The accolade, she says, is tremendously moving. 

“I am very excited, but I also feel very humbled because it’s really recognition by my staff…

”So for me that means that my staff must think I must be doing a great job, so I feel really excited and elated about [that].”

Manuel is open about the fact that she likes to have eyes across all corners of the school. From the fine print of business office to the back desk of the classroom, the principal is across it all. 

“I think my leadership style [follows] a distributive model, but I call it ‘connected’. I need to know what each one of those people with responsibility, what each teacher, is taking on board and that the learning is consistent.”

“You need an alignment, you need a whole-school approach, otherwise you don’t move data and you don’t make student improvement…”

Leading a culturally diverse student cohort (about 70 per cent come from non-English speaking backgrounds,10 per cent are Indigenous) might present  linguistic and cultural challenges, but Manuel believes strongly that “it takes a village to raise a child”.

Having reached out to local community service clubs, businesses and organisations, Manuel has erected a firm support network to stand behind each family that comes to Wilmot.

“Everybody is on board about learning and education and ‘how can we support our young students to be the members of our  Shepparton community in the future,’” Manuel says.