Manno to help students become ‘Renaissance men’

Manno brings his personal love of art to SOMSD students

James Manno
James Manno

MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood School District’s new supervisor of fine arts, James Manno, was approved for his position at the Aug. 22 Board of Education meeting, along with three other administrators. Strong community relationships and an emphasis on the importance of the arts are two tenets Manno plans to bring to the table.

Manno earned his master’s degree in administration and supervision from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, and his bachelor’s degree in music from Ithaca College. Prior to coming to the SOMSD, Manno served as vice principal of performing arts and television at Arts High School in Newark. He also served as department chairman of performing arts and television at Arts High School, and as the principal for the Summer Arts Program.

“This is a high functioning district with talented and achievement oriented students, a well educated, professional and caring staff and supportive and involved parents and community,” Manno said in a recent email to the News-Record. “These are all reasons why I wanted to be part of the SOMSD village.”

Manno said that he enjoys working with the high school population for the students’ curiosity, and his own ability to help guide the way for them as an educator.

“I enjoy the sophisticated, and sometimes sophist, level of conversation; both are interesting and often entertaining,” he said. “High school students are at an intersection of teenage exploration and adult expectation and I enjoy helping them maneuver the causeway, especially when I get to witness them reach what they have been striving to attain.”

With regard to new programs or initiatives he would like to see in the future for the school district, Manno said that his main focus is to build relationships, for now.

“This first year on the job I’m going to spend time observing, listening, interacting and developing relationships and gathering information so that I can be well informed as I plot out my strategic plan(s),” he said. “I believe collaboration is the keystone of leadership success. This means having everyone bring their best self to the table and focus on accomplishing a common vision with goal-building blocks in support of that vision. “

Though his initial efforts will mainly be concentrated on learning the lay of the land, Manno said he does have some ideas that he would like to bring to fruition in the future.

“I envision a well-funded and supported arts education community with ever-expanding arts partnerships with arts organizations, businesses, colleges and universities. I envision master classes and artist-in-resident programs for all art forms at all grade levels. I envision all students engaging in high quality standards-based (state and national) instruction that includes access to experiential activities, unique opportunities and exposure to all art forms K-12,” he said. “I envision SOMSD arts educators thinking and functioning as one arts community and have asked the SOMSD arts educators to consider ways to manifest that idea at our first professional development day in September.”

In fact, Manno said he has already begun the groundwork to start advancing some of these goals.

“I’ve started to facilitate meetings between school leaders and school-based parent organizations and some of my longtime arts partners, like NJPAC and Jazz House Kids, to kick-start initiatives,” he said. “I’ve also been connecting students to arts opportunities to which the students have been enthusiastically responding; it’s very exciting.

“For example, each year the Partnership for Drug-Free NJ hosts their Shout Down Drugs High School Song Competition where students throughout New Jersey compete for cash prizes totaling $10,000,” Manno continued. “Twenty minutes after announcing the opportunity over the Columbia High School PA, my office was pleasantly flooded with eager young student songwriters, beat makers, lyricists and performers ready to participate. I’m looking forward to more moments like this.”

In addition to ensuring that there are many opportunities available for students already involved in the arts programs in the district, Manno believes that a strong arts background is important for every student.

“Arts education is an integral part of the development of each human being as the arts are what makes us most human — most complete as people. Studying the arts is integral to our society. The arts are part of our cultural heritage. Throughout the ages, starting with the Greek schools of philosophy, the importance of the arts in the education process has been emphasized and validated continuously,” he said. “It’s been my personal experience, delivering and supervising arts education for 28 years combined, that an arts-rich school community reduces student dropout, raises attendance, fosters teamwork and love for learning, enhances student creativity, promotes self-esteem, motivation, aesthetic awareness, cultural exposure, appreciation of diversity and produces more prepared and interesting citizens.”

Surrounded by a family of performers, the arts have always been a staple in Manno’s personal and professional lives.

“I grew up on stage surrounded by a family of artists. My father was a composer/conductor working at NJ State Opera, off-Broadway and in pop and gospel music. My mother was an opera singer who worked with NJ Opera, the MET Studios and in musical theater; she was also Miss Rhode Island in the 1959 Miss America Pageant,” he said.

“Even though the arts have been a central force in my life from birth, I have always valued a ‘Renaissance man’ perspective. I balanced participating in both sports and arts throughout middle and high school, studied martial arts and marine biology and am scuba certified. I majored in both piano and philosophy as an undergrad and have even skydived on rare occasions. Point is, I believe it’s important that everyone strive to reach their full potential, inner and outer, and that notion carries over to my approach in educating the young people of today.”