A New Face Downtown: Stephen Manella Brings New Energy to Sayre

By John Lynch

In many ways, Sayre’s new Head of School, Stephen Manella, embodies the fundamental values of Lexington’s oldest private school – he’s articulate, personable and intelligent. He values the importance of intellectual relationships, and he is committed to downtown life.

Sayre’s location on North Limestone in the heart of downtown attracted Manella to the job. He and his wife, Anne, and their three daughters – all Sayre students – live downtown, a short walk from the school.

A native of Chicago, Manella earned his undergraduate degree at Kenyon College in Ohio and moved to New York City to work in publishing for a year. He then served in the admissions office at NYU where he earned his master’s degree.

In Greenwich Village, he experienced a school intimately linked to its community – a model he expects to further develop at Sayre.

“I’ve always been drawn to university towns,” he said. “With access to the arts and lectures, these are environments that value education and knowledge.

“I’m also drawn to a downtown campus. I’m excited that the Sayre campus extends into downtown.”

He pointed out that a middle school class just recently went to Shorty’s Market for a practical application of a math lesson. Manella expects the sight of Sayre students in downtown to become increasingly more routine.

Sayre will become a regular Gallery Hop location next year, and Manella is seeking more partnerships with downtown businesses and both Transylvania University and the University of Kentucky.

“Since the community is literally steps from our campus, tapping into community organizations adds to the uniqueness of the school,” he said.

Sayre has been in downtown since 1854 and is now a co-educational school of more than 500 students – preschool through 12th grade. Manella succeeds Clayton Chambliss, the school’s Head for the past 22 years.

In Manella, the school selected a man with 15 years experience in private schools combined with eight years in college admissions – an ideal background to lead the academically rigorous school that places graduates in highly selective universities.

After eight years at NYU, Manella moved to Greenwich Academy, a girls pre-K through 12th grade school in Connecticut. In seven years, he taught high school English, worked in college placement, coached the basketball team and rose to Assistant Head of the Upper School.

He was hired as the Head of the Upper School at Shorecrest Prep, a co-ed pre-K-12th school in Florida, and was the Assistant Head of School when he left eight years later.

His experience in an urban setting attracted the Sayre search committee.

“We are proud to be located in downtown Lexington,” said Ben Haggin, co-owner of Woodford Racing and a member of the Sayre Board of Directors.

“Our geography allows for many opportunities for our students.

“Stephen learned many best practices in admissions while he was at NYU. He will make certain that Sayre is a big part of the downtown renaissance.”

Sayre staff describe Manella as a quick study who understood the school culture from day one and brings a fresh passion to the job.

“He has been a burst of energy with his optimism, drive and enthusiasm,” said Kristin Seymour, who has been at Sayre for 16 years and is the Head of the Middle School. “He hit the ground running and understands Sayre’s history. He will take what’s wonderful here and raise expectations.”

Colleagues also describe an intelligent leader who communicates well, appreciates the value of consensus and flashes a lively sense of humor.

“He is a smart educator, a strategic thinker and a people person,” Seymour said. “He has a great sense of humor and is literary. He quoted Emily Dickinson yesterday.

“He has the constellation of skills you have to have for a job as vast as this.”

Manella is also a man with a plan. Along with expanding enrollment and further connecting to downtown, the new Head of School has instituted a program where he meets one-on-one for 30 minutes with every member of the senior class.

That fits his philosophy of a school where faculty and student body show mutual respect – exactly the culture he found when he arrived on campus.

“In my meetings with the students, I’m continually impressed with their ability to reflect on their experience. They are relaxed, articulate, poised and they look you in the eye.

“When I ask about their favorite memories of Sayre, they talk about their relationships with faculty, who know them as more than just students but as people. That speaks volumes about the heart of the community.”

Manella is exploring ways to make that community even more diverse to reflect the city at large. Currently, 24% of enrollment consists of students of color.

One bold idea Manella has embraced is the possibility of adding international students who would board at the school.

Regardless of home of origin, Sayre will continue to develop 21st-century learners willing to take intellectual risks, according to Manella.

As an innovative, inclusive learning community, Sayre embraces technology in the classroom such as the flipped classroom approach, where teachers develop video segments to introduce new material at home and then guide students through their “homework” in the classroom.

Regardless of the technology at hand, the foundation of the learning experience is built on trust between student and teacher – a quality already in abundance at the school, Manella said.

“We want to help our students take intellectual, artistic, and athletic risks,” he said. “All that is good grows from that. And you need that trust and level of care for great things to be accomplished.”

Again for Manella, it’s all about relationships.

“I love this job for the same reason that I love being a parent,” he said. “Every day is different. The outcomes can surprise you. The rewards are immeasurable.”