On the day she finally retires, Principal Stacey Mancuso has plans to get out of town. Fast.
“I’m going to need to — emotionally,” she said.
Mancuso has led Design Architecture Senior High for 17 years, steering one of Miami-Dade’s premier magnet schools to national recognition while nurturing a diverse cast of students who have gone on to become successful architects and performance artists, photographers and fashion designers.
The end of her tenure coincides with DASH’s 25th anniversary and a time of transition. A proposed redevelopment of the school on its current site could also mean expanded enrollment, even though its small scale is often credited as a main reason for DASH’s success.
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“I hope the soul of the school remains, and I think it will,” said Eric Hankin, who leads the school’s architecture program. “It’s more about the people than the building.”
Today, it seems there’s no better location for DASH. In the heart of Miami’s Design District, luxury brand stores and exclusive furniture showrooms act as a living classroom for students.
That wasn’t so a quarter-century ago, when the neighborhood was struggling to reestablish itself after competition sucked business away. In 1990, DASH settled into a refurbished strip of abandoned showrooms on an empty street. On her first day at the school, Mancuso recalled shooing away two homeless men fishing for breakfast in a nearby Dumpster.
“Parents really took a chance to send their children to a really desolate area where everything was closed,” Mancuso said.
But students and parents flocked to DASH from its very beginning, when founding principal Jackie Hinchey-Sipes recruited the first class with the promise of artistic rigor without sacrificing academics. Every year, hundreds of students compete for a precious few openings at the school. The students who come to DASH really want to be there.
“At a typical high school, these kids might not fit in or get picked on,” said lead teacher Nick Britton. “This is a different environment.”
On a recent day, a long-legged girl practiced her catwalk strut in a hallway. A group of students, some with purple hair, listened to a lecture by a Kansas City Art Institute representative and signed up to show him their portfolios later. In an industrial design class, 18-year-old Artie Spears was at work designing a new pair of sneakers.
The workload at the school, Spears said, is intense.
“It gets hectic,” he said. “They just keep you working so you have a lot to show on portfolio day – good quality work.”
Most teachers at DASH have been at the school for as long — or longer — than Mancuso. They stay active in their fields, bringing real-world experience to the classroom — along with real admiration for their students.
“This place fosters a genuine passion between the staff and kids because there is so much hard work, and time, and effort to get their work to the next level,” said industrial design teacher Kelley Kwiatkowski. “I’d never teach anywhere else.”
DASH is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s top high schools and often boasts a perfect graduation rate. Last year’s seniors hauled in almost $20 million in scholarships to the country’s top art and design schools, Mancuso said.
Mancuso speaks of her students in superlatives and is proud to rattle off their names and accomplishments. There’s James Sprang, an accomplished performance and spoken word artist; Alexis Forte, a costume designer for Hollywood and the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Between Riverside and Crazy; Noah Garcia, an architect who worked with Harvard Medical School bioengineers to develop custom-printed stents to help patients breathe.
They are all equally as fond of Mancuso.
“She’s changed so many kids’ lives. I don’t know what DASH is going to be without her,” said Forte, who graduated in 2006. “She really takes time to bond with her individual students. She knows them all by name.”
Her departure marks a new chapter in DASH’s history. With land values in the Design District soaring, the district is considering selling or leasing a portion of the school site and reconfiguring DASH where it is now. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the school board is expected to consider proposals in December, proposals which could add “a couple hundred” extra student slots.
“We know we’re sitting on extremely valuable land,” Carvalho said. “No matter what, the expansion shall be measured and limited, and this — trust me — will continue to be a small school.”
Mancuso’s retirement starts in December, a date she set years ago along with her late husband, Thomas Wyroba — a beloved founding teacher at the competing magnet New World School of the Arts. She still plans to stay active supporting young artists and offered the school’s next principal, whomever it may be, this advice:
“Accept the teachers and the students for who they are, because they are different. And just love every day, the way I did.”