We met Cathy at our November 2017 "Engaging Parents as Changemakers" workshop in San Francisco. As a parent and an advocate for social impact and education programs, she has spent many hours working to make lasting changes in schools, including Buena Vista Horace Mann and the San Francisco School, both in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here's an excerpt of our recent interview:
14K: Tell us a bit about your background and how you got involved with changing the way schools operate.
CM: My work with education has involved many hours working for change in my kids’ schools. I've been interested in kids and learning for a long time —I got my degree in Child Studies from the Tufts University Eliot-Pearson School in Boston. Besides being active education as parent, I'm on the Public Issues Committee of Jewish Family and Children's Services and advocate with local and state officials on issues that affect children, families, and seniors. I’m also part of the Jewish Community Relations Council Assembly — we work on public education advocacy and public policy work.
"I believe everyone has the right to the opportunities a strong education provides —it can truly be the great equalizer...Even though everyone has similar hopes and dreams for their kids, no matter their background, income, ethnicity, the kids with parents who know how to advocate for them fare better."
I was excited to help write a grant for funding from the Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Organization for setting up a Behavioral Mental Health Collaborative for students and their families—especially immigrant, newcomer, trauma impacted and homeless youth. This program connects families with social workers and other mental health services.
Our goal is to create some immediate stability in kids’ lives, as well as to help bring about long-term changes. It's so important for teachers to be able to connect their students with professional mental health support, because, let’s face it, no matter how much pedagogical training they have, teachers are not equipped to be, nor should we expect them to be, therapists or social workers.
14K: What inspires you to do the work to bring about change in education and what are the top two changes in you think would have the most impact on children?
CM: Hmmmm….top two changes. Let me first say that I believe everyone has the right to the opportunities a strong education provides —it can truly be the great equalizer.
I would say the first change is to empower parents to ask: What kind of learner is my kid? When they do it ensures that their kids will get the most they can out of their education. Even as early as kindergarten, if parents can let teachers know specifics about how their child learns, it helps teachers and, eventually, the student themselves, tap into their strengths. Even though everyone has similar hopes and dreams for their kids, no matter their background, income, ethnicity, the kids with parents who know how to advocate for them fare better. Something as simple as knowing that if your child doesn't learn well if she sits in back of the room you can talk to the teacher to make certain that they sit up front.
The second most important change, I would say, is focusing on creating schools where all kids feel safe, where there is trust and empathy. When kids can feel good about themselves and feel seen for who they are, they can dive in and learn.
"When kids can feel good about themselves and feel safe with who they are, and where they are, they can dive in and learn."
14K: What do you think prevents these changes from happening?
CM: Public education is a huge, lumbering bureaucracy that’s really hard to change, complicated by the fact that there are so many different stakeholders. There are plenty of principals, administrators and teachers whose hearts and minds are in the right place, who are implementing great ideas, but if they don’t share best practices and resources with other educators, school to school, across city departments and district to district, then real change is not going to take hold.
Another obstacle is trust. People want to participate but they’re intimidated. When parents feel like that they have to have certain credentials—an education degree or a connection— in order to have a voice, that creates unnecessary barriers. The question instead should be, “What do you bring to this conversation that’s of value?”
I think we also need to help parents reframe their expectations of school without feeling like they’re taking too big of a risk. Parents panic about change, especially once they’re convinced that if their kid “gets off the train” they won’t measure up, or get the grades, ace the standardized tests, get into to the top schools. A lot of parents have so much invested in the status quo and of course they want to make sure their kid gets the best shot. But what if we could change this approach that revolves around “me” and “mine” for one with a broader perspective? How can we help parents understand that instead of just worrying about how their child can “get ahead”, they could be part of a parent community helping to tackle challenges for all kinds of students? We don’t only need to empower parents to navigate the system politically, but do it for the greater good. We need schools where diverse viewpoints come together and learn from each other and problem solve together.
"A lot of parents have so much invested in the status quo and of course they want to make sure their kid gets the best shot. But what if we could change this approach that revolves around “me” and “mine” for one with a broader perspective? How can we help parents understand that instead of just worrying about how their child can 'get ahead,' they could be part of a parent community helping to tackle challenges for all kinds of students?"
CM: It’s important to find allies. Partner with other parents, teachers, administrators and, sometimes with public schools you also have to partner with the district and the school board. The biggest mistake parents make is jumping in without stopping to look at the entire landscape first. It’s also really important to look at what’s working, what’s going well and to highlight those things, instead of just focusing on what’s broken.
I can think of a simple example of a change my husband took on when our son was in kindergarten. The teacher was new and she didn’t have a parking permit. She would have to leave the classroom every two hours to move her car so she wouldn’t get a ticket. It was ridiculous! So, he and another parents used the community organizing model to enlist the parents and the neighbors who lived near the school, as well as a reporter from the local paper, to highlight the problem. Then we brought the issue to the MTA (the Municipal Transit Authority), the Board of Supervisors and the School Board. The School Board actually told us, “That’s not our problem —that's a city problem.” But we insisted it wasn’t a city problem, it was a teacher problem. In the end, we managed to get two city laws changed so teachers were able to park. This is also an example of how parents can help bring different entities together to solve a problem.
"When you feel known and valued in your community it’s more difficult to fall through the cracks and easier to take smart risks, push yourself to learn, follow your passions and be an engaged member of your school community."
14K: We believe that there need to be different entry points for parent participation in schools. Not every parent is comfortable coming to a PTA meeting and speaking up. Or maybe they can never make an evening meeting. Like you’ve said, every parent has the same goal in mind for their kids, so why can't we just harness the energy, brain power and passion of all kinds of parents in bringing about change?
CM: Exactly. I think it helps if parents are individually invited “into the conversation” by different leaders at the school. What are their interests? What are they comfortable doing? What do they have time for? What are their hopes and fears for their child’s education.
14K: Instead of reform happening in silos, how do we make a more an interconnected web so that change can be more widespread and sustained?
CM: Yes, and how do we not reinvent the wheel every time? That is what drives me —figuring out how to make connections that ripple out in a more meaningful way. To me another challenge is that because administrators and educators are constantly learning new information they're always implementing new programs. This happens so often that they don't have time to figure out if the last program was effective. In this age of acceleration is very hard to balance keeping pace with innovation and allowing new programs time to have a measurable impact.
14K: In wrapping up, is there anything else you would like to share?
CM: Yes. I think knowing and valuing students’ stories is so important. As we all work to reinvent school we need to remember that every student needs to feel known and connected.. When you feel known and valued in your community it’s more difficult to fall through the cracks and easier to take smart risks, push yourself to learn, follow your passions and be an engaged member of your school community.
Cathy is passionate that all children deserve access to high quality, engaging education environments. As a trustee of the San Francisco School, she works to share her perspective from her years as a public school parent and community advocate to help SFS fulfill its mission. As chair of the Public Purpose committee, she works to connect and engage our community with the broader community and cultivate the humanitarian promise in each of us.
After graduating from Tufts University with a degree in Child Study and American Studies, Cathy shifted from her focus on kids and families to work in product development and licensing for children’s merchandise for stores across the US. Through her consulting practice, CLM Marketing Strategies, Cathy works with companies and non profits to execute their strategic goals. As a parent leader for 10 years at Buena Vista Horace Mann, a public Spanish immersion school in the Mission District of San Francisco, Cathy served at President of the PTA, School Site Council Member and grant writer. To connect, find Cathy at https://www.linkedin.com/in/cathy-manshel
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