Many voices, a volunteer group and a mission

Manchester Proud wants to plan a bright future for the city’s schools

Courtesy photo

There is a group of people in Manchester who believe a strong public school system is an integral part of a strong community — and the only way to strengthen Manchester’s public schools is to understand the experiences, concerns and hopes of as many people in the city as possible.

What started as a series of conversations back in summer 2017 among business leaders and educators soon coalesced into an ever-growing organization, Manchester Proud, with a focus on better understanding the city’s schools.

Many of its initial founders are preeminent in the business community, yet this isn’t a group of movers and shakers with a desire to identify challenges and put their spin on a solution. Instead, it’s a thoughtful group of individuals — all volunteers — who have experience and connections that can foster new partnerships and opportunities, start community-wide conversations, support fundraising efforts and provide access and transparency.

Manchester Proud isn’t about the success of a single person but rather strengthening the public school system so every student can succeed and positively influence the community as a whole.

Barry Brensinger is one of the original 10 or so founders who gathered in mid-2017. The design principal of Lavallee Brensinger Architects, he is deeply ingrained in the Manchester community, living in the area for more than 40 years, raising a family and building a successful business. Brensinger’s story mirrors that of the others in this founding group, which includes developer Arthur Sullivan, former Mayor Bob Baines, and University President Dr. Patricia Lynott of Southern New Hampshire University, among its members. Between them, Brensinger said they amassed “an eclectic collection of experiences.”

Early conversations began in earnest to share and reflect on rumblings heard about how hard it was to recruit educators in the Manchester school system and about the challenges and concerns that were driving this issue. Brensinger said that what he was hearing didn’t resonate with what he and his family had experienced — and he wanted to understand what was happening in the city.

The founders were willing to believe what was said and had questions and concerns about the public school system – and thought they had an obligation to help however they could. “We had a sense of indebtedness to the community for the good things” that had happened in their lives, both personally and in the business sector, Brensinger said.

They wondered what they could do, but knew the answers wouldn’t come directly from within their circle. They were aware, however, that their involvement and success within the community would give credibility to Manchester Proud from the start.

It’s important to note that this is not a political movement — nor is it politically motivated. For those that might have doubts, Brensinger said, “It’s absolutely true. Not once has there been a political discussion.”

Lynott said Manchester Proud is “the truest community movement; a living and breathing grassroots movement giving voice” to those throughout the city of Manchester.

What’s already happened  in the year-and-a-half Manchester Proud has been active, Lynott said, is “a microcosm of what’s happening in the city. There’s a new vibrancy – it’s bigger than just improving our public school system. It’s about the vision and value of a community.”

And the only way to create an inclusive, proactive vision and plan is to include as many voices as possible. “We want to open the door — share in an exploration,” Brensinger said. “What should our values be? How do we better support our public education?”

These and many more questions were posed to people throughout Manchester in a series of door-to-door visits with more than 150 volunteers canvassing over 2,000 households in every ward of the city and through town halls and listening sessions at schools citywide.

Before any of this activity began, however, Manchester Proud went before the Manchester Board of School Committee to present its proposal to fully fund an initiative to create a new five-year strategic plan for the city’s public schools in spring 2018. The Board unanimously voted in favor of the proposal.

To aid in community outreach, Manchester Proud contracted with Reaching Higher NH, a nonpartisan 501c3 public education policy and engagement resource for New Hampshire parents, educators and elected officials. Liz Canada, director of community engagement for Reaching Higher NH, said the initiative is still in a discovery phase, with anticipated completion at the end of February.

Canada said the most essential part of listening sessions, town hall events and canvassing is the need to listen, really listen to what people have to say. “When someone shares 10-15 minutes of their time, what a powerful experience it is to hear their perspective,” she said.

City Year members, along with volunteers comprised of educators, Manchester Board of School Committee members, parents, teachers, family members, students and more, play a critical role in gathering data.

One commonality in the data collected is this, Canada said, “We have talked to a lot of people and learned that even folks that might disagree on other things – they share the same concerns about education. There are a lot more similarities than differences.”

Along with additional town halls and listening sessions, Manchester Proud continues to actively reach out to organizations throughout the city to share news of its initiative, seek input and garner additional support.

The effort, Brensinger said, is allowing Manchester Proud and its volunteers to raise community awareness, remind people how important public schools are and allow them to realize that they can play a role in bringing positive change to the city. “We’re bombarded with news of things we can’t change,” he said. “We can make this change here at home.”

And change will begin with the data collected, which Brensinger said will be sorted and synthesized, the basis of strategic plan development – and “will reflect all facets of the community of Manchester,” Lynott said.

In December, 2Revolutions, a national education design lab, was selected “as a partner to guide the next phase of work in creating an aspirational and achievable strategic plan for the Manchester School District,” according to the Manchester Proud website. “2Revolutions will build on all of the listening sessions, neighborhood canvasses, surveys, and other community engagement initiatives led by Manchester Proud since its launch earlier this year. All of this community input will inform the design of a preliminary plan developed with 2Revolutions’ partnership. Once drafted, community members will have several opportunities to review the plan and provide feedback. A final version will be submitted to the Board of School Committee for consideration in the fall of 2019.”

Before the draft of that plan is completed, Canada said more door-to-door canvassing, listening sessions and town halls will be held to ensure the community is on board with what is being proposed and to confirm that their voices had been heard.

Manchester Proud hopes this work can make a difference in other communities, too.

“I’m confident we’re going to come up with a great plan that makes sense for Manchester,” Brensinger said. “Our hope is that as we move into implementation, we can leverage resources to create a model to help other communities.”

For this effort to succeed, Brensinger said, “It takes showing up, getting out of the house and getting involved. We’re willing to take that extra step. There’s a sense of urgency – our schools, our teachers need our help, need our support.”

“Challenges can’t be faced by schools alone. If we want to be a community with a strong  public school system, we have to have the will to do it,” he said. “Education matters.”

Pamme Boutselis is a writer, editor and higher-ed content director. Follow her on Twitter at pammeb or at www.pammeboutselis.com.

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