When Manikka Bowman, candidate for Cambridge School Committee, thinks about the Cambridge Public School System, she thinks about potential - the potential brimming out of each and every student, and the potential of the school system itself. And she thinks about how to turn that potential into reality.
Bowman, an ordained clergywoman, knew from an early age that she would someday run for public office. Growing up in the Black church tradition, she looked up to her own pastor and many other men who balanced faith leadership with leadership in the public arena.
“But,” says Bowman, “very rarely do you see women operating at the intersection of the moral voice and public life going down the pathway of public leadership. I want to live in that intersection as a woman, and to lift up the needs of everyday people who depend on these systems to educate their kids.”
With a resume that spans education, affordable housing, philanthropic giving, food security, and public policy, Bowman’s extensive qualifications also live in an intersection of sorts – one that mirrors many of the larger systems that play a fundamental role in access to educational opportunities in our country. It’s this diversity of expertise that uniquely positions her to address the core challenges of the Cambridge Public School System – especially the achievement gap. Bowman says that according to 2014 data, students who were low income, Black or Hispanic, or living with a disability were significantly behind in meeting their yearly proficiency goals.
“These gaps are persistent,” says Bowman, “and I would like to take advantage of Cambridge's resource-rich environment to find innovative ways to close the achievement gap. I believe this is fundamental if the city of Cambridge is committed to living into its values as a progressive city.”
To do this, Bowman believes there must be a high standard of excellence, regardless of the racial and socioeconomic makeup of schools. This was a big part of her own success as a young student in a predominantly minority school, she says. Her school leadership and teachers were representative of the student body, and the expectations of each student were high. Bowman experienced firsthand the achievement that is possible when students are connected to the support and resources they need – a connection she hopes to facilitate for all students in Cambridge.
“Our kids are smart, and they see it, they feel it, and they know what’s happening,” Bowman says. “They see that kids of color are not the kids in the advanced classes. That has a deep psychological impact on a person’s psychological development and well-being. I’d like to create a school system where children don’t have to internalize some of those dynamics. If we can create a school system that taps into the potential of all kids, regardless of their backgrounds, that would be a win for me.”
One key priority for Bowman’s campaign is investment in early childhood education, an approach that has been shown to level out the achievement gap over time. As the parent of a young child herself, she understands the struggle to access quality education during the critical pre-K developmental stage. “Cambridge has very limited pre-K spots for our children, and for me, this is a fundamental piece of our education system that needs to be in place,” she says.
Bowman also wants to see Cambridge Public Schools reflect the diversity of Cambridge itself – both through teaching more comprehensive US and world history and through hiring more teachers of color. For Bowman, these were important factors for her own self-image and success as she grew up attending public schools and living in subsidized housing. “A lot of my teachers were women of color, and I saw myself in them,” she says. “That was a balancing factor that allowed me to see the potential of what a woman of color could be, particularly as it related to building a career for myself.”
Bowman emphasizes that providing teachers with the resources and training they need is also critical. “I think that teachers and administrators are the solutions and not the problems,” she says, “and if there are things that they need in order to provide kids with a quality education, I am 100% committed to making sure that they get it.”
There are, of course, many children who are thriving in the school system now, and Bowman says she is committed to making sure those kids continue to get the resources they need to stay on track. But she also wants to be sure that the kids who are lagging behind – mostly children of color and/or children from lower-income households – have what they need to thrive in school, too. And she wants them to know that they belong there as much as anyone else does.
Above all, Bowman is striving to create the equitable school system that Cambridge’s progressive values aspire to. “I want the parents of other young children to know that they can trust me with making decisions that will benefit the greater good of our kids, and that their child’s education is just as important to me as my own daughter’s education,” Bowman says. “We have to do better by our young people – period. And I want parents to know that I will fight just as hard for their children as I would for my own.”