In Effort to Improve Equity, Manchester School District Turns to a West High School Alum
After a three-year process to improve equity in its schools, the Manchester School District has its first Chief Equity Officer: Tina Philibotte.
For Philibotte, the job is a bit of a homecoming. She graduated from West High School in 1995. Her new office is in her old math classroom and looks out towards her childhood church.
But Philibotte, a former high school English and dance teacher, hesitated to apply when she first heard about the new position.
“The first person in this role —” she remembers thinking, “You better buckle up, because Manchester can be a really challenging place.”
Philibotte was adopted from South Korea and raised in a working-class French-Canadian family in Manchester. She was on the cheerleading team and involved in her church, but she says she felt isolated. It was hard to be the only Korean kid when all the other kids were white.
The Manchester school district has changed dramatically since Philibotte graduated. Now a city with resettled refugees and a large Latino population, the school district is only about 55% white. Many students are bicultural and speak at least two languages.
But not all students from low-income and immigrant families are thriving.
Manchester’s overall test scores are lower than the state average. According to analysis by the community group Manchester Proud, scores for low-income, Black and Latino students are even lower — in some cases, half of the average Manchester score.
Dropout rates are also higher in the district, as are detention and suspension rates for students of color and students with disabilities. Many families of all ethnic backgrounds are disconnected from school.
Hiring Philibotte was one of the district’s strategies to support these students. She’s not only the Manchester School District’s first Chief Equity Officer, but she is holding one of the first positions of its kind in New Hampshire.
This job is an experiment with high ambitions. The group Manchester Proud, which worked with the district to develop a strategic plan centered on equity, is funding it for three years. Philbotte serves on the senior team with the superintendent and assistant superintendents of the district. She’s charged with increasing staff diversity, overseeing the program for students learning English as a second language, and delivering anti-bias trainings.
Philibotte has done anti-racism and equity work as a teacher and with the local chapter of the NAACP and New Hampshire Listens, a project of UNH. And she sees herself as a bridge between the district’s leaders and the people their decisions affect.
“I’m not here to just talk about race,” Philibotte says.
“We’re talking about folks from low-income families, we’re talking about gender. It’s a big conversation right?” she adds.
Now in her third month, Philibotte says her main goal is to listen to students and staff, and figure out what resources the district already offers and what it lacks.
Philibotte recently toured Henry Wilson Elementary School, with NHPR in tow. Principal Paula Jones shows everyone around, popping into classrooms to introduce Philibotte and give high fives.
People love this school because of the students, vibrant diversity, and strong sense of community. But it’s one of the lowest-performing schools in the state and historically under-resourced. Nearly 90 percent of students qualify for free lunch.
Classrooms are decked out with posters, house plants and paintings of flags. Some have butcher paper taped to the windows to block out the bright, hot sun.
Principal Jones says she’s been told she’s on the district’s list to tint the windows, but she’s been waiting for months.
Philibotte writes a note on her phone and says she’ll look into it. A big part of this job is making sure the district gets every student and staff what they need to, as Philibotte puts it, “bring their best selves.”
Getting adequate resources involves straightforward tasks like making sure the sun isn’t blinding a whole classroom. But some issues are more complex.
Along the way, the group met bilingual liaison Jenn Wilson in a makeshift hallway office. As one of two Spanish language liaisons in the district, Wilson works with families that don’t speak English at home, translating between teachers and parents, and making sure parents understand expectations and resources for their kids at school. Her caseload is 200 families. Wilson is supposed to communicate with all of them through a district-issued flip phone.
Wilson says the work isn’t easy, but she loves it. She just needs more help.
Philibotte asks if Wilson could help recruit applicants if the district opened up more positions.
“Not for 20 bucks no,” Wilson says. “I think I’m the only one that would do it,” in reference to the school’s starting wage for the position.
The three brainstorm about what it would take to recruit and train more bilingual liaisons and get them better pay.
Their ideas go on Philibotte’s list of issues for follow-up with the district senior team. She says her role is to share information with decision-makers and offer guidance. But it’s up to individuals to get on board with Manchester’s vision for improving equity.
Visits like the one NHPR joined represent a pretty typical day for Philibotte. She’s visited 17 schools and has three left. But some people in Manchester don’t trust her work.
There’s been a wave of pushback in the state against discussing inequity in schools, including a new law that prohibits certain teachings on racism, sexism and other forms of oppression.
Philibotte gets calls and emails accusing her of indoctrinating students and focusing too much on race. Philibotte anticipated this feedback. To prepare, she had a conversation with a white cousin who has a different political background and whose kids attend Manchester public schools.
“He said something really profound to me. He said: ‘I want peace. I want kids to be educated.’ Nine times out of 10 we all want the same thing, right? It’s just the way we get there,” she says.
Philibotte says even amidst the political divisions that shape Manchester and other school districts, there is common ground: teachers and parents care about their kids.
“And I can work with that. I have a child — I get what that feels like,” she says.“I think it comes back to: if we can move past the fear and anger and get to the heart of the matter — and the heart of the matter is that I care for kids - we can start there,” she says.
Philibotte says for now, she plans to respond to every email and call she receives from parents. She says she doesn’t have all the answers, but she’s willing to listen.