Parent-teacher organizations are the unofficial power brokers in almost every school district. And now, for the first time, a Latina woman is leading the organization that represents more than 80 of them in Seattle.
Last month, Manuela Slye, born and raised in Mexico City, was elected president of the Seattle Council Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA). The umbrella organization acts as an ear for school PTAs and advocates for policy change at the district and state level.
Her predecessors were also first-evers. Slye took the reins from Chandra Hampson, the first Native American woman to serve in the role, who chose not to run for a second one-year term because she chose to run for School Board instead. Before that, Sebrena Burr was the first black woman elected to the job.
Sitting outside of West Seattle High School, where two of her four children attend school, Slye, 52, said that’s an important shift: White women have historically been the dominant demographic in PTA organizations.
“It’s about time,” she said.
Slye — who founded Cometa Playschool, the first Spanish immersion preschool in West Seattle — got her start in parent advocacy at John Stanford International School, where she helped families access aid and scholarships and facilitated conversations between Spanish-speaking families and school leadership. She also counsels Latino families on school discipline, and has served on several school-district committees, most recently to inform the district’s new five-year plan.
The Seattle Times interviewed Slye recently about how she plans to bring her experience as a “cultural broker” to the position. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why did you decide to get involved in parent-teacher associations?
A: I was born and raised in Mexico. My father passed away 10 years ago, and he was illiterate. My mother didn’t finish elementary school. One thing they believed in was education … They always encouraged us to learn and choose what we were passionate about, and for me, that was languages. So I was trilingual (English, French, Spanish) by the time I was in middle school.
I’m an educator, and I want to help kids that could be in my position to get wherever I am. My proudest moment was to see my sister sitting at the University of Washington as a professor knowing that her dad was never able to read a book.
Q: What do you see as the main barrier for families of color who want to be involved in their schools?
A: There’s a clear socioeconomic barrier when families need to work, and don’t have the privilege of coming into schools to get involved. One for my community is language. Going to meetings without being sure that there will be interpretation is hard, and also not having all the materials in a language you can understand makes it hard, too. Part of my plan is to address that and advocate at the district level for higher-quality language interpretation, and spaces where families feel more welcome.
Q: How do you think more racial representation in the leadership of Seattle Council PTSA will change things?
A: I see myself as a cultural broker to help people understand those differences when it comes to education. For example, in the Latino community, families usually think that dedication falls in the hands of the teachers and that they have all the knowledge and ultimately all the power to make decisions. We’re very respectful of the teacher authority instead of seeing it as a collaboration.
Q: How should the district improve its family engagement strategies knowing that these cultural differences exist?
A: Cultural competency training is very important — and there’s already racial equity training set up. What the district could improve on is making certain training mandatory and … make it more uniform. Because lots of times we see that each school is their own universe and they are doing things their own way. Things that we’ve worked on, such the upcoming School Board proposal for a universal dress code, is one of the things that will help us create a more unified district.
Q: What’s a common misconception people have about Seattle Council PTSA?
A: The misconception is that it’s just a fundraising machine, and it is not. I would always say that it is an advocacy organization first and foremost.
Q: Depending on the socioeconomic makeup of the school, some PTAs are able to raise much more than others. Some schools don’t even have parent-teacher associations. What do you think of the idea that PTAs should share their funds to bridge that gap?
A: (Slye originally declined to comment, but later submitted the following response via email.)
I have a broad perspective about PTA fundraising. A couple of years ago I was the English Language Learner Family Representative at John Stanford International School’s Building Leadership Team while serving as Denny International Middle School PTA vice president. I experienced firsthand the vast difference in fundraising power in schools. This is a complicated issue that can only change with parent, district, and school board collaboration. Seattle Council PTSA presented a resolution back in April and got wide support from a large number of school PTAs, district and school administrators and educators as well as the Washington State PTA.
Q: What districtwide issues concern you? What would you like to work on?
A: I’d like to see the strategic plan put into place. One of the goals is to improve literacy for African-American males at third grade. And it’s great that the district is doing this campaign and providing materials for kids to read. But more than anything, they need to provide training to teachers to understand and serve (students with) dyslexia.
My son was in third grade, and we pulled him out of Seattle Public Schools. So I have a child going to private schools because I have the privilege of setting him up with systems that support him and tutoring. It’s been a year, and my goal is for him to come back, and that the Legislature can provide funding for that teacher training.
Q: As you’ve noted before, PTAs can often be dominated by white parents. What would you say to parents of color who may be hesitant to join their local PTA or Seattle Council PTSA because of that?
A: I would say don’t give up. There’s room for you. Things are changing. You’re valued, and your voice matters. Call me. I’ll help you.