Three girls walk in the hallway.

Five Questions with Manjula Karamcheti, Program Officer, Education

Manjula Karamcheti shares what led her to Barr and how a commitment to advance equity and excellence go hand in hand in the work of transforming the high school experience.

You joined Barr Foundation in July of 2023. What led you to the Barr Foundation?

My parents immigrated to the US from India. They cared deeply about education but did not know how to navigate the education system. I was one of the few students of color in town and didn’t get much support navigating high school. As I fumbled my way to graduation and entered college, I became interested in adolescent development and designing experiences and opportunities to help young people from historically marginalized communities reach their potential. I learned that for me, the best place to do educational equity work was in schools and communities.

Barr’s mission and vision align well with my principles, experiences and efforts to transform schools and classrooms to provide the education our children deserve. Barr’s commitment to supporting educators across New England in dreaming and designing schools that provide students exceptional teaching, learning and connection led me to my role on the Catalyze New Models team.

Your career experiences as a counselor, educator, and administrator in Massachusetts public schools provide you with multiple perspectives. What would you say are markers of high school excellence?

Students should be at the center of every policy, program, practice and procedure for a high school to be considered excellent. It is important for our institutions to have a coherent mission, an instructional vision regarding what matters most for educators, students, families and the community. Students must be seen, heard, known and feel cared for by the adults and peers in their building. Curriculum, content, and co-curriculars should be rigorous, relevant and provide students with real world experiences. Excellent schools provide academic and social-emotional support for students that can be individualized and personalized. By graduation, students should feel ready to pursue college and career opportunities. I believe excellent high schools provide students an environment that promotes joy, wonder, a growth mindset, and life-long learning.

You support Barr’s Catalyze New Models strategy to help transform high schools across New England. What does this look like for you day to day?

A great deal of my day-to-day is dedicated to ensuring our grantee partners have everything they need to reach their goals and for their students to succeed. Working with educators on how to move forward is a huge part of my job. The more difficult aspect of my role is helping to unpack the history of inequity in education. Unpacking past injustices provides the necessary context to help us move forward with a clear vision for the future and the goal of equitable access to the rigorous, relevant, high quality learning experiences that yield positive educational outcomes for all kids.

Prior to Barr, you helped promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education settings. How does that experience influence your work through Catalyze New Models?

Advancing DEI is long-term work that needs to be embedded in systems, not an add-on or afterthought. Catalyze New Models partners with schools and strives to ensure that grantees have the resources, technical assistance and coaching they need to create more equitable learning environments. Our partners in the Beyond Engage New England cohort are a great example of innovation and progress toward equity, belonging and inclusion. These schools support students who have been underserved by the traditional model of schools. These school leaders and teachers are literally designing “new ways to do school” that students are thriving in. That’s what inspires me most—talking to students, seeing and learning what best practice looks like in the field and sharing those successes as examples of what’s truly possible through education.

Can you tell us about a teacher who inspired you when you were in high school?

I was a good student but wasn’t fully engaged in the classroom. I was more interested in clubs, activities, hanging with friends, and working weekends at the GAP. Then in my junior year, I met Bev Conway, a business/marketing teacher and DECA (Distributive Education Clubs of America) Advisor. Her teaching style was problem-solving and project based. Every lesson was relevant to current events, school happenings and community connections. Suddenly, what I was doing in class mattered. I was energized to learn, and was able to demonstrate new skills in a variety of ways in and out of school.

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