Denver School Board At-Large Candidate Natela Manuntseva
Natela Manuntseva’s family moved to Denver in 2000 as political and religious refugees fleeing Uzbekistan. She was 11 years old at the time and didn’t speak a word of English, but because she was the youngest in her family, she said she picked it up faster than her siblings.
She said that because her single mother didn’t speak English, she couldn’t help her with school work, and the teacher she often sought out couldn’t be available all the time. So she found an afterschool program at the local library that she credits with helping her succeed in school. She started volunteering there to help other kids when she was just 14.
Today, she teaches acting part time at a vocational school, in addition to her full time job with a national beverage company. She also volunteers working with foster children. She said she and her fellow drama teachers see a lot of kids struggling with the basics, and her colleagues encouraged her to run for the school board.
As a student, Manuntseva attended a DPS school, but Glendale was later redistricted and she had to attend a Cherry Creek School after that. She said, as a student, she didn’t have the background to understand why she had to go to another school or whether she had any choice in the matter. She wants to change those experiences for the one-third of DPS students — 33,000+ kids — whose first language is not English.
She doesn’t think the district has done a good job of engaging these families. She said DPS’ standard has been to have two English Language Acquisition family meetings per year, and now it’s being increased to once a month. “That’s a great start, but the majority of the time, those meetings are held at 3 in the afternoon, and my experience as a refugee is that my mother was never able to attend those meetings because she was working and didn’t have transportation,” she said. She suggests the district should be reaching out to the community, asking what their issues and concerns are, and then formulating meetings. She added, “I think it’s essential to cultivate relationships in the community to make sure everyone feels welcome.”
While Manuntseva does not have any children of her own, she said she brings a different perspective. “I am one of the few candidates who has been in the business world, I volunteer with the community and want to focus on the budget and making it transparent,” she said. “We have been going along with the status quo and everyone agrees we need to do more to provide the best opportunities for every student in DPS.”
As for school choice and education reform, she said “I think each parent knows what’s best for their child and will make the decision based on that. Not every student fits the same box.” She said she thinks it’s important for kids to understand what kind of learner they are, and to have access to a broad variety of programs and apprenticeships.
She said she’s deeply disappointed that DPS students aren’t exposed to more professionals in the community. She recounted a conversation she had in which she asked a foster child what she wanted to be when she grew up. “She said she wants to be a waitress,” Manuntseva paused. “I looked at her and asked if there was anything else she aspired to, and despite her having a beautiful voice and being very talented, all she knew was to be a waitress. That broke my heart. I want to give her the tools to see other opportunities.”
Manuntseva concedes that she has a very small budget for her campaign, in part because she just jumped in two months ago, saying she felt the other candidates were “just a continuation of the status quo, and I want to provide an option to voters.” Her largest contribution to date is $2,000 from a former coworker.
She doesn’t believe she has any potential conflicts of interest since the vocational school she works for is not a DPS school.
She said running for office has been “fascinating.” She said, “I’m running for students, parents and teachers to ensure everyone feels heard and that we create better schools for all. That is the sole reason I am running. My interests have been clear: I want to have an impact and make sure future generations are equipped to succeed.”
You can learn more about Natela Manuntseva at NatelaForColorado.com.