In honor of April being Celebrate Diversity Month, we’d like to recognize one of our partners, Dr. Michelle Sanchez for her honorable work with families and young children as the Principal of Epiphany School, a tuition-free private school open to children who live in Boston and are from economically disadvantaged families.
As an experienced education professional, Dr. Michelle Sanchez uses her lived experience being raised by an immigrant mother to better understand her work with students and their families.
She began her career as a founding math and science teacher at Epiphany School in 1998
when the school first opened and served as the vice principal and director of the school’s summer program before becoming the school principal in 2002.
In her current role as principal, she has partnered with numerous community and educational agencies, including Parenting Journey, to assist families, graduates and staff.
Currently, she is working with Epiphany to find ways to make a greater impact on the community at large with the work happening at the Early Learning and Care Center.
The center serves high need families and children until the age of 5 and will continue to support them throughout their schooling while simultaneously supporting families in their personal growth and development.
Outside of Epiphany, Michelle has served as an adjunct professor at Boston College and for the Urban Catholic Teacher Corp. She is a board member at Fessenden School, Bridge Boston, ABCD, The Possible Project, a member of The Partnership’s NGE Program and Boston College AHANA Alumni Council.
Learn more about Dr. Sanchez in our interview spotlighting her work below.
PJ: Tell us a little bit about how you grew up? How did this influence the woman that you are today?
MS: I’m originally from Providence, Rhode Island. My parents are immigrants from Cape Verde. I have three siblings. My mother and father separated when I was young.
One of the things that has been amazing to reflect on as an adult in the school community is thinking about the power of my mother. We were low-income and she didn’t speak English well but she would leave the house at 6AM every day to work at a factory during the day. Then at night she would go to office spaces to clean and on weekends she would clean houses.
Because my mom had to work so much to provide for us, I had a lot of freedom because she wasn’t able to physically be at home. This also meant that I had to make a lot of adult decisions for myself, particularly around my education.
One example was that I got into accelerated classes when I was in Junior High School and although my school was very diverse, the accelerated program wasn’t. So I made the decision myself to get out of the program because no one in it looked like me.
I believe that making the decision by myself to not be a part of the accelerated class held me back . My mom couldn’t advocate for me because she didn’t understand. When I got out of the accelerated program, school became really easy for me and it shouldn’t have been.
It made me realize that I was making a lot of adult decisions even though I wasn’t an adult at the time. This type of upbringing affected me in hugely positive ways. It was definitely a situation where because of my mom’s incredible commitment to provide for us, it made her not available to be physically there in a lot of situations.
This experience is what helps me with having empathy and compassion when dealing with families at school. I have that lense where I understand that families have to work which means that they can’t always physically show up at the school when we might need them.
People who don’t understand will say things, “these parents don’t care about their kids,” but I have the same shared lived experiences where I can advocate on behalf of the parents.
PJ: What was your career journey like to get you down the path you’re on now?
MS: After graduating from high school, I went to Boston College (BC) for undergraduate school. BC had a lot of racial issues, however, I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who helped students navigate these issues and protest them in healthy ways.
My mentor had this powerful vision of changing the world, so he encouraged me to join a teaching program because he felt like I would be a great teacher that could also do social justice work.
I never wanted to teach but during my first experience as a student teacher, I realized this was my calling. Early in my career, I started working at a school that practiced a more holistic form of teaching that focused on all of their students’ needs – including, whether they ate the night before or had help with homework.
This school thought about and wanted to create initiatives to better educate students and also help them deal with their life outside of school. I was all in because I wanted to be a teacher who had a bigger impact on my students’ educational needs and the needs of their families.
When I began my doctorate program, I started to learn all about parent engagement in a school setting. This also included learning about the impact that poverty and trauma have on a student’s learning capabilities and reaction to a school setting. As a school official, this is important to learn because there are kids whose trauma and upbringing impacts their school presence and activities; How they process trauma ultimately affects how they learn.
Fast forward to my work at Epiphany school, when the idea came to open an early learning center, this is where we decided to partner with PJ. We realized this center is the place where we can really create some real change. At our early learning center, we focus on the barriers that could prevent families from raising healthy and happy children and provide them with tools to combat those barriers.
This is a two part series, so stay tuned for the second part of Dr. Sanchez’s interview.