If the founders of Transform Education Now (TEN) have their way, the parents of Colorado’s school kids will be the newest force to be reckoned with in 2018 and beyond.
Rooted in the belief that access to a high-quality education is a fundamental right of all children, Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez created TEN to build power within communities—especially parents—and demand innovation, improvement and replication of high-quality schools in all neighborhoods.
In partnership with parents and communities, they’re demanding that #10OutOf10 children have access to the educational opportunities they deserve. I caught up with the former Denver School of Science and Technology (DSST) Public Schools community organizers to learn more about where they came from, where they’re headed and who they believe will be leading the way toward better schools for all kids.
What kind of coffee do you rely on to transform your day?
As community organizers, our days consist of many, many cups of coffee. A cup of coffee and conversation is how almost every relationship we make starts, because in order to build collective power, you have to get real clear about individual interest and understand where people are coming from and that normally happens over a cup of coffee (or a juice, or a beer!).
You both started in the classroom as teachers. What motivated you to serve in the education space?
Ariel: The first school I worked at was in Washington, D.C. It was my work-study job while in school, but the school didn’t have enough teachers so they had me teach kindergarten from 1:00 to 5:00 p.m. every day. The school only had one working bathroom, so the boys and girls had to take turns using it and the pipes had lead in them so the kids could not drink out of the water fountains. The school had a perfect view of the Capitol from the playground. That visual of kids being failed by a system they could see from their own school playground still lives in my head and serves as a reminder for why I do this work.
Nicholas: My family and my community have always had a deep respect for education and school always came first for us. As a first-generation college student, I gravitated toward work that would create access for kids coming from a background similar to mine. Through that I got an opportunity to teach summer school and I loved it. Working with kids was so much fun; it was a natural fit once I left school. While it may sound cliche, education really is the way to help the next generation change our world for the better.
A year ago when you realized that only 5 in 10 students in Denver attended a school that was rated Blue or Green on the district’s School Performance Framework, what went through your mind?
Nicholas: It’s a problem, but it’s not a new problem. Communities of color and low-income communities have always been underserved by institutions. I do think that there is a lot of great work happening in classrooms around the district, but when only 50 percent of kids in schools are meeting or exceeding expectations, it’s not good enough. There is a lot of work to do among all of us, collectively. This can’t be something that only our teachers are fixing, we all have to be involved and work together to make sure that every single kid, in every school, in every neighborhood is learning.
Why do you believe parents are the key to increasing the level of accountability for schools in Denver?
Ariel: Parents are more than the dance chaperones and bake sale hosts and when they are actually given real power in schools and feel ownership over community education, that is when we can really get some cool things accomplished. We know how to raise our kids. Any parent who has chased their toddler around knows that large class sizes are difficult for even the best teacher. Any parent who sees that their neighborhood school has less than 1 in 5 kids reading on grade level deserves to both know that and be given the power to do something about it.
How do you help parents understand the ins and outs of school quality and, more importantly, the power they have in making sure their child is constantly learning and growing at the highest levels?
Nicholas: As part of our work, we host Parent Education and Choice Counseling sessions for parents to help them identify what they value in their child’s education and what best practices to look for when choosing a school for their student. We get really excited to work with parents to engage in conversations around quality and the growth that the schools in their neighborhood are making. This is about helping parents utilize their expertise in their own child; it’s about parents owning their agency.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. What opportunity do you see for communities to honor his legacy and make sure that all students, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status, gain access to a quality education?
Nicholas: I think the greatest way we can honor Dr. King’s legacy is by speaking up and standing with our neighbors. The task at hand is bigger than one kid, or one school or one community. This is about all of our kids. While there is great work being done across the city, and there are amazing schools getting kids ready for a life of opportunity, that’s not happening for all kids. We need everyone to recognize that injustice.
We need to recognize the glaring percentage of our students who have been marginalized by our education system and that there is a very real cost in tolerating that. We are losing out on the amazing things that our kids could accomplish if we can’t give them the tools they need and we are absolutely paying a moral price if we are OK with not doing our best.
What do you think it will take to make sure that 10 out of 10 children in Denver have access to the educational opportunities they deserve?
Ariel: We have to be honest about where we are. With only 6 out of 10 students in Denver Public Schools (DPS) attending a Green or Blue school today, there are still 35,000 students who are attending a school that is not at the level of quality they deserve. We can do better than that.
We can’t solve problems when we are missing key stakeholders at the table. Those most affected by a problem must have the space to lead in solving the problem.
Ten years from now, what do you hope families feel when they think about TEN?
Ariel: I hope they feel the power that they have built. I don’t even think they will look back and see TEN. I hope they see their own power, not ours.