Coffee Break: These community organizers believe #10outof10 students can have access to a high-quality school—with parents leading the way

Even before the clock struck midnight on January 1, 2018, the voices of those who have been ignored, drowned out and silenced by the powerful and elite have steadily increased their volume. From #BlackLivesMatter to #MeToo and #Enough, underrepresented groups are shaping a new narrative and demanding a space to be heard. 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 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?

Ariel: 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!). My favorite coffee shop in Denver is Prodigy Coffee off of 40th and Colorado, which also functions as an apprentice program for some really rad young people.

Nicholas: I take my coffee as strong as I can get it, and always black. Like Ariel said, a lot of our work happens over coffee so I get a few cups in a day, probably more than I need, but I love it. I really enjoy trying different types, but I also love the ritual of sharing a cup of coffee because it’s a step toward building a relationship and learning about folks. Offering a fresh cup of coffee was something I remember my grandparents doing for anyone who came to visit and it was a sign of their hospitality. When I have coffee with someone there is definitely a thread of that hospitality in there.


For both of you, your first impact on education 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 1-5 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 United States 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 out of 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: The first thing that went through my mind was that it’s a problem, but its 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.


Ariel, how, if at all, has your perspective on school quality changed since becoming a parent yourself?

Ariel: I have a two-year-old son, and ever since becoming a mom, I have found this fierce, protective part of me. I think about how how quickly parents get left out as our children become school aged, and it’s so strange to me. We know how to raise our kids and parents deserve a seat at the decision-making table, especially when we are talking about our kids. We deserve to know whether or not kids are learning to read at the schools we are choosing for them. We deserve to know a school’s vision and mission, their values and their orientation to a community. We deserve to know it all. It’s TEN’s mission to help parents do that.


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.


TEN believes that access to a high quality education is a fundamental right of all people and many would argue it’s the civil rights issue of our time. 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. Dr. King said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” 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: I think it starts with honest conversations and continues with community co-design. 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. There are some brilliant people doing brilliant things in our city and we need to do a better job collaborating with stakeholders to figure out how to replicate those best practices in all our schools. Our parents need to speak up at the Capitol and ask voters to approve more funding from our schools. They need to be at the table demanding our teachers have access to more resources, mentoring and coaching. 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.


*Editor’s Note: According to the DPS 2016 School Performance Framework, 50 percent of students attended a school that was rated Blue or Green. According to the 2017 DPS School Performance Framework, nearly 62 percent of students attend a school rated Blue or Green.


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