Martín Peréz, Jr. joined the 50CAN fellowship in the fall of 2015. Last week, he hosted the fellowship class in Phoenix to develop their strategic plans and learn how other members of the class are navigating the local advocacy world. Now halfway through the program, Martín shares his thoughts on the state of education in Arizona and his vision for the future.
What brought you to the 50CAN fellowship?
I saw my brother’s life play out in front of me in my very own classroom. At only twelve years old, one of my students had been arrested for possession of an illegal substance on school grounds. Statistics show that 68% of juveniles arrested during their schooling will not graduate from high school. I quickly learned the urgency of becoming an advocate beyond my classroom. The more involved I became, the more I realized how important it was to become an advocate for education in my community and state. I happen to live in the district where I taught; my students and their families are my neighbors, their community is my community, and I strive to make it the kind of place we all deserve. I decided to join 50CAN to become a stronger education advocate. 50CAN has not only given me a platform to help elevate the school leader voice, but has also given me the opportunity to better understand the success and challenges facing our students today.
What’s the best thing about going to school in Arizona right now?
Arizona has made significant strides in adopting and implementing high academic standards. In years past, assessments in our state did not report honest proficiency levels and it was challenging for teachers to effectively analyze student’s fundamental knowledge and skills in core subjects. State assessments now reflect reality rather then wishful thinking.
What’s the biggest challenge facing Arizona kids?
Over the past few years, Arizona has been at the epicenter of the national debate over how best to teach students who enter school speaking another language. But for far too long, expectations were dangerously low for Arizona English-language learner students. As a result 53% of high school graduates in Arizona are not eligible for admission into a state university. 59% of freshmen in Arizona’s two-year colleges require remedial classes. ELL high school graduation rates trail other subgroups, including students with disabilities and those who come from low-income families. Arizona has the eleventh highest ELL enrollment in the nation, and yet only 18% of ELL students graduate within four years. Educators, business leaders and economic experts agree that we must effectively educate our ELL kids before we lose another generation of students.
What is your biggest takeaway from the 50CAN fellowship thus far?
During my listening tour I engaged with 100 statewide leaders, attended conferences and visited dozens of schools. My listening tour allowed me to better understand the successes and challenges facing Arizona students and build relationships with key stakeholders and partners. Everyone who I met with shared that in order for Arizona to become more economically prosperous, every student must have access to a high-quality education. Most importantly, I saw countless parents, educators, policymakers and community members committed to engaging in the decision-making process for education policies. Arizona’s education issues are complex, and yet providing a platform for Arizona citizens to effectively speak up for kids is one of the most critical things we can do.
What do you hope to accomplish in the next six months?
In the next six months I hope to align my listening tour findings to create a vision for effective education policy changes. I also hope to continue to engage partners, build credibility and provide a platform for Arizona citizens to effectively speak up for kids.
Do you have any advocacy heroes?
I strongly admire President John F. Kennedy’s advocacy. As president he embodied and championed an era of bold optimism and hard realism. Kennedy described “efforts and courage [as] not [being] enough without purpose and direction”—and in doing so, turned his belief into an inspiring example of purposeful advocacy. I aspire to be as bold, passionate and committed as he was, driven by the knowledge that when it comes to education in Arizona, it’s all hands on deck. All stakeholders must work together to provide every student with an excellent education.
Where do you see yourself in one year? In five years?
In one year, I hope to be leading efforts to redefine Arizona as a pioneering state in increasing student achievement and serving as a model for other states to reference when making changes to the public education system.
In five years, I believe that the groundwork we’ve laid together will strengthen the education system in Arizona. Building trust and credibility with state, local and elected officials, school leaders, school boards, education advocates and philanthropic leaders takes time, but I know that my stakeholders will remain champions of our work, and we’ll have results that inspire the next generation of advocates and school leaders alike.
One last question: In one sentence, what is your vision for the future of education in Arizona?
Arizona will be the leading state accelerating student academic achievement and serve as a model to effectively reform our education system.