Interview with TEN’s Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on the needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.

Marc is joined by Transform Education Now’s Ariel Smith and Nicholas Martinez to talk about the importance of centering parents in advocacy, the impact of the pandemic on Colorado’s students and families and a big win centered on transparency: ensuring that Denver parents are able to access the remote instruction being provided to students.


Marc Porter Magee: We have a great new video interview for this week. We are going to be talking to Nicholas Martinez and Ariel Smith from Transform Education Now, which is in the Greater Denver area. And they started out as classroom teachers before making the switch to become organizers, which they’ve been doing for the past 10 years. And the past three years, they’ve been co-running this really amazing advocacy organization together. We like to think of them as the dynamic duo of Denver and they have been working really hard over the past two months to adapt their advocacy to this new era in this distance learning pandemic. Thank you both for joining us today.

Nicholas Martinez: Well, thanks for having us, Marc. Excited to be here, excited to chat with you and share some of the work happening in Denver and some of the stuff that we’re hearing from families.

I thought we could start with just your approach to this crisis. I know that a lot of people, when this came, they didn’t think it would last or they thought “There’s nothing we can do about this, we’ll just have to ride it out.” You both brought a different attitude to this: that we could absolutely adapt our teaching and learning to help parents and families during this era. So maybe we could talk a little bit about that.

Ariel Smith: When school got canceled at the beginning of March, we realized very quickly what an incredibly wonderful, and also large, family that TEN has the privilege of working with here in Denver. We work really closely with families and have for the last three years and this was no exception. Families have a lot of questions. Families had a lot of concerns and fears about what it would feel like to do remote learning and how to support their students to ensure that they were making the progress that they need to be making. And so it was a pretty natural place for us to be because families were calling. The first week of the school closure I would say our phones were ringing off the hook and it was because we have a lot of families whom we work closely with who trust us. And that’s an honor and it’s something we don’t take lightly. It’s a responsibility. And so because of that we developed really quickly an online community for families to connect and collaborate with each other so that they didn’t feel so isolated.

Nicholas Martinez: I think there’s a lot to be done and I think this is a daunting situation and there’s a lot of unknowns. And I think that is exactly why it was so important for us to have an answer. We may not have all of the answers, we may not have all of the solutions, but I think it was important to continue to serve families especially in their time of greatest need whether that was getting essential foods and services and things like that or understanding what was happening at their child’s school and what they could expect. And then still just getting access to technology. Helping families figure out some of the platforms right, folks are still struggling with that. And if we are saying we’re in it here to serve families, now is the time.

It feels like the role that TEN is playing right now in Denver is making sure that the public stays in public education, that you are an essential bridge to figure out what do parents and families really need right now and how do we make sure that schools and districts are being responsive to that need. I wonder if you could talk about one example of that which is your work around the kind of instruction that’s going to be most helpful for your families that you’re serving?

Nicholas Martinez: Right now one of the things that we keep hearing is families are struggling. Families are struggling to access learning and part of that is schedule. We have a lot of families who are still working, right? Who are still leaving their homes every single day going to work who are frontline workers. And if we host in-person live Zoom calls for our kids’ classes, that’s awesome. It’s important to have that opportunity to engage with your peers, engage with your teachers. But what about the kids who don’t have access right then and there? The ones that need a little extra support from their families who are working and may not get to it ’til 6 o’clock at night, 9:00 PM at night. How are they accessing those lessons and that content and so we need to make sure that we’re providing that opportunity for every child?

That’s great. Ariel, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how does that actually come together as an advocacy campaign? Because obviously schools are online, advocacy has to be online as well. What did it take to adapt to advocate for that new goal?

Ariel Smith: So a couple of different ways that we’ve engaged with the district around this. The first is we’ve been hosting actions on Zoom with different district leaders. So we’ve had both the Denver Public Schools president, Board of Education president, and also the superintendent who’s come on and parents have asked, “We can’t get on live class at 10:00 AM and therefore we’re missing our ability to access education.” And that’s not fair. And so we really believe that recorded direct instruction is something that’s incredibly important and it’s something that I think districts across the country should be adapting as a best practice. Not to say that in-person learning shouldn’t be happening—in person on Zoom learning—shouldn’t be happening too. But the recorded piece I think acts as a really important equity lever for families because if your schedule doesn’t work for live class, you shouldn’t have to miss it. And if your family doesn’t speak English as a first language in your household, recorded direct instruction is easily translated, which means it’s accessible to families which we think is a really important component of this.

Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s a great example of listening to parents, helping them raise their voices, and getting a concrete win right now, so hats off to both of you for making that a priority. But I know that’s just the start of all the different things that need to happen to meet families’ needs. I wonder if you could talk about looking a little bit ahead to the summer months and what you’re hearing from parents and families right now about what they need to keep learning going through the summer?

Ariel Smith: This is I think the first time where summer doesn’t really change much for families. We were joking a couple days ago on a call with families: “It’s not like there’s some button now that you push and summer starts and it’s different because kids have been home since March.” The only thing that’s different is that families have less support during the summer, which we think is something that needs to change. So we’ve been advocating for extended learning opportunities for all students. We believe that families should get stipends for accessing extended learning over the summer because it’s something that they desire. They want programming. They want the opportunity to grow and explore with their students and there’s no reason that we can’t do that remotely just like we have been doing it. And so we’re really pushing for extended learning opportunities. We believe it’s an issue beyond just summer but we think in this particular moment extended learning opportunities for students that are accessible to all and therefore are affordable or free is a really important step toward making sure that our students are making the progress that they need toward their yearly goals.

Thoughts, Nicholas, as you transition out of these first couple of months: what does the advocacy look like this summer as you continue to engage with parents and families?

Nicholas Martinez: I think one of the bright spots of this is that families are more actively engaged with their child’s education. They are closer to their child’s education experience than ever before and they are asking all of the right questions. They are asking all of the things that they should be asking: “What does it look like when we come back from summertime? How am I going to support my child to, through, and on the other side of summertime so that they aren’t having that summer slide, so to speak? How are we going to make sure that this time isn’t lost learning and what I’m doing at home is both supported by what’s happening in the classroom and can really push my child’s learning over the next what could be six months?” And so I think the advocacy work here is very, very natural. We have created online spaces where families are gathering multiple times a week asking all of those right questions and they are bringing people to the table. They are having conversations with their own family, their brothers, their sisters, their neighbors who are stuck in the same situation and they are asking, “How do we do this together? What needs to be better?” And I think our job and our work is really around kind of honing some of those asks and helping those families kind of articulate that in a very concrete ask. And I don’t think that advocacy work changes in how it gets done. I think we have a better chance to be very, very effective because this is on the forefront of people’s minds right now.

I feel like this power shift where parents and families are much closer to the instruction than they’ve ever been before. It’s a huge opportunity and I think that’s one of the hidden stories right now is that that parent power is really taking shape in pretty interesting ways. So thank you both for your work on that. I know we’re going to want to follow along as you go into the summer months. What’s the best way to stay connected into the work you’re doing and your learnings around this new era of advocacy?

Ariel Smith: You could follow us on social media, Transform Education Now Colorado on Facebook and TENColorado on Twitter. We also have a great website if you’re interested in looking at some of our parent resources, that’s We put together sets of learning goals that are yearly learning goals for families there which we think have been really helpful. They’re printable for fridges, which we think is cool. And yeah, we hope that you all follow along and join our community. Thank you for having us.

Nicholas Martinez: We have an online Slack channel for families and experts and community so if you go find us on our social media you can figure out how to get engaged on that Slack channel. And really that’s an opportunity to both lend expertise and support but also to get some of your questions answered and really engage with folks who are having awesome conversations about what comes next.

Excellent. Well thank you, Nicholas. Thank you, Ariel. We really appreciate it. And thank you to all your parent volunteers and we wish you a whole bunch of luck in the coming months in your advocacy work.

Nicholas Martinez: Thank you.

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