Equity & Diversity

This Principal Uses Her Experience as the Child of Farmworkers to Support Students

By Denisa R. Superville — February 08, 2023 6 min read
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Raquel Martinez thinks a lot about time.

The time of the day she schedules parent conferences. The time of year she holds open houses at Isaac Stevens Middle School, where she’s the principal.

For her, time is essential to how she shows respect for the community her school serves.

Many of her students’ parents are farmworkers—some of them migrant workers—who toil 12- to 14-hour days in apple orchards, and on cherry and potato farms in and around Pasco, Wash.

“When I ask a family member to come [to the campus] during the day, they are losing money to buy food to put on the table,” said Martinez, 40, who is in her fifth year as the school’s principal. “It’s navigating those conversations, making strategic plans, schedules—things like that—around that.”

That may mean holding parent conferences later in the day, at 7 p.m., depending on the season and the crops that are being harvested, and ensuring there’s dinner for parents if it’s an evening event.

Martinez is also flexible. She may need to go to school early to meet with parents before they go to work or stay later in the day. Parents may also show up unexpectedly when it’s rainy and they’re unable to work. She makes their availability her priority, not the other way around.

“You know what, ‘I’m going to change whatever it is that’s on my schedule right now to meet with you,’ ” she said.

While in-person meetings are preferable, sometimes, she said, “We just do it over the phone.”

Using experience as a guide

Martinez, who next year will become the first Latina to lead the National Association of Secondary School Principals, gets this at a gut level.

Her parents immigrated from Michoacán, Mexico, about 45 years ago, first to California and then to Washington state to work in apple orchards, and on onion and asparagus farms.

She knows the backbreaking work—at 12 years old, she started helping her parents in the nurseries and she can recall her father’s red, sunburned neck from his days in the fields. She knows her students’ parents care about their children’s education, even if their schedules make it hard for them to show up all the time.

“I can empathize with them,” Martinez said. “It hurts me when I hear my families’ stories about how hard they are working and how they are trying to provide for their children.”

“It’s important to get their involvement,” she added. “They care. Our families care. I know my parents cared. Even though they were working crazy hours, I knew that they cared, and I knew they had high values.”

Martinez uses this personal knowledge and her own experience as a child who grew up in poverty to help students connect with adults in school. She ensures that their language and culture are appreciated and celebrated.

Ninety-five percent of the students at Stevens Middle are Hispanic and 54 percent are English learners. Fourteen percent of the school’s 955 children are considered migrant students, according to current year data from the Washington state education department. Spanish is students’ primary language, Martinez said.

The school’s values—or Tiger traits: being safe, respectful, and responsible—are displayed in Spanish and English inside the school, along with the results of state assessments.

While the school’s overall share of students who met the state’s English/language arts, math, and science standards was low on the 2022 state tests, the percentage of students who demonstrated growth on the tests shows movement in a positive direction.

“They may not be proficient, but they are definitely on their way and making more than one year’s growth, and so we celebrate that growth at our school,” Martinez said.

Lessons from her own experience as a student

It was Martinez’s middle school physical education teacher who noticed that she was quick and suggested she take up basketball. Teachers then spoke with her parents to convince them that it was OK for Martinez to play basketball, and that they’d take care of her.

“Girls were not allowed to do a whole lot of things—so that’s another culture thing within it,” she said.

She’s used that experience to help ensure that her students have access to extracurricular activities beyond sports, such as being able to join the mariachi groups that are open to middle and high school students in the district or a new Folklórico club she’s starting for students to participate in a traditional Mexican dance that can be traced back to the country’s Indigenous peoples.

Raquel Martinez, the principal of Stevens Middle School, in Pasco, Wash., was named president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. She’s the first Latina to hold the position.

“It’s definitely showing the kids that their culture is important,” she said. “‘You value me, and you see me, and you speak my language. I must be important. I am someone to you.’ ”

Martinez also hopes that seeing someone with a similar background in such a visible role will help students set high expectations for themselves. She struggled with her own identity as a kid—the American-born child of immigrants, who learned English as a second language and who grew up in a community where those around her didn’t look like her.

Parents are often surprised—then heartened—when they realize that Martinez is the school’s leader.

That shared connection provides “an opportunity, a safe place for them to ask questions about what the education system is doing,” she said. “It’s completely different. You’re much more approachable.”

A shift from medicine to education

Martinez, who grew up about an hour away from Pasco in Quincy, Wash., didn’t always plan to go into education. She intended to study medicine, in part to carry on her father’s legacy—before he moved to the United States he was studying medicine in college in Mexico—and her curiosity about how the body worked.

Her father also pushed her to dream big.

“I remember telling him I want to be a dental hygienist, and he goes, ‘Why aren’t you going to be the dentist?” Martinez said of her father, who died when she was 18.

She enrolled in college as a pre-med major, but changed direction in her junior year after her younger brother started struggling in school. His experience was very different from hers, in which supportive teachers pushed her.

“It’s really important to recognize when our students are coming to school with other things happening in their lives,” she said.

You have to believe our kids can get there. When I say all, I am not talking about leaving anyone behind.

After her brother was suspended from school, her mother, now a single mom, called Martinez in frustration because her brother felt that no one at school was listening to him.

“He just continued to spiral,” she said. “At that point when that happened, I was just like, ‘I can do this. I can be a positive impact on those around me.’”

She switched her major to education and never looked back. By the time she got to her student-teaching experience in a high school, “It was awesome,” Martinez said. “It was like my niche.”

After a few bumpy days at her first teaching job at Pasco High School, where she taught biology, Martinez knew she had made the right call.

She focused on helping students master the subject while still learning English.

“Just because you’re learning a second language doesn’t mean that you’re not capable of learning the content,” said Martinez. “Can you imagine trying to learn Japanese and biology at the same time? That’s what our kids experience.”

Martinez sought the job at Stevens Middle School to have a similar impact on students at an earlier age.

“At the middle level, they are so malleable, you can change the trajectory really quickly as opposed to high school,” she said. “I love the high school [students]; they are amazing. But in middle school, you can totally shape them more and have an impact on their lives.”

She’s hoping to use the new national spotlight to elevate the need for more Hispanic and non-Hispanic leaders of color, as well as a better understanding of newly arrived immigrants and students who come from families in poverty. Martinez also wants to focus not only on the challenges these students face, but on the successful programs and community supports that have helped lift families like hers out of poverty.

“You have to believe our kids can get there,” she said. “When I say all, I am not talking about leaving anyone behind.”

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