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Activist of the Month: Miguel Lucatero

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for June: Miguel Lucatero. Read about his experience as a strong advocate for Latino parents in the Tri-Cities.

League of Education Voters June 2017 Activist of the Month Miguel Lucatero

June Activist of the Month Miguel Lucatero

Miguel Lucatero is a licensed home child care provider since 2001 who is participating in the Early Achievers program. He is also the parent spokesperson for Padres de Familia Preocupados por la Educacion y el Exito de Sus Hijos (Parents of Families Concerned for the Education and Success of their Children). In March 2016, a group of Tri-Cities parents met to exchange ideas and find out which kinds of problems they were experiencing in the education system. From there, the parent group Padres Preocupados por la Educacion y el Exito de Sus Hijos was born, and they have continued to meet monthly.

Last month, Mr. Lucatero wrote a letter to the Washington State Board of Education outlining the problems faced by his community, particularly the loss of tutoring services provided under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) when the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) planning stages began.

Miguel has been living in Washington State for 20 years. When asked what drives him, he says, “I am a person who likes to work because I am concerned for the future, the best interest of our children, and the well-being of the community.”

He and his wife have two daughters attending Stevens Middle School in Pasco. One is an 8th-grader and the other daughter is in the 7th grade. Mr. Lucatero says, “They still do not know want they would like to do, but they know they want to go to college.”

Although his community faces many challenges, Mr. Lucatero is inspired by trainings made available through the Early Learning Community on various aspects of early childhood education. “I like being able to take college classes about brain development,” he says. “That gives me ideas on how my wife and I can best teach the children in our care.”

If Miguel could design our education system, he would like to see teachers who are content experts developing curricula to ensure that students successfully finish high school with a focused, concrete foundation that would prepare them to achieve the college vision they want. “Think of how we build houses on concrete foundations,” Mr. Lucatero explains. “That way, our students could be successful in obtaining the careers they envision.”

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Activist of the Month: Elaine Woo

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for May: Elaine Woo. Read about her experience as a strong advocate for science education and fair funding.

League of Education Voters May 2017 Activist of the Month Elaine Woo

May Activist of the Month Elaine Woo

Elaine Woo works with conviction for the children of Washington state. She speaks to legislators in Olympia, visits schools, advocates through phone calls, and recently co-wrote an Op-ed for the Seattle Times.

Elaine became connected with LEV when she received an email about a Lunchtime LEVinar. Soon afterward, she met LEV state field director Kelly Munn at an activist training event, which put Elaine on a path to talking with lawmakers. “I started calling and visiting my legislators as well as writing letters,” she recalls. “It’s great how LEV helps people find a way to have a voice.”

Elaine taught elementary school for 3 years in California before heading to Okinawa to teach for a year with the Department of Defense. She then spent the next 33 years with Seattle Public Schools (SPS), with the exception of a year teaching highly capable education with Seattle Country Day School. Upon returning to Seattle Public Schools, she taught in the Accelerated Progress Program (APP) as well as in the regular classroom for the next 12 years.

After Elaine became the assistant principal at Bryant Elementary in Seattle, she was asked to help parents develop a science program for the school. She says, “Some of the parents told me that every child in Seattle needs a good science education, not just in this school.” Soon afterward, Elaine was approached by Valerie Logan, the wife of noted biologist Dr. LeRoy Hood. Both Logan and Hood took major leadership in helping the Bryant School community and the entire district  apply for a grant from  the National Science Foundation (NSF). With the NSF grant, other grants, and district funds, the professional development program was continually developed and implemented for 16 years providing researched-based professional development for elementary teachers.

Elaine worked as an assistant principal at Bryant and then principal at John Rogers Elementary for about six years before leading the grant efforts for science teacher professional development in the Seattle Public Schools central office. “The experience taught me about change,“ she explains. “There are certain areas where each of us just doesn’t want to change.” She learned that making policies stronger is  difficult but crucial. Elaine adds, “If policies are better and more supportive, then teachers can do better for their students.”

She has a big issue with elementary science, because there is so much pressure to focus on literacy and math that principals and/or teachers in Washington are left to decide whether or not science will be taught. Elaine says, “It’s too late for many students if you wait until middle school for full-year science.” She also likes the concept of ensuring that students can pass a science assessment before leaving high school. Elaine believes that if a biology assessment, for example, is required for graduation, it sends a message to the students that they need to work harder. She says, “Adults find excuses not to include a science test for graduation. People cling to those barriers, maybe because it’s  less work, which is tragic for kids.”

Elaine’s philosophy is that if a teacher has high expectations, participates in research-based professional development, and provides effective support, then students will achieve better. Outside the classroom, our kids need good instruction and support at home, as well. She also weighs in on the McCleary education funding debate. She says, “The accountability portion of McCleary is really hard, but it’s really important.” She notes that there has to be support from superintendents, principals, and parents for raising the bar. “Legislators are walking a fine line,” she explains. “We need to thank them for their hard work.”

On LEV, she says, “The work LEV is doing is fantastic – helping parents and students find information outside of the system.” And when judging her own efforts on behalf of Washington kids, Elaine humbly says, “I don’t do enough, and I’d like to do more.”

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Activist of the Month: Sameth Mell

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for March: Sameth Mell. Read about his experience as a strong advocate for education, housing, and immigrant communities.

League of Education Voters March Activist of the Month Sameth Mell

March Activist of the Month Sameth Mell

Sameth Mell is an active leader with the Coalition of Immigrants, Refugees & Communities of Color (CIRCC), serving on the leadership and advocacy committees. He works for the Mount Baker Housing Association as the Outreach & Resident Services Manager, helping residents access needed services and programs, and helping them to engage in their community. He is also responsible for connecting the agency at large to community based organizations and public officials, and works on legislative materials. He is a community activist extraordinaire on behalf of the Cambodian community and many social justice issues that the community faces.

Sameth supported the Campaign for Student Success (C4SS) by adopting its three principles of funding and fairness, talent, and accountability as part of CIRCC’s advocacy agenda for this year, along with other priorities that focus on housing development for communities in South Seattle, opposition to building a new youth jail, and ending fines for formerly incarcerated people that often prevent them from being able to support themselves.

After he put together CIRCC’s advocacy agenda, Sameth then scheduled C4SS group meetings with four Seattle City Council members to date, and seven state legislators. As a small group, C4SS met with council members Burgess, Johnson, Herbold and Harrell. Each time, C4SS had thoughtful conversations with the council member about the priorities on our advocacy agenda, and C4SS has asked the council member to sign onto the Campaign for Student Success. Of the four, one has signed on so far. Sameth is now working on setting up more appointments with the remaining Seattle City Council members.

Sameth was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his parents fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. After his father died in the camp, his mother signed up to relocate him and his three siblings to the United States in 1985.

Living in poverty in mid-1980s Seattle, Sameth wondered why he was transferred from High Point Elementary School near his home and bused to Lafayette Elementary seven miles away. He didn’t understand the policies then.

Sameth became involved in Asian Counseling and Referral Service’s APIRA (Asian Pacific Islander Rising Above) program in his teen years, and started to recognize his Khmer identity as being important to him. He began working on identity politics, recognizing racism and oppression and addressing more of that as he grew older. Sameth says, “I saw organizing as a way to effect change and create equity for my community members.”

In addition to C4SS, Sameth is working with the Cambodian-American Community Council of Washington State to create scholarships. They have strong advocates from the education sector working on the education subcommittee, particularly around mentorship to help students continue to higher education. He hopes to have conversations with elected officials about helping support Cambodian-Americans attain degrees and certificates, and share stories about the Khmer Rouge genocide.

When Sameth went to high school, there were only two paragraphs about the Khmer Rouge genocide in his history books. He would like to see an education mechanism to educate the general public about the genocide so that his community can take pride in overcoming that, and draw attention to its implications in today’s political climate. He says, “Refugees don’t come to America because they just want a better life. My mother never asked to be here. We had no choice but to survive.”

Sameth says all the issues he works on intersect. In addition to C4SS, he is supporting the creation of a Filipino Community Center, construction of the Mount Baker Gateway Project to build 250 affordable housing units in Southeast Seattle, and the Model Toxics Control Act (MTCA). He says, “We’re rewriting the narrative – ecology equals affordable housing. If we want to build on a space contaminated by solvents, we need to get MTCA funds to make that happen.”

His overall plan is create spaces where people can live, celebrate their cultures, and have access to quality education. After all, Sameth says, “We have along Rainier the most ethnically diverse neighborhood in the country.”

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Activist of the Month: Heidi Bennett

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for February: Heidi Bennett. Read more about her experience as a strong advocate for K-12 and Higher Education.

Heidi Bennett - League of Education Voters Activist of the Month Feb 2017

February Activist of the Month Heidi Bennett

Heidi Bennett is one of LEV’s most involved and dedicated key activists. She first entered the activism arena when her kids were in preschool, at the turn of the century. Her big question: to send her children to public or private school?

Heidi Googled LEV, and connected with Co-founder Lisa Macfarlane. She has been working with LEV ever since – for about 15 years. Heidi recalls Lisa talking about her own kids, saying, “No matter where you send your kids, all kids deserve a great public school education.”

When Heidi moved from New York to Seattle for a better way of life, she never imagined she would be sacrificing her kids’ education. Joining local PTA and then Seattle Council PTA, she began speaking to PTAs in the Seattle area about how Washington schools compare to those in New York and other states, and how they need to advocate for better schools and better outcomes.

In 2006, Heidi gave her first testimony at a Washington state Senate hearing, emphasizing that we deserve to do better for our kids. She was so persuasive that a key Senator suggested that she do the opening prayer for the Senate.

Heidi’s activism took on a life of its own. She became heavily involved in the push for simple majority for school levies and fought hard for the Basic Ed “It’s Basic” campaign with Governor Chris Gregoire. She’s been the Legislative VP of the Seattle Council PTSA, board member and presenter for the Seattle Schools First levy campaign, and several years as the Regional Legislative Chair for Washington State PTA. She has reached hundreds of parents with her “What’s up with WA State Education” presentations and several years ago delivered over 5,000 postcards to Washington state Legislators and the Governor during WSPTA Focus Day. Heidi has also served on several district task forces/committees for highly capable, capacity, and others.

Lately, Heidi continues to engage and educate parents with education panels and PTA talks on Basic Ed. Her most recent panel last week in North Seattle included both high school issues and state funding, and featured Representative Noel Frame, the Government Relations Director of the Association for Washington School Principals, the Legislative Chair of the Seattle Council PTSA, Seattle School District officials, and the principal of Ballard High School. Heidi has educated hundreds of parents on why they need to advocate.

Heidi’s newest passion is higher education. “We’re getting priced out of higher ed. It costs $80-to-$90,000 to send kids to a Washington state college when you include room and board,” she says. “As wages are flat, even the middle class is getting priced out of a bachelor’s degree at a public, state school.” She put higher education on the state PTA platform two years ago and again last fall. This year, she expanded post-secondary advocacy to include community and technical college (CTC) certificates, while continuing to support the College Bound and State Need grants, and making both 2- and 4-year degrees more accessible. Heidi adds, “We need a regional college in the Seattle area, something that offers comprehensive Bachelor’s degrees without having to spend residential costs, similar to Portland State.”

“I want to see an expansion of career counselors in high school, so all students are aware of the opportunities for both a traditional of 4-year college track and other pathways,” she says. “Kids just don’t know there are job-ready career paths by earning CTC certificates or Associate’s degrees. We need to promote these options too to both students and families, and remove the stigma from alternative paths.”

Heidi grew up on Long Island and is a first-generation college graduate. She finished her degree at night, working full-time. She says, “You can’t do that in Seattle – there are not enough opportunities to earn an affordable degree at night at a less-expensive public college. I understand the challenges.”. Professionally, she cut her teeth in marketing on Madison Avenue, earned her VP title, and then moved to Seattle where she was the Director of Client Services for a downtown agency. She started consulting to focus on family life, and is winding down that chapter.

Heidi’s kids are recent graduates of the Seattle School District. Her daughter graduated from Ballard High School and is now at the University of Victoria. Her son graduated in 2016 through Running Start, and is now a rising senior at the University of Washington.

Noting that 70 percent of all jobs in Washington state will soon require a post-secondary credential, Heidi says, “If we want growth in our economy, we need to increase the current rate of only 31 percent of our 9th graders earning some type of post-secondary attainment to over 70 percent. We need to educate parents and students that not all jobs will require a 4-year degree.” To that end, she began advocating for Career Start, which allows students to earn a career certificate while still in high school, similar to Running Start that focuses on AA degrees. “Kids need to know ALL their options,” ” she says, “And the state needs to make them affordable.”

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Activist of the Month: Heather Wallace

By MyKaila Young, LEV Intern

January League of Education Voters Activist of the Month Heather Wallace

January Activist of the Month Heather Wallace

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for January: Heather Wallace.

Every New Year brings the opportunity for infinite possibilities. As the year begins, I’m sure you wonder about all the people, events and experiences that will occur over the next 364 days. Being in the right place at the right time opens the right doors to many of the great experiences and people that will make the year worthwhile, and that was the case for Heather Wallace when she crossed paths with LEV Spokane Regional Field Director Sandra Jarrard.

Heather’s background is in sociology, and she is connected with the importance of what many may call “Overall Life Experience.” One thing that stood out to me about Heather was that she’s not concerned with numbers and statistics, but how things really are and ways to address issues that may be viewed as broken or problematic.

For 15 years, she worked mainly with adolescents and then went on to the administrative level of medical management. When she wasn’t making an impact in the way she had envisioned, she did something about it and went back to school and eventually attained a Masters in Communication and Leadership Studies with a focus in dialogue and community development. She currently works at Spokane Regional Health District in a program that she very much enjoys called Neighborhoods Matter. This is a program that focuses on the social determinants of health and how to improve neighborhoods to in turn improve the overall health of the community at large.

Neighborhoods Matter works directly with residents to identify their neighborhood’s health and safety concerns, and then they work to address these concerns in the best way possible. They leverage community resources and focus on how to connect and advocate for safer neighborhoods. Heather says, “Safe neighborhoods mean people are out more and active, which contributes to long-term success.”

With the help of LEV, the Inland Northwest Early Learning Alliance, and the Spokane Regional Health District, Heather put together a conference that focused on realistic accountability. Sometimes quality is better than quantity, and that was surely the case for last month’s Spokids 2020, where the overall experience and discussion contributed to great strides for changes and hopes in 2017. Being lower in numbers but higher in perspectives allowed people to come together in a way that allowed many thoughts and ideas to come together and move forward. Collectively, everyone came up with action plans to help envision how that will look.

With so many organizations working to improve education and support families in need, and all the many changes that occur within various positions at numerous organizations, Heather sees great work being done at many different levels, which is something that is encouraging to us all.

The Spokids 2020 conference was a great way to figure out how similar organizations and families could come together, develop common goals, and leverage partner organizations to work together with the idea of a common community goal. Heather’s common community goal is that all children in Spokane County will achieve social-emotional readiness by kindergarten.

Next month, Heather hopes that word will spread about Spokids 2020’s useful discussions in order to home in on specific projects and areas of focus that will be able to identify success and how conference participants plan to measure progress as a group.

From a public health perspective, social-emotional health serves as the foundation for academic indicators and how likely a child is to succeed. Addressing these issues are imperative because if students are living in unhealthy environments and don’t have access to primary medical care and their basic needs aren’t being met, especially on an emotional and social level, they can’t learn. Heather is advocating for student supports and ways to measure a child’s social-emotional health early in the education continuum, which will help with discipline and a wide range of other issues that teachers have in the classrooms.

A student’s behavior reflects their social-emotional health and not their intelligence. I think we can all agree that we shouldn’t blame the child for the shortcomings of a system that isn’t tailored to the needs of every student, but instead we should blame the lack of resources that prevents the child from moving forward. A start in the right direction until we can get adequate resources for all students is to figure out ways to positively impact a child’s social-emotional health, which is why Heather’s work is vital for communities throughout Washington state.

Heather has three daughters, and she hopes her daughters will find work that they are passionate about. She hopes that they travel and learn about other cultures, and go on to be lifelong learners. Heather says, “A paycheck will only take you so far, and if you can’t find meaning in the work that you are doing, then money will never make you happy.”

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Activist of the Month: Michele Johnston

By MyKaila Young, LEV Intern

League of Education Voters November Activist of the Month Michele Johnston and her daughter

November Activist of the Month Michele Johnston and her daughter

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for November: Michele Johnston.

Arthur Ashe said, “One important key to success is self-confidence, and the key to self-confidence is preparation.”

Growing up, Michele Johnston received what many would consider to be a decent education. She attended a private Catholic school for primary, was home-schooled in 5th grade, and went on to public junior high and high schools. She attended North Idaho College and earned her degree from Eastern Washington University in microbiology. Reflecting back on her schooling, she remembers it as not being very stimulating. She says, “It was a lot of just teaching to the tests.” The vital missing component was an emphasis on critical and creative thinking. “Socially it was good – I just wasn’t engaged in the academic part.”

The way in which we understand the world is primarily rooted in the way that we are taught to think critically about situations and problems. In turn, these processing and thinking skills help us make decisions that have the potential to impact our life in positive and negative ways. If students are only taught to take a test, then what have they really learned to help them get through the next phase of life? If this piece is missing, how can we expect students to really prosper and grow as lifelong learners and truly be ready to succeed in college and beyond?

Michele’s hope for her six-year-old daughter currently attending charter public school Spokane International Academy (SIA) is that as her daughter progresses in her education through the K-12 system, she will always be excited about learning, not only at school, but throughout her life. The goal of education is to show students how learning is a lifelong skill and experience. “I love SIA,” Michele says. “SIA helped my daughter overcome her shyness, gave her a new confidence to engage with people and advocate for herself, and it has changed how she feels about learning and school.”

Michele believes that every child deserves to have a similar, if not greater, experience with their teachers in a way that helps them transcend any personal barriers that may prevent them from being comfortable and confident enough to learn. As a result, Michele has made over 200 phone calls and sent nearly 200 emails to lawmakers encouraging them to support charter public schools and school choice. She has reached out to Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Erin Jones and Chris Reykdal, and even did phone banking for Senator Steve Litzow, chair of the Education Committee.

Michele worries that our public school system doesn’t adequately prepare students to earn post-secondary credentials. “We’re sending our young adults to college to pay a university price tag for a high school education,” she says, referring to the need for many students to take remedial classes. “Most students take on a substantial amount of debt in order to stay in college, and it’s not fair for them to spend a year catching up on skills they should have been able to master in high school.”

Michele’s commitment to education is driven by a desire for an innovative system designed to meet the needs of every child. Michele says, “Our current education model was conceived in the industrial age. Since then, we’ve seen huge advances in transportation, electronics, and even phones – but most schools are still operating like they did 100 years ago.” Her vision for a newly designed education system involves an environment where every teacher and student has the autonomy to teach, and learn, the way that works best.

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Activist of the Month: Felix Vargas

League of Education Voters - September 2016 Activist of the Month

September Activist of the Month Col. Felix Vargas

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for September: Felix Vargas.

Retired Colonel Felix Vargas of Pasco, Washington, has taken on the charge of helping the League of Education Voters understand the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) at a local level so that we can ensure that children who need additional support are not denied tutoring services promised by the federal government. Col. Vargas advocates with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), and speaks regularly with Senator Patty Murray’s representatives and the local Pasco School District, which has not yet provided in writing the district’s plans for tutoring services.

About a year ago, Col. Vargas met LEV Community Organizer Ruvine Jiménez at a Pasco Citizens for Better Schools forum to support a school levy and he now meets with Ruvine at least once a week. He has since invited Ruvine to participate in two meetings with Congressman Dan Newhouse. These sessions have provided an opportunity to explain to the Congressman why it is important to maintain ESSA funding for the Tri-Cities region. Col. Vargas is working on what ESSA means for the community, such as adding resources for early learning programs like a pre-K learning center, and looking at how schools provide information and how they are evaluated.

Thanks to his work, the Tri-Cities community now has access to senior levels of leadership in government and education. Deputy State Superintendent Gil Mendoza has recently spoken on two occasions to the community on ESSA. Col. Vargas participated in an OSPI candidate forum in July and is helping to organize another similar forum this fall.

Col. Vargas also meets with a Latino parents’ group monthly to discuss why students are under-performing. He explains, “Beyond the obvious factors of language, culture and socioeconomic standing, we believe that the quality of instruction and teaching credentials have to be assessed and weighed as well. Our parents want a 360-degree review.” He listens closely to what the Latino parents say, and then holds quarterly meeting with the Pasco School District’s Parents Advisory Committee.

Col. Vargas is not shy about talking to anyone. He held concurrent careers in the U.S. Government as a military and civilian officer. He served as a Foreign Service officer with the U.S. State Department and as a U.S. Army Reserve officer. Col. Vargas served two tours of duty as an Army Ranger and Special Forces officer in Vietnam. After retiring from the U.S. government, he entered the corporate world, serving as manager of sales and marketing for an American helicopter company in Mexico City, where he sold helicopters to the Mexican government and the private sector.

From 2006 – 2010, Col. Vargas returned to Washington, DC, to champion education and training opportunities for the newest generation of U.S. military veterans returning from wars in the Middle East. He received a White House appointment as member, then chairman, of the U.S. Advisory Committee for Veterans Business Affairs during this time. In April 2010, he accepted an assignment to work with U.S. and international agencies assisting Haiti following the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010. Col. Vargas lived in Haiti for a year.

In 2012, he returned to his hometown of Pasco, Washington, where his focus now is on his community in the Tri-Cities. He hit the ground running, forming the Consejo Latino (Latino Council) to serve as a discussion group on issues of interest to a diverse and dynamic Hispanic community, getting involved in community policing and economic development of Latino businesses.

Two years ago, Col. Vargas added advocacy for voters’ rights, rights for injured agricultural workers, and education. He started reading and learning about the local education landscape. He recalls, “I was surprised to find out that two of our elementary schools have 98 percent Latino students, and the schools overall are 70 percent Latino in the Pasco district. Times sure have changed.” Col. Vargas was the only Latino in his high school graduating class, and the only other Latino(a) in the school at the time was his younger sister.

Education has now become a core issue for Col. Vargas. He recently met with the superintendent of Educational Service District 123 in Pasco to discuss developments and approach in such areas as early learning and bilingual education. He always expects and looks forward to civil and productive conversation. He says, “I will continue to collaborate with community providers and other partners at the State and Federal levels to seek solutions to the many challenges of education for all students. Let’s keep up the drumbeat.”

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Activist of the Month: Vanessa Hernandez

August Activist of the Month Vanessa Hernandez and family

August Activist of the Month Vanessa Hernandez and family

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for August: Vanessa Hernandez.

The Every Student Counts Alliance (ESCA) is a new collaboration between organizations and individuals in Spokane working to end the overuse of suspension and expulsion in Spokane Public Schools and to eliminate disparities in rates of suspension and expulsion of students of color and students with disabilities.  LEV is part of the Alliance, along with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and its Youth Policy Director, Vanessa Torres Hernandez.

As Vanessa explains, “The Spokane district has discipline rates that are some of the highest in the state, disproportionately applied to students of color, Native American students, and students with special needs.  Spokane has a lot of challenges, and making a difference in this community will impact the lives of thousands of students and set a positive example for the rest of the state.”

One of the primary goals of the Alliance is to promote positive and restorative school cultures, where teachers and students feel equally supported, individual needs are met and voices are heard.  This ensures that students remain in school on a path toward academic and life success.

Vanessa comes to this work both as a legal advocate and as a former teacher.  A native of Guam, Vanessa grew up in a family devoted to public service.  During college, she taught in after-school and summer school programs throughout the country and also volunteered in public schools.

After receiving her M.Ed. in Teaching and Curriculum from Harvard University, Vanessa began a teaching career at Roxbury Preparatory Charter School in Boston, a charter school serving low-income students of color.  She was moved by how the students who faced steep academic and socioeconomic challenges excelled in a school focused on student and teacher support and achievement.

Taking the experiences, lessons, and memories from teaching in Boston, she transitioned into teaching 7th graders in Washington state.  Her class focused on empowering students with knowledge, developing their skills to understanding bias, evaluate information and advocate for what they believe is right.  Vanessa then transitioned to the University of Washington School of Law, where she participated in a public service law program.

Vanessa first worked with the ACLU as an attorney with a project focused on criminal justice reform and the challenges facing people returning from prisons and jails.  After a short time working with ACLU, she realized that she loved how they employed a long-term view and relentless push for justice, similar to her work ethic and mindset.  This year, she will celebrate her five-year anniversary with the organization.  Vanessa started in the litigation department and moved in October 2015 to the position of Youth Policy Director, where she continues her passion for helping others and using the power of the law to contribute to social movements.

Promoting student success was an important concern  this past legislative session, and it led to  passage of the Opportunity Gap Bill (HB 1541).  Vanessa says it is a great first step in the right direction, in terms of recognizing that a student’s behavior should not affect the education he or she receives.  But she adds that there is a lot more progress to be made.

Vanessa’s hope for the future is to strengthen the fundamental building block of ACLU, ESCA and LEV’s progressive work in education by coalition-building and community.  She says, “These two aspects are incredibly important because change occurs when people are working together, listening to one another, and exposing themselves to the stories and challenges out there.”

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Activist of the Month: Mary Fertakis

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activist of the Month for June: Mary Fertakis.

June Activist of the Month Mary Fertakis in Senegal with Ibrahim N'Diaye, her village father

June Activist of the Month Mary Fertakis in Senegal with Ibrahim N’Diaye, her village father

For more than two decades, Tukwila School Board member Mary Fertakis has been fighting for people who have been marginalized – denied opportunity by race, place of birth, or government.

She first became involved with LEV in 2007, when simple majority for school levies was on the ballot. Mary worked on that issue through the Washington State School Directors Association before meeting LEV co-founder Lisa Macfarlane at Tyee High School in Sea-Tac. “The key for both WSSDA and LEV’s advocacy on that issue was separating levies from bonds,” Mary explains.

Mary has seen change happen when multiple groups from different sectors have been working on an issue separately and then converge, like the spokes of a wheel. Mary saw it most recently with early learning. She says, “UW research in early childhood, brain development, and I-LABS, plus the health and early learning communities, non-profits/funders, and K-12 education leaders all got the message out. Each entity had a touch point so different audiences could connect with why it’s important.” And she saw the result in a recent, successful Tukwila School District bond measure that included a Birth to 5 center.

The education world has been with Mary throughout her life. Her father taught in the Seattle School District and her mother was a scientist, running the University of Washington’s pathology lab for years. She credits her parents for instilling values that are important to her. They discussed weighty issues, took her to the fire station when they voted (in every election), and exposed her to different cultures through travel and the UW’s international students who worked in the lab. She grew up in Seattle when social justice issues made regular headlines and her family was part of activist efforts through the faith community to re-settle Hmong and Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s.

But joining the Peace Corps to work in Senegal for 2½ years affected her most deeply. “That’s when I saw firsthand how education can break the cycle of poverty,” Mary says. She lived in a village about 2 miles from the border of The Gambia, “the middle of nowhere,” and focused on rural development. Her program’s goal was to help village communities build a self-sustaining infrastructure where none had existed. “I learned what you need for a community to become self-sustaining.”

Mary wrote 11 grants and every grant got funded, which allowed her village to build a school, dig a well, start a health hut, build fuel-efficient stoves, engage in reforestation efforts, ensure that every family compound and the school had a latrine, build a grain storage facility, and create a 1-hectare garden that improved access to food and spawned micro-enterprise, with the excess produce sold at the weekly market in The Gambia. She even brought in a millet-pounding machine, which saved village women significant time on a daily chore and was an income source as women from surrounding villages paid to use it. The combination of freeing up the women’s time and creating an income source enabled them to launch a tie-dying business. Mary says, “It could not have been more perfect.”

Transitioning back to the U.S. was hard. It took a year for her to not feel nauseated when she walked into a grocery store. “I couldn’t handle an entire aisle of cereal boxes,” Mary explains. “Senegal is a drought county. When the villagers didn’t eat, I didn’t eat. Seeing so much food was overwhelming.”

Everything she’s been able to do since that experience has been icing on the cake. Mary has had the unique privilege, by the time she was 27, of knowing that she made a difference in the world. She and her husband provided some financial support for one of her village brothers to attend college – the first person from the village to do so. He graduated and now teaches in a town with Internet access, which has given her a way to stay in touch with her village. She took her oldest son to visit when he was 5 years old, and longs for the day she can take her youngest son to meet his Senegalese family.

Living in Tukwila, Mary feels like she’s still having the Peace Corps experience. She empathizes with the challenges of many of the district’s students and their families – what it feels like to be dropped into a foreign culture and having to deal with full immersion. “It’s exhausting,” she says. “People here don’t understand how long it takes to learn another language, what the cultural norms are, and many of the basics of everyday life in a different culture.”

Mary had no idea she would still be on the Tukwila School Board more than 20 years after first running for office in 1995. She has watched the district change dramatically, shifting from a majority Caucasian, blue-collar, Boeing town to an ethnically-diverse school district where Caucasians are now the minority. She found it incredibly helpful that she had the experience of living in a Muslim country. Bosnians first arrived in Tukwila, then Somali refugees. Mary was able to help incorporate Muslim cultural issues like Ramadan, food, and health concerns into district awareness and policy.

At some point in her busy life, Mary wants to write a children’s picture book based on an experience during her time in Senegal that she shares with students when she does presentations and is explaining the concept of “world view.” In her village, which still has no electricity, nights are pitch dark with an explosion of stars. Her mother sent a book of constellations so she could learn about them. Mary told her village father that it contained drawings of what is in the sky and asked if they had something similar in their culture. When he responded, “yes” she pointed out the Big Dipper, describing it, in Wolof, as “a box with a stick coming out of it – we call that the Big Spoon.” Her father looked at it, and after a few moments, said that he saw that image – and that they call that cluster of stars the Elephant. After a few moments, she was able to see that also (the Dipper handle is the trunk, the rest of the constellation are its legs). Mary says, “So here we were, looking at the same thing and seeing something completely different based on our life experience.”

Now, when Mary gazes at the night sky in Tukwila, sometimes she looks at the Big Dipper and sometimes she looks at the Elephant.

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Activist of the Month: Nancy Chamberlain and Wendy Reynolds

At the League of Education Voters (LEV), we recognize all of the hard work that you do toward improving public education across Washington state. We are pleased to announce our Activists of the Month for May: Nancy Chamberlain and Wendy Reynolds.

Nancy Chamberlain (L) and Wendy Reynolds are the May Activists of the Month

Nancy Chamberlain (L) and Wendy Reynolds are the May Activists of the Month

Nancy Chamberlain and Wendy Reynolds started a Facebook page about the Northshore School District that has grown from 10 members to nearly 1500 in less than a year.  It’s become a lively forum for parents to ask questions and share opinions about topics ranging from school power outages to gender-neutral bathrooms, how money is spent in the district and grade reconfiguration due to the arrival of a new high school.

Nancy became a LEV activist in 2007, when her daughter was in first grade.  Nancy says, “I first met (LEV State Field Director) Kelly Munn when she came to a friend’s house to talk about education funding and how our state’s school system wasn’t attracting people to move here to work for Microsoft.”  Since then, she has been a regular at school board meetings and has worked on several standing district committees, such as the curriculum committee and start time task force.

Wendy met LEV CEO Chris Korsmo through a family relative.  Wendy says, “My son’s half-day kindergarten class had 32 students and his teacher felt she couldn’t do anything about it.  Chris hooked me up with Kelly Munn and I’ve been involved with LEV ever since.  My son is in sixth grade now.”

Nancy and Wendy’s Facebook experience began when Wendy worked on a page dealing with Northshore School District start times.  The group had less than 100 people involved and was focused on a single issue until Sharon Taubel, LEV’s January 2015 Activist of the Month, put up an article about a different topic.  “That gave Wendy the idea to start a page involving broader education themes,” says Nancy.

Right now, the Northshore School District discussion group’s main focus is preserving the Junior High Challenge Program, which provides a more rigorous curriculum for all students.  Nancy says, “We need to make sure our kids have what they need to go to a four-year college.  Our district is geared to start algebra in 9th grade, which means many students don’t get calculus in high school.”  Nancy is encouraging concerned parents to email the school board and students are circulating petitions to save the program.

When asked about her vision for the Facebook page, Wendy says, “I want to work with the district to make the Northshore School District #1 in the state.  I’ve seen a lot of little changes over the years but the biggest thing is that people are paying attention now.  Social media makes it easier to get information out.”

And Nancy’s goal focuses on parental engagement.  In her words, “It’s all about getting new parents involved.  I’m using the Facebook page to tell people what’s really going on.”

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