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.”

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.”

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.

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.”

Activist of the Month: WA Charters

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WA Charters is the April Activist of the Month

To save public charter schools in the 2016 legislative session, LEV partnered with the Washington State Charter School Association.  It took a whole lot of people to do the job.  And many stepped up repeatedly to make a call or a bunch of calls, sign a petition or send an email.

Below are some statistics on what WA Charters’ Act Now for Washington Students campaign accomplished.  There is no doubt that this campaign had an incredibly robust grassroots effort that was organized, efficient, and one that made an incredible impact on legislators.

The campaign did the following:

From February 8 through March 10, at least ten callers every day made 15 calls each.  And other calls happened organically.  These calls were made in Seattle, Tacoma, Spokane, East King County, Pasco, Yakima and Walla Walla for a total of 8105 calls.

WA Charters also organized two rallies in Olympia.  The November 11 rally brought 400 people on campus and the February 25 rally brought 575 people to the state Capitol.

Approximately 45 people testified in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education committee, 70 people testified in the Senate Ways and Means committee and 90 people testified in the House Education committee.

Two parents attended 74 meetings with legislators.

At least five parents visited the state Capitol every day from February 29 to March 9.

Parents made and delivered four dozen cookies to 15 legislative offices.

Parents created and delivered over 300 session survival kits.

Parents created and delivered nearly 200 Thank You kits to legislative aids.

WA Charters mailed over 300 holiday cards to legislative offices and mailed over 300 Valentine’s Day cards to legislative offices.

Parents organically organized six big phone bank nights.

Hundreds of phone calls a day went to the Governor’s office since March 10, the day the bill was passed in the Senate.  These calls were made from parents, students, family members and tireless advocates from Seattle, East King County, Pasco, Yakima, Spokane and Tacoma.

Finally, 300 letters were signed and mailed from Yakima asking Governor to sign public charter schools Senate Bill 6194.

LEV would like to extend a huge Thank You to the Washington State Charter School Association and the thousands of volunteers who stepped up for our kids.  We couldn’t have done it without you!

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Candidate Forums

Olympia - LEV OSPI Superintendent Meeting

Candidates who want to lead Washington’s school system as its next superintendent will speak at forums around the state.  If you know of any other scheduled OSPI candidate forums, please email info to LEV Communications Director Arik Korman

OSPI candidates advancing to the general election November 8:

  • Erin Jones, a Tacoma Public Schools administrator. Listen to her interview with LEV HERE
  • State Representative Chris Reykdal (D-22). Listen to his interview with LEV HERE
Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Erin Jones (L) and Chris Reykdal
Superintendent of Public Instruction candidates Erin Jones (L) and Chris Reykdal
Date Location Time Address

If you are unable to attend a live candidate forum, TVW will carry them. Info HERE

Watch the October 5th Woodinville candidate forum HERE

Note: The League of Education Voters is not promoting or endorsing either candidate.

Activist of the Month: Darcelina Soloria

March 2016 Activist of the Month Darcelina Soloria
March 2016 Activist of the Month Darcelina Soloria

Darcelina Soloria met LEV Policy Director Amy Liu in October 2015 after Amy sent out public charter school information to parents.  Darcelina was moved to take action and led a phone bank effort in December, organizing 15 people who each made 10 calls in a single night.

Since then, Darcelina has led 5 more phone bank events where she encouraged fellow volunteers to make 15 calls each time, urging legislators to support a fix for public charter schools.

Darcelina’s own public school education went without a hitch until high school, where she was able to pass algebra only because of help from a classmate.  Her math teacher was emotionally unavailable and did not offer any extra support.  She also did not know how to write a paper.

As you can imagine, Darcelina was paralyzed when she started community college.  But thanks to instructors that were a better fit, she surprised herself by earning an A in English.  She transferred to 4-year institution right out of community college and continued her upward learning trajectory with an A in English 101 out of the gate.

Darcelina realized her troubles in high school weren’t her fault – she just didn’t have the right teachers to match her learning style.  Now she has an accounting degree.

Darcelina and her husband hadn’t planned on having children.  When she found out she was pregnant with her son, it was a big surprise.  She started thinking about educational options but lived in Hillyard, a Spokane neighborhood not associated with good public schools.  And she couldn’t afford private school.

When looking at kindergarten prospects, Darcelina thought about Montessori but found Spokane International Academy, a public charter school that opened in Hillyard last year to help that historically underserved community.  Darcelina applied and was thrilled when her son got in.

Darcelina appreciates the school’s focus in on kids and how they learn.  She also is impressed by SIA Head of School Travis Franklin’s goal of helping students become community-minded and globally-oriented.

In kindergarten, her son is now speaking Spanish and writing papers.  When he started, he was at pre-K level.  By the time he gets to 8th grade, Darcelina believes he will have a clear understanding of how he can become a great citizen locally, statewide and globally.

Darcelina and her son don’t want to see their school taken away.  Darcelina says, “If we look at charters as a learning environment, why don’t we roll them out in other places?  These are pockets of where we can learn how to better teach our kids.”

Activist of the Month: Ambassadors of Lakeview Achieving Success

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: a student group called the Ambassadors of Lakeview Achieving Success, or ALAS. Read more about ALAS’ work to engage their community.

Students from Ambassadors of Lakeview Achieving Success (ALAS)

Students from Ambassadors of Lakeview Achieving Success (ALAS)

Maite Cruz testified for the first time ever this summer at the State Board of Education meeting in July. A rising tenth grader, Maite says she was “unbelievably nervous” but was determined to speak up about the importance of setting graduation requirements at a college-ready level (a level ‘3’ cut score) for Smarter Balanced assessments. She learned about the opportunity to testify after meeting League of Education Voters Community Organizer Ruvine Jiménez at aPasco Discovery Coalition meeting.

In her testimony, Maite asked the board: “If our own state doesn’t have confidence that we can achieve a ‘3,’ how will we ever have confidence in ourselves that we can succeed?” The State Board ultimately voted to set the cut score mid-way between a ‘2’ and a ‘3,’ but Maite’s testimony moved them. Later that same evening, Maite had the opportunity to sit next to Board Chair Isabel Muñoz-Colón at dinner, who expressed her gratitude for Maite’s testimony.

Along with Maite, her friend Diana Alonso also testified. Both Maite and Diana are members of a student organization, Ambassadors of Lakeview Achieving Success (ALAS). ALAS formed about four years ago, and Maite says her older brother was one of the founding members when he was in high school. The goal of the group is to grow community engagement in education and cultural events.

When they initially formed the group, ALAS members didn’t want to have any leadership roles—they wanted all of the members to have an equal voice. That turned into one of their “biggest challenges,” says Maite, because it made it much more difficult to stay organized. They ultimately changed their mind and created various roles within the group, with Maite taking on the role of president.

ALAS holds multiple events throughout the year, and one of their biggest events is a week-long summer camp for students in grade K–6. The camp is offered in English and Spanish and is organized entirely by the fifteen teenagers comprising ALAS. This year, ALAS enlisted the help of student teachers from Washington State University’s Tri-Cities campus, and they provided curriculum for the week.

Each day of the summer camp had a theme. One day, for example, was “Volcano Day,” and the students learned about, and made their own, volcanoes. Students attended the camp, which included lunch and snacks throughout the day, at no cost. This year was the third year of offering a camp; last year’s camp was covered in the Tri-City Herald.

Going forward, Maite says ALAS wants to make a more concerted effort to engage all members of the community, in addition to students. They recently held a community “café event” for 16 families that both parents and students attended. The parents loved the event and enjoyed discussing community-wide concerns and issues. The Pasco School Board President attended the event, as well, and responded positively to the community voice.

ALAS is also planning an event in September in honor of Mexican Independence Day, and they are partnering with a health organization in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

And Maite? She says she’s not sure what she wants to do after high school yet, but she does know that she really wants to help out her community and give back to them in the same way that they have supported her.

Thank you to our advocates and activists

Thank youThe work that we do to improve public education is only possible thanks to the support of our activists and advocates—the parents, community members, students, and teachers who stand up and speak up. In order to recognize the difficult work that so many of our supporters do on behalf of all Washington students, the League of Education Voters began spotlighting the work of our “activists of the month” in late 2013.

Our activists of the month were selected for going above and beyond in their work for Washington students—in organizing, in testimony, in advocacy, and more. Before we break for the summer, we wanted to draw your attention to these activists once more. Read More

Activist of the Month: Gabriel Portugal

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: Gabriel Portugal. Read more about Gabriel’s advocacy and activism in his community.

Representative Dan Newhouse with the travelers from Washington. From left: Gabriel Portugal, Rep. Newhouse, Quontica Sparks, and Ruvine Jiménez.
Representative Dan Newhouse with the travelers from Washington. From left: Gabriel Portugal, Rep. Newhouse, Quontica Sparks, and Ruvine Jiménez.

Gabriel Portugal has been involved in his community for his entire career. A retired educator, Gabriel served two terms on the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs. As Commissioner, Gabriel founded Washington’s Latino Legislative Day (now known as the Latino Civic Alliance) to empower members of the Latino community to advocate for themselves and their families. Gabriel says he declined to serve as Latino Legislative Day Board member for more than four years because he believes that “when you’re in a position of power for too long, you lose your efficacy as a grassroots activist.” Read More