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NATALIE SANTANA MELÉNDEZ

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Why did you become an educator?

Growing up I was an angry kid that was fed up with the education system and I was only 12. Growing up in what was called a title one school, we did not have many resources and we were also the feeder school for kids who had been sent to the alternative school in our district and expelled from their zoned school. At this middle school, I watched how my classmates and I were treated differently depending on the color of our skin. I also began to realize that we had become numbers on a roster and in exam scores. I did not feel humanized by the content in my classes.

Then in high school, I attended a wealthy school because my mom worked in the cafeteria allowing me to transfer there. This school was super segregated. My honors and AP classes were predominantly white with a few middle-class minorities. Still, from high school to middle school, not much had changed about the system, only that this school had the money for textbooks. I saw how divided our classrooms and hallways were. For a long time, I was not sure if it was a choice or opportunity but then I started to realize it was an opportunity. The counselor would question your decisions like taking four AP classes and if you could manage that. Then in AP classes, your English language learner status was brought up to explain your grammar. The students saw you as the hard-working kid of immigrants that might share their work for the sake of popularity or being noticed.

I remember how often I was told I was not like the “others.” Their faces would light up with embarrassment when I dared to ask why. It came to a point that, even with my opportunities, I did not want to be in school, much less go to college because that was for my rich classmates, not me. In all of this mess, a family member came into my life. Dr. Joe Suárez was someone I saw every year since I was a kid, but when I was in high school, he became more invested in talking about something else than his brother or wars. He started talking about college as if I had the potential to get in.

All I could think for a long time was is this man kidding me? But his words of encouragement would grow a seed in my brain that would flourish. I did not all of a sudden gain the confidence of being super smart, but this man, along with a few teachers down the road, would lead me in the way I needed to be led. I started tightening up and studying. Unfortunately, I needed mentors and educators to tell me I had the potential and show me my opportunities to imagine myself as more than I thought I was.

Then my senior year rolled around and I was completing my ninth AP classwork, dual enrollment, and math. That year something would spark in my brain feelings I had harbored as a kid. My school was transitioning into end-of-year testing in every class. All the feelings from middle school flush back in and I thought it was ridiculous that they were further standardizing academic success. I realized that in all this time of hating school I had developed a deep interest and caring for equitable education. Now I reflect on my final day in high school crying mad about the direction of the education system. My government teacher thought I was an irrational human for caring to the point of distress. I was determined that I would not leave it that way. I did not know what I was going to do but things had to change.

Fasts forward three years later and I graduate college in a completely unexpected political climate. A year before this accomplishment I had decided that the only way to give my education power was by sharing it. A few months after graduation I decided that I would become an educator because I needed to gain a different perspective. A year later I was preparing to enter the classroom.

I am an educator because life has called me here. The anger that I felt at 12 pushes me to change my kids’ experience and to push for more opportunities. As an educator, I work to be everything I wanted as a kid at school. I am also here to challenge the system by joining forces with others to change the very things I hated that have been backed by research to be racist and useless.

As an educator, my job is not only to prepare my students but to change education so that together we can change our worlds. I don’t do this because it is up to their generation to change the world. I do this because we need them to be part of changing the world. I want to awaken the potential in my kids because it takes one adult. I am here to also learn because children can offer us better solutions and ideas that need to be heard and amplified.

I am an educator because knowledge can only gain power when it is shared. I am an educator because I believe that education needs to change now! I am an educator because my kids do not need a savior or hero but just someone to lean on. I am determined to leave education different than I found it. A place where equity, creativity, and truth-telling are at the forefront, not profit.

What do you love about your school? 

I love that I have a voice. I can give feedback that gets administrations’ wheels turning. I have been lucky to have the ability to make math important and more than a test. I have had the opportunity to talk about racism and its existence in our every day. I love that I am allowed to teach kids about Hispanic leaders and Black female leaders in a math classroom. I can be an advocate for my students with my grade level and my campus. I also have an amazing team that has pushed for a culture that is more than academics. At my school, I am not alone in fighting for equity. We are a coalition that wants more and demands more. At my school, there have been spaces for students to share their experience and staff as well. It is a place where I can push for change and re-evaluation of systems without feeling fear of losing something.

Why is it important that lower-income children can attend schools of choice?

Unfortunately, because of the state of the education system, for many kids, this is the only way they will have access to resources and teachers that are still determined to be educators. Due to funding and redlining zones, schools rarely have the necessary resources to meet the individual needs of students. Choice schools are important because they allow parents and children to create opportunities. To be honest, I am not okay with the fact that they are the way to go if you want your child to have more educational opportunities, but they are the solution that has been instilled in low-income communities. They are just patchwork to a bigger issue because many kids are still left behind by inadequate education reform. They are important because families overwhelmed by oppression can find a short-term remedy to push their babies forward. My issue is that they are not the answer and we need to think bigger. Grassroots work is great, but it cannot stay at the bottom. It needs to move to the top and when it comes to the education system a lot of it has stayed at the bottom and created an illusion that we have come a longer way than we have.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I know I can seem radical in my ideas as an educator and leader but the thing is that the longer we wait to make lasting systemic change, the more radical it will seem because the reparations will have to be greater. Soon people will notice that schools have turned into a for-profit network that resembles that of prisons far too much. And some communities already are. I am tired of policies being reactive instead of proactive. As a previous human rights organizer, I knew that as the organizer my job was to be proactive and the people could be reactive. Schools and educators need to realize that the same goes for us. We can not continue to be reactive to inequities we must be proactive in addressing them because they are already occurring and only being exacerbated.

BECOME A VOICE FOR CHOICE
BECOME A VOICE FOR CHOICE