As a native New Mexican, Isaac Rivas-Savell feels a sense of responsibility to the community of Albuquerque – a community made up of students and families of color who historically have lacked access to high-quality educational options. Isaac took part in the 2018 BES Fellowship, thanks to the generous support of Excellent Schools New Mexico, to fulfill his dream of building a school of his own, a school that his community desperately needed. He is the founder of Voz Collegiate Preparatory Charter School, a public charter school serving grades 6-8 set to open in August 2021. His multifaceted career in education spans more than a decade of dedicated service in New Mexico as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and a leadership role at the state level with the New Mexico Public Education Department.
Isaac recently talked to BES about Voz Collegiate and how the events of the past year have shaped the future of his school.
Your school’s mission is centered in student voice. Why is this important for Albuquerque students and the broader community?
Voz is more than the name of our school – it means “voice” in Spanish. When we harness the power of voice, we awaken the power of self. Tapping into that in every child opens up an entire world for them.
New Mexico is a state that is very rich in culture. When our students walk into the doors of our school, I want them to take a sigh of relief knowing their cultures will be seen, valued, and heard at our school, because I see myself in them, particularly children of color.
You have the unique perspective of being from New Mexico, where you’re opening your school. For leaders who are not from the community they serve, how can they be sure their schools are locally responsive?
Community engagement cannot be overemphasized. You have to immerse yourself, show up, and knock on doors. Show up to festivals and events, and don’t just be a visible presence for the sake of handing out a brochure. Come with no motive other than your desire to create authentic relationships. That is what will speak volumes about your school.
Educational spaces haven’t been designed for students of color or their families, and systems have often made it difficult for them to thrive. I was one of these students; I even reached out to my mom when writing my charter application and asked her what would’ve helped her to be more involved in my education. She said that as a woman of color who spoke with a heavy accent, she was intimidated by educators who didn’t look or sound like her. So, we want to redefine what the school experience can be for families and ensure our school operates alongside our community.
The past year has been difficult for educators across the board. What challenges have you faced as a founder this year, and how has that shaped your school design?
Working alongside my BES Follow On Support coach has been critical in identifying how education has rapidly evolved under these circumstances and pivoting our model to be responsive to those changes. I am rethinking everything with the time we have been given. The majority of our kids, especially here in New Mexico, haven’t been to school since March 2020. This year has illuminated inequities that some of us have always known were there. If we go back to business as usual, we do a disservice to families. So, we are re-examining the traditional school experience and what is relevant now versus when I originally submitted my charter application. For example, I’m considering details like reallocating my budget to plan for distributing WiFi hotspots and devices to families and ensuring that we have the infrastructure to support remote learning.
I’ve also diversified my marketing approach to prospective families. Before the pandemic, I was setting up tables at libraries, pizza places, and Family Dollar. That was easy. Once we went remote, I started reaching out to youth-focused organizations and nonprofits (like the Boys and Girls Club) to join their virtual events, hosting Facebook live videos and virtual info sessions, and pivoting to convert our pages into resource hubs to meet the needs of families and teachers – resources I’ve gathered throughout my career as an educator.
What is keeping you going this year as you work on opening your school during this time of uncertainty?
Our journey to opening the doors of Voz has been wrought with uncertainty from the start – from an initial denial, to a subsequent appeal, and a reversal of that denial and authorization at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. But, I remain focused on the fact that we need schools like Voz now more than ever. There were very few educators like me when I was growing up, especially educators of color who were a part of the LGBTQ community, so I feel compelled to be that leader for my future students. Visibility can be life affirming.
What’s next for Voz in the coming months?
I’ve been carrying this vision for over a decade, so my board and I want to assemble a team to carry out this vision with the same passion that we do. Kids are capable of breaking out of molds and being a force for change in their homes and communities. Our team will help students do that.
One of my professors once told me, “I want you to remember what it’s like to be a child. You’re teaching kids, not subjects.” This has resonated with me this year in particular. As we hire our founding team, we will be working on ways that we can focus on the social and emotional health of our kids – we have to get this right to ensure kids are able to succeed academically, especially during times like these.