Published: May 2, 2023 By

Journalist turned elementary school principal credits her time at PCDP for supporting her and making her voice feel heard.

Growing up in Westminster, Colorado, Lisa Martinez, who is now a principal at Columbine Elementary school in Boulder, was one of five kids in a family of dysfunction. 

She was exposed to poverty, alcoholism and abuse at a young age. At 14 years old, her stepfather kicked her out.

“I never knew where I was going to sleep or eat,” she said. “I stayed with friends until their parents started asking questions.”

Oftentimes they would ask Martinez if she needed to return home. If her parents missed her or were worried about her. She only had one solution when this situation would arise: find somewhere else to sleep.

Nights spent on a friend’s couch or in the local motel became normal and her teachers began to notice. They would extend the deadlines on her homework assignments, or offer Martinez some extra support after class.

As a high school freshman, Martinez was approached by a teacher who praised her writing ability. She was asked to join the school newspaper. 

“That was the first time somebody noticed or paid attention to me,” Martinez said. “It gave me a reason to come to school, or at least, find a way to get to school.”

Martinez was soon approached by her school’s counseling department and asked to join the Precollegiate Development Program (PCDP)

An opportunity fuels motivation and purpose

Lisa Martinez and a few of her fellow PCDP alumna attending their saturday sessions at CU Boulder together in 1995

At the top of the page: Lisa Martinez, PCDP alumna and principal at Columbine Elementary school smiling in front of student artwork. Above: Lisa Martinez (top) posing with fellow PCDP friends at one of their saturday sessions on the CU Boulder campus in 1995. 

PCDP is designed to provide first-generation students and their families with the information and support needed to successfully complete their middle school and high school careers, and then successfully transition into college, university or other postsecondary education.

Flattered, Martinez accepted the invitation to the program from her school’s counselors despite not knowing much about it.

“Even though it wasn’t my family, people were paying attention to me,” Martinez said. “They wanted me to join. They said I had to do this. And so right away, a bus started coming to pick us up for our Saturday sessions.”

PCDP quickly became the structure and function that Martinez needed, she said. With all the chaos in her life, going from home to home and figuring things out on her own, PCDP was the calming and settling factor. It was a stable, uplifting community of people whom she was able to learn from along the way.

“They started paying attention to my grades and holding me accountable,” she said. “When we had the summer program, they made sure I was involved. And it gave me a place to live for a few weeks.”

Being on the streets with gangs and drugs all around her, “I could’ve easily just dropped out like no big deal,” Martinez added. “But people were paying attention to me and holding me accountable. It gave me a reason and a purpose.”

When Martinez was 16 years old, the program helped her apply to college. They helped her fill out her FAFSA forms and scholarship applications. They even helped her file for emancipation, declaring her independence through the courts.

She was accepted into CU Boulder and would later graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. 

“I would have never thought I was smart enough to be a college student,” Martinez said. “I thought I was going to be a dropout or whatever. PCDP gave me the belief that I can be something freaking amazing. That was the biggest thing.”

Capitalizing on the opportunity, navigating the chaos

After college, Martinez spent six years as a reporter in the Denver metro area at outlets like The Denver Post, the Colorado Springs Gazette and the Greeley Tribune.

“I covered immigration stories or the migrant trail from Mexico to the United States,” Martinez said. “I just thought it was my mission to tell their stories.”

Martinez was recognized for her work covering underserved communities, which she found fulfilling. She received multiple first place, state-wide recognition awards from the Colorado Press Association for her investigative pieces on racial profiling in the city and misconduct in the education system.

However, Martinez had a daughter while she was in college. As a single mom, it became difficult to balance work and the wellbeing of her little girl.

“Sometimes I had to take my daughter to my neighbor’s house at two o’clock in the morning so she could sleep there and I could go cover an accident, or whatever situation was going on,” she said. “After six years, I said to myself, ‘this is not what I want my life to be about.’ For my daughter, I want a quality of life.”

Her search for balance and stability led her back to school, this time for her teaching license. She spent the next 10 years as a classroom teacher, all of which at high poverty schools with high Latinx populations. It was a drastic change, but, she says, still in line with her initial goal: to champion and fight for underrepresented students and families in the field of education.

Martinez eventually received her master’s degree and principal’s license from the University of Denver. She then spent the next six years as both an assistant principal and principal at Title I schools—or schools that are designated as high poverty—until she finally became principal at Columbine Elementary.

“I’ve always had that fighter in me,” Martinez said. “I fight for my community, and I’ve had to fight for every new position I’ve gotten. It’s like a higher elevation of what power you have and what else you can contribute to the underserved community.”

The culmination and the current mission

Lisa Martinez, principal at Columbine Elementary and PCDP alumna laughing with her students in the classroom

Lisa Martinez laughing with her students in the classroom. 

Martinez says she knows that she isn’t just a leader of an elementary school: She’s a leader of a community. She’s also a leader of a program that aims to completely change the landscape of schooling and bilingual education.

“Our dual-language program is in the spotlight,” Martinez said. “Being bilingual is an asset and I want to be the model for other schools and districts.”

Equity in education for administrators and educators is also important to Martinez. Martinez said that it took six years as an assistant principal to be promoted to principalship when others with the same experience and knowledge were promoted in one. She believes the dual language program and other professional development opportunities can help her mentor and bring up the next generation of diverse, bilingual educators and school leaders.

On the student front, Martinez’s main goal is navigating the wide Boulder demographic by providing an education that benefits, supplements and supports all.

More than half of the student population at Columbine is Latinx and Spanish is their first language. Martinez says it could be hard for these students to hold onto that heritage in a landscape like Boulder.

“We’re trying to reclaim their language and their culture,” she said.

The other half of the student population is primarily white, higher income students. They may be more familiar with the city’s demographic, but their families want them in the dual-language program, too.

“I have to find a way to integrate the two,” she said. “We’re constantly advocating for both of them.”

To address this matter, Columbine is planning to roll out a dual-language strand next year where English and Spanish speaking students will be in a combined classroom starting in preschool and kindergarten. Instead of navigating learning and cultures separately, the two groups will navigate them together and support each other. 

Martinez is most concerned, though, with ensuring that her students feel safe, comfortable and inspired. In her time as a student, it was the leaders and community within PCDP that made her feel significant. She aspires to be that same person for her group.

“I need to show my students today that I see them,” she said. “I see them and I care about them. I love them and I’m going to fight for them. Somebody paid attention to me, so it’s important that I pay attention to them.”