Maestra Jeni and Los Gatitos

Martinez Fellow Jeni Estrada teaches first grade at Hilltop Elementary of Highline Public Schools where she refers to her students as ‘los gatitos’, Spanish for ‘little kittens’. Her school, whose student population is largely Hispanic, is a space where students can absorb lessons both in Spanish and English. Jeni shared that some of her students came from recent detention camps near Mexico. As an educator, she finds that she can be a beacon of support for these students. As a Spanish speaking Hispanic woman, she is proud to be able to meet students where they are at without language barriers playing a factor in academic success.

When thinking back to the time she first found out about the fellowship through TAF’s partner Seattle University, Jeni recalls her decision to apply to the Martinez Fellowship and shares that all the other scholarship opportunities just didn’t seem to fit. The fellowship recruits teachers of color to Washington State public schools, providing critical professional development, early-career coaching, and access to a community of educators with shared experiences. She admits that, prior to joining the fellowship, she never really felt worthy of such opportunities or valued for her unique identity. Yet, after taking the leap of applying which then resulting in an acceptance letter, her teaching career has changed dramatically.

“Growing up, I never had any teacher who looked like me which made me feel like people who looked like me didn’t grow up to be successful,” Jeni shared. Now that she’s become a part of the Martinez Fellowship Program, she’s been enveloped in a community of teachers of color who share similar experiences to her own, and says, she finally feels validated. 

“It makes me feel less alone to know there are others out there that have a passion for education. We are all working together to make education equitable and to help all of our students so that they don’t have the same struggles that we did in order to get to where we are,” she says.

“Growing up, I never had any teacher who looked like me which made me feel like people who looked like me didn’t grow up to be successful.”

Jeni Estrada, Martinez Fellowship, Cohort 10

At Hilltop, Jeni intentionally incorporates as much cultural representation into her classroom as possible. The morning circle is different for her class – even down to the way she takes attendance. As she calls out each student’s name, they respond in several different languages. Jeni says that, even though the school’s second language is Spanish, she finds ways to represent all of her students. Drawing from the cultures in her class, she researches and learns where she can insert pieces of her students’ cultures into her lessons.

For example, during Black History Month, Jeni found imagery of young Black activists to display throughout her classroom. One of the pictures celebrated a young woman who was both Black and Muslim. A girl Jeni’s class who is also Black and Muslim saw the picture and exclaimed with excitement, “Maestra Jeni, that girl is like me!” This was a proud moment that validated the student’s identity. To have a student identify and relate to their lessons has become a marker of her success as a teacher who served students of color, Jeni expressed.

Jeni looks forward to connecting with her students on a daily basis, and because of the Martinez Fellowship Program, feels confident to provide her young students a new normal — learning from a teacher who shares some of their own culural experiences.

“Maestra Jeni, that girl is like me!”

1st Grade Student, Hilltop Elementary

“We’re creating paths for them, That’s what TAF Martinez Fellowship has given me — those skills to help others, especially my students.”

Currently, there are over 180 Martinez Fellows in over 35 school districts throughout Washington State. TAF plans to increase each fellow cohort by ten every year, aiming to recruit 2,400 fellows by 2035.

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