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Tanya Martinez: A UMKC Institute for Urban Education success story

George Carver teacher Tanya Martinez
Posted at 1:32 PM, Mar 30, 2024

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As a first-generation college student, wading into higher-education’s waters was daunting and difficult at times for Tanya Martinez.

“I sort of had to figure it out, but that's what I liked about the IUE program,” she said. “It was not me figuring it out by myself. It was a whole team.”

Martinez spent her first two years at Donnelly College before transferring to UMKC, where the Institute for Urban Education — or IUE, as students call it — changed her life.

She’s now thriving as a first-grade teacher at George Carver Dual Language School — thanks, in large part, to UMKC’s IUE — and settling into a career that doubles as a deeply personal mission.

“My elementary was tough because I came as an only-Spanish speaker,” Martinez said.

Learning a new language was tricky, since none of her teachers could speak Spanish to help flatten the learning curve of learning a new language.

“My grades weren't the best, but it was not because I was not trying,” Martinez said. “It was because of the language-wise.”

Many teachers in her hometown of Belton, where she graduated in 2018, made a valiant effort to help Martinez, but she didn’t become fluent — and, thus, able to catch up to her grade level from an education standpoint — until fifth grade.

“I had teachers who tried their best and they would go out of their way to help me, but it was just harder,” she said.

It also inspired Martinez.

“From then, I knew — I was like I have to do this some way, some time, some day,” she said.

How to do it was another story entirely.

While her parents stressed the importance of college to her, Martinez said when she was young, “I did not know the meaning of college, but as soon as we — I say we, because it's my sister, too — as soon as me and my sister started elementary, they're (our parents) like, ‘You're gonna go to college,’ and I was like, ‘OK, is that a park or something?’”

At the IUE, Martinez found like-minded students and dedicated staff and faculty, who not only helped prepare her for the rigors new teachers face in school districts that often face challenges with funding, staffing and resources but have continued to support her.

“You don't only meet people who will help you at the moment,” she said. “It's people who will help you your whole career. When I say that, I mean it, because it's my first year of teaching and they still follow up.”

Martinez spent a year student-teaching with Kansas City Public Schools and stayed with the district full-time after graduating last May.

Students at George Carver start off speaking Spanish and slowly transition to English. In first grade, science is taught in English with a new subject transitioning from Spanish to English with each successive year.

Martinez relishes the chance to help smooth the path for a new generation of students in ways no one could for her.

“I do (see myself in the students), but I see them with more confidence,” she said. “Back then, I didn't have that.”

Royals Chairman and CEO John Sherman and his wife, Marny, are among the biggest supporters of the IUE.

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“The need is really immense,” UMKC Chancellor Mauli Agrawal said. “What the Shermans are doing is making a difference, but we could do this for 100 years and still need some more. But getting in at the base level to help educate and to realize that education is perhaps the platform that can lead to future prosperity for all of us, it's something that Shermans have recognized and they're willing to put the shoulder to the wheel to make it work for — at least the Kansas City community.”