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Charter school network helped families flex their voting muscle

Last fall, Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, a southeast Denver charter school, wanted to ensure its community had a voice in the upcoming elections.

RMP set an ambitious goal to match midterm elections by increasing family voter turnout by 7 percent. The school piloted an innovative approach to family engagement, resulting in a 10.7 percentage-point increase in family turnout in the November 2023 school board election.

Alicia Lorio, the Managing Director of Family Empowerment at RMP, alongside fifth-grade teacher Lydia Sawyer and pre-kindergarten teacher Isabel Nevarez, led the project by implementing strategies in and outside of the classroom.

The 2023 “Commit to Vote” campaign was based on the lessons learned from the previous election cycle. In 2021, Rocky Mountain Prep led a network-wide campaign to educate parents on the importance of voting in school board elections, where the turnout is typically very low.

As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, RMP’s focus was on helping families elevate their voice, rather than endorsing any specific candidate. The RMP network committed more than 300 families to vote across its four elementary campuses. The results demonstrated an effective way for schools to authentically engage with their community.

Reflecting on past efforts, Lorio noted the absence of campus champions to lead the work. This time, the project was a collaborative effort coming directly from educators and included activities to involve students and opportunities to talk to families about voting, ultimately leading to successful results.

Last year, RMP received a grant from Denver Families for Public Schools which enabled the teachers to lead this effort in sharing nonpartisan information and resources about voting with their school community.

Located on the border of Denver and Aurora, RMP Creekside is one of the most diverse campuses in the RMP network. Thirty-two different languages are spoken within the community and the school serves a significant immigrant population with students from more than 30 home countries.

Strengthening existing relationships

As the founding school for Rocky Mountain Prep, Creekside was chosen as the pilot site because it already had a robust family empowerment program and was also located in District 1 where families were voting for two different school board seats.

Pre-kindergarten teacher Isabel Nevarez, who has been part of RMP Creekside for seven years, was chosen for her strong relationships with families. “The community at Creekside is so special. I feel at home here and we have worked hard as a school to maintain those relationships to make every family feel heard and ensure they have a say in the daily life of their student, ” Nevarez said, emphasizing the respect and care that families show towards the teachers.

The project involved various strategies to engage students as well as families. For pre-K students, Nevarez related voting to choosing class party themes, teaching them the impact of collective decisions and managing emotions when their options weren’t chosen, tying it into their existing social-emotional learning curriculum.

This concept was extended outside the classroom to families, highlighting the significance of school board elections and the impact of elections on the school community.

Lydia Sawyer has been a fifth-grade teacher at RMP Creekside for the last five years when she joined as part of Teach For America. After leaving the U.S. Navy, she wanted to find a career where she could make the biggest impact on her community and concluded that teaching answered that call. Both of her children attended RMP Creekside and are now middle-schoolers.

“I love teaching at RMP Creekside because my values were met on a personal and professional level. I thoroughly searched for an elementary school that would provide an environment that would also be fruitful for my children who have felt loved, safe, and pushed academically since day one,” Sawyer said.

Mini-lessons and mock elections

The fifth-grade teachers conducted mini-lessons on voting, culminating in a mock school-wide election where students voted on different attendance incentives. The process included ballots and “I Voted” stickers, making the experience real and memorable for the students. The school also created and handed out “Vote” shirts in the top four languages spoken at Creekside to further rally the community around the election.

“This process helped promote voting awareness and stimulated our fifth-graders’ minds to fulfill their civic duties in the future. Opening the minds of soon-to-be middle schoolers by pushing them to be advocates for human rights was my most meaningful experience, specifically because they can support others’ learning and promote voting awareness themselves,” said Sawyer.

The fifth-graders’ final assignment was to write a letter to their families about why voting mattered and the school supported the students by translating the letters into their home language. Nevarez and Sawyer also spoke with parents about the upcoming election at drop-off and pick-up and shared resources in multiple languages with families on where to find more information and how to participate in the voting process.

“It was work, but it was fun to learn this new skill and communicate on a specific topic,” Nevarez said, expressing her motivation to continue advocating for her community. “We had to be careful in how we approached families and be mindful that we were just sharing information and not opinions. It fueled me to continue to advocate for our community.”

The 10.7 percentage-point increase in RMP’s family community turnout since the 2019 election was four times the growth of the city average. During the same time, Denver’s turnout increase was 2.5 percentage points.

“Being a part of a school that has families who speak one or two of 30-plus languages is huge and as a multilingual educator, I am grateful that I can connect with our Spanish-speaking families. I was pleased by our unity as far as the results of the campaign and I look forward to our future community accomplishments together,” said Sawyer.

The success of the initiative was marked by increased confidence among both teachers and a stronger connection with families. RMP Creekside plans to build on this momentum by involving more families and educators in future initiatives and is committed to maintaining its role as a hub for family empowerment.

Lorio, Nevarez, and Sawyer all received recognition for their efforts, winning education and community advocacy awards from Denver Families for Public Schools where they were honored alongside other Denver education advocates leading the charge for students and families in public schools.