Science of Success: Andrea Martinez minimizes obstacles for students, creates unique opportunities

Teaching science while serving as an administrator at King Academy Community School is, and has been, a family affair for Andrea Martinez.
Martinez’ son, who studies biochemistry at Cincinnati State, just spent his co-op session alongside his mother, serving as her teaching assistant this past school year. 
And it was Martinez’ own mother who initially helped found the West End school in 1982 — originally a private institution, known as Martin Luther King Academy — prior to its reopening as a charter school in 2004, which has made it more affordable and accessible to all.
While the Martinez family has grounded itself at King Academy for more than 30 years now, its familial ties extend beyond blood relations, as the school’s 152 kindergarten-8th grade students and 14 staff members operate as one.
And it’s Martinez’ mother whom Andrea credits as being a key influence in her philosophy that stresses the importance of going beyond the books to give of one’s self and educate the whole child.
“I was private school educated, so I had no idea that there was a group in society that just didn’t go to private schools, that didn’t have a good meal every day,” Martinez says. “We were very blessed and fortunate growing up, but I think what really opened my eyes to this need was, as I matured, seeing how committed my mother was to the success of these young people.”
One of six children, Martinez says she remembers her mother gathering up her gently used belongings, as well as those of her brothers and sisters, to give to her students.
“I remember thinking as a kid, ‘I don’t necessarily want to give my stuff away to someone else,’” she says. “Because I didn’t realize. But as I got older and worked closely with my mother, I saw the passion, I saw the need and I had a better understanding of what it was she was trying to do.”

'The kids know they really belong to all of us'
Passion for providing has now taken root in Martinez, who embodies the same attitude possessed by her mother. If a student needs bus fare, she — or any staff member at King Academy, for that matter, she says — has the student covered.
“Academics for us is very important, but we also understand our population is 100 percent free lunch, so we know nutrition is important,” Martinez says. “We know we have a high number of homeless, so we know that getting our students to community services is important. Informing parents about employment opportunities, that’s important. When we reach out and touch the family, we touch the child, so that’s what our mission has been.”

While many of the students do live in poverty, it’s merely a bump in the road to their continued academic success, as King Academy has been rated “excellent” or “effective” for the past nine years, slipping briefly into “continuous improvement” just once prior to jumping back up in its state rating.
“State standards are important,” Martinez says. “Making sure that we meet state guidelines, that’s very important. But a second grader doesn’t have any appreciation for any of those things.”
That’s why Martinez makes it her mission to also address her students’ social and emotional concerns, which she says include, “‘Who’s going to be at my house when I get home?’ ‘Who am I going to play with?’ ‘Do I get to go on a field trip?’ ‘Am I safe at school?’ ‘Do my friends like me?’ ‘Does my teacher love me?’”
But Martinez and her staff leave little room for doubt.
“The kids know they really belong to all of us,” she says. “We’re making sure that we’re getting rid of as many obstacles that would prevent them from learning as we can.”
And while she knows it’s impossible to remove all obstacles, Martinez goes out of her way to make up for those she can’t squelch with added opportunities — like creating a golf team, a marching band, guitar lessons and even Greek instruction.
“We partnered with an Orthodox Greek church, and the instructor is coming back again next year,” Martinez says. “It was absolutely awesome. My kindergarteners were so good at it. At graduation, they sang a song in Greek, and if you heard it you would’ve thought they were just singing it like ‘Old MacDonald.’ It was just so natural.”

Learning science, floating off the ground
King Academy students recently engaged in a unique opportunity with Cincinnati State, funded by the Grainger Foundation and facilitated by the Greater Cincinnati STEM Collaborative. Seven science aficionados spent a week of their summers back in school — this time on a college campus — learning about solar energy, battery charging, electric motors, drive mechanisms and designing, constructing and testing their own hovercrafts.
“The King Academy students really wanted to be there,” says Larry Feist, program chair and professor for Electro-Mechanical Engineering Technology at Cincinnati State.
Feist leads the STEM education program “It’s Electrifying” in conjunction with colleague Aaron Bloomfield and has done so for the past couple summers.

“This was June, summer vacation time, and they never once complained about participating," Feist says. “They did participate and they did learn."
They were engaged and excited about science, and that’s exactly what Martinez says she likes to see. The extra work allows her students to take critical thinking to another level but also opens so many more doors for them in the future.
“Statistically they’re least likely to be unemployed, and when you look at average income they always exceed the average income,” Martinez says.
Getting kids who are living in poverty excited about science, good at science and thinking of pursuing science as a potential career path has the potential to completely change family dynamics.
But it’s going to take more individuals like Martinez to allow more students to experience that fervor.
“That child’s never going to forget floating half an inch off the ground,” Martinez says. “She’s going home today, and she’s going to tell everyone she knows, starting at the marching band practice, that she just hovered above the floor. But a lot of the kids she tells, they’re not going to have any understanding of anything she’s going to say to them — that ‘We put this solar panel and this pipe insulation…’ — they’re not.

“And that’s what we’ve got to try to minimize. We’ve got to get to the other side of so many kids not having a firm grasp on science and math.” 
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Brittany York is a college educator, freelance writer, and the event producer for Ohio Civics Essential. She loves travel and photography. Keep up with Brittany on Instagram @brittbrittbrittbrittany.