Tri-Cities ‘exceptional’ student advocate is 1st Latina president of national principals group

Scott Seaman was looking for someone to serve on the board of the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

He wasn’t looking to pluck just any school principal out of the blue — this person had to have a diverse perspective, be a community leader and a positive contributor to a board that oversees middle and high school principal advocacy work.

That person was Raquel Martinez, the recently hired principal of Isaac Stevens Middle School in Pasco, WA.

Fast forward five years and now Martinez, 40, will soon lead the board as its elected president.

She will be the first Latina and first Washingtonian to serve as president since the organization’s creation 107 years ago.

“It’s super humbling,” she told the Tri-City Herald. “I’m super blessed. I feel fortunate that I’m provided this opportunity and that I have the support from my superintendent, my colleagues and my other bosses, and from our state.”

It’s a big step forward for Martinez, who has taught and worked in Pasco School District for 17 years and dedicated countless hours to her students and families. She vows to “work tirelessly as a voice for my fellow principals and advocate for our students.”

Raquel Martinez
Raquel Martinez

“She’s a phenomenal education leader in the Pasco School District. Her experience and passion will make her an exceptional advocate for all students and educators within this new role,” said Pasco Superintendent Michelle Whitney.

NASSP is a national organization serving principals at middle schools and high schools. The group builds professional development opportunities, allows principals to connect with one another at conferences, and advocates for school leaders in statehouses and in Washington, D.C.

The organization is best known for founding and managing the National Honor Society and National Student Council.

In her new role, Martinez will preside over the board’s business and help lead the organization. Her term as board leader will begin in 2024.

Martinez said NASSP has helped her realize that she’s not alone in her professional struggles and experiences. She’s taken use of the organization’s support systems and resources to be a better leader and educator.

“I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing right now if I hadn’t been led, guided and coached by people who led me here,” she said.

‘I love Pasco’

Martinez started her teaching career in Pasco 17 years ago, first as a biology teacher at Pasco High School and later as an administrator.

She’s one of the school district’s loudest supporters.

“I love Pasco,” she says emphatically.

“The reason why I love Pasco is I love the community and I love the kids I’m serving. It’s kind of like a culture thing. I can relate to a lot of our students — where they’re coming from and where they’ve been,” she said.

“It’s consistent, professional development for my staff. It’s collaboration, it’s alignment. It’s in the right work based on research that’s going to get us the biggest impact on our student learning.”

Martinez also worked a year as Pasco High School’s bilingual facilitator before taking on the assistant principal role at Stevens.

She tied it back to the district’s “outrageous outcomes” — a list of guiding goals that aim to ensure each and every student meets 3rd grade reading standards, passes ninth grade algebra, ends their freshman year on track to graduate and eventually graduates with a career path outlined.

Martinez’s family has also bought into Pasco’s education culture. Her husband teaches at Pasco High School and her three kids attend class at Pasco schools.

At Stevens Middle School, a central Pasco school, staff work tirelessly and passionately to serve all 950 students in the classroom, Martinez said.

“They help fill my bucket, my students help fill my bucket,” she said.

The school is entirely Hispanic — roughly 95% — and half are English-language learners, according to the Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Martinez said families still are often surprised to learn that their principal is a young, hardworking Latina who has deep ties to Eastern Washington.

“I see that even more so when I’m talking to our families and even our students. When our students at Stevens see that, they relate to me when I’m speaking Spanish, or when we’re speaking in Spanish,” she said. “It is important and I’m realizing that as well.”

Immigrant parents

“The decision to approach Raquel was easy,” said Seaman, executive director of the Association of Washington School Principals, about her serving on the national board. “Diversity aside, her reputation in the region as a tremendous student-centered leader and tireless advocate for creating a hope-filled school is why I approached Raquel.”

Seaman said she “still leads with humility” while advocating at the national level to serve principals and assistant principals. She’s also a “true blessing” to education.

In a public statement, NASSP CEO Ronn Nozoe characterized Martinez as a “visionary and collaborative leader with a proven track record of developing those same qualities in others.”

“We know she has the experience, character and passion needed to advocate for an equitable system that works for all students and educators,” he said.

Martinez, who tends to stray from the limelight, doesn’t see it that way — at least, not entirely. She said she never thought she would want to serve on the board, let alone serve as president.

“Have you ever heard of the impostor syndrome? Sometimes, I’m like, ‘Am I really the most qualified person to do this?’” she said.

Martinez’s family immigrated to Grandview from Mexico, though she grew up in Quincy. The daughter of agriculture workers, her parents tended to fields of asparagus, onions, potatoes and the apple orchards that lined the Yakima Valley and Mid-Columbia.

She grew up in poverty, but found a way to break the cycle, she said. Martinez hopes for the same for the families they serve.

Roughly 94% of Stevens Middle School students and their families are designated low-income. Martinez said she knows how long and hard their families work, and the financial strain they can be under.

“I think (we need to understand) the time we have with our students is super valuable,” she said. “Our kids are coming to the table with different things. It’s difficult to support at home when our families are having to work, work, work.”

Students today are also dealing with an heightened struggle with mental health due to the COVID pandemic, too, and Martinez said she’s seen its impact in her classrooms.

She’s grateful for the expanded resources the Pasco School District has invested in — including the addition of free virtual mental health therapy through Hazel Health.

As accessible and widely used as it is, Martinez said it’s not for everyone and sometimes students and families can’t come to a consensus to use it.

As a member of the NASSP board, Martinez has served on the Advocacy and Governance committees. She currently chairs the Governance Committee, leading efforts to revise board policies to better serve students and school leaders.