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The Opportunity of Choice

“I am, somehow, less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

I remember coming across that quote in one of my first years as a teacher and thinking it perfectly encapsulated the untapped talent and potential of communities that had been traditionally underserved by entire school systems. Communities like my own. I grew up in Oxnard, California, where I saw too many of my own classmates tyrannized by the unjust destiny of demographics and low expectations. When I was accepted to Stanford University, I committed myself to building a career that ensured that the potential I saw in my community and those like it would be nurtured and ignited. I committed myself to giving those like me the opportunity of choice – to choose a great elementary school and to be able to choose whatever college they wanted.

This spring, I watched one of my former students get to make that choice. Max Hermosillo chose from 20 different colleges – including Georgetown and Yale – to follow his passions to Columbia University.

But 9 years ago, Max and his potential could have easily been looked over because of common stereotypes and relegated to missed opportunities. Like me, Max was an English Language Learner. Like my own family, Max’s family immigrated to this country. His parents, like mine, held multiple hourly wage jobs and worked hard to provide for their family. Like me, Max might have not been seen as the “type” of kid who goes to a prestigious university. But to me, Max represented the types of students we see all the time at Rocketship Public Schools. Max’s potential was bursting at the seams – ready to be unleashed on this world.

In 2011, as a proud fourth grade teacher at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy in San Jose, California, I had the honor of welcoming Max into my classroom. Like all of my students, in Max I saw a future leader whose ganas would propel him to grow up to one day transform our community. Max had been at Mateo Sheedy since kindergarten, and each year we had seen his potential fostered and his talents expand as he took on new challenges. Max would immediately greet every task by diligently huddling over any assignment that reached his desk. Within minutes, Max’s hand would inevitably shoot up into the sky holding exemplary work and he would excitedly exclaim “I’m done! What’s next, Mr. Mateos? I’m looking for a challenge!”

I realized that Max was bringing 110% ganas to school with him everyday. Though I was trying hard, I knew that in order to keep up with and do right by Max, his potential, and our beautiful community, I needed to do more. I huddled with our grade level team, coaches, and our principal, Ms. Guerrero, to game plan. As a fourth grade team, we had not yet truly pushed the bounds of what we knew was possible for our students like Max. Here was an opportunity to push ourselves harder and higher with our personalized learning model.

Within weeks, we launched flexible groupings across the day, elevated how we used in-the-moment data to make instructional decisions. We pushed ourselves to design learning experiences relevant to our community’s context and meant to tap into and honor our neighborhood’s strengths and opportunities. We conducted research projects on topics of their choice, used our learnings around area and perimeter to design a playground, sought out partnerships with organizations to provide our students with environmental learning experiences through overnight camping, delved into Pam Munoz Ryan’s historical fiction novel Esperanza Rising, studied California history from the lenses of multiple perspectives and constructed a mission to pair with the accompanying narratives we wrote. By the end of the year, Max performed well above grade level and we cheered when he reached the 98th percentile nationally. The rest of his class and Rocketeers across our school achieved at high levels as well, thriving in our data-driven approach.

Max learned a lot that year, but honestly, I think I learned a lot more. Max may have been  my student, but he taught me how to be a better teacher. Those lessons that he taught me years ago, I carry with me today as we continue to push the bounds to serve our students.

Max’s family, our Rocketship team, and I fought for him to have the opportunity to go to college. We saw his potential. Now, the Ivy League sees it too. And, so does Georgetown. And, so does Santa Clara University. And, many more. Colleges are fighting for the opportunity to have Max on their campus.

The cruel destiny of demographics dictates that most students are confined by their zip code to have no choice in their futures. But Max, like all of our students, is unleashing his potential so that he has EVERY choice. I wish Max’s story was more commonplace. Max may be emblematic of our Rocketeers who we celebrate. But he is also a sad reminder of the millions of students who are still falling behind. Our Rocketeers’ remarkable progress is powerful proof of what is possible in public education and a sober reminder of the challenges that remain.

I don’t know exactly what these next few years have in store for Max (or rather what Max has in store for these next few years). But I do know that this is just the beginning. Max’s vast potential has only just begun to be unleashed.

But get ready, world, because the best part is that Max is not coming alone. Max is joining so many students like him already changing the narrative of their universities across the country. And behind Max, because of the incredible work of dedicated teachers across this country, come even more graduates- with talents equal and greater than that of the great thinkers and leaders who have shaped our world. This is only the beginning.



Juan Mateos is a Bay Area Director of Schools for Rocketship Public Schools. Before taking on a regional leadership position, Juan was principal of Rocketship Fuerza Community Prep. Juan earned his degree in Political Science from Stanford University, and after graduating became a teacher and assistant principal at Rocketship Mateo Sheedy. Each day, Juan is humbled by his students’ commitment to learn, to take on new challenges and to make themselves, their families and their community proud. Juan draws his inspiration from working alongside a team of parents, teachers and school leaders who fully expect our Rocketeers to be the future doctors, lawyers, engineers, mayors and teachers who will transform the community. Juan currently lives in San Jose where his twin loves of teaching and learning are only eclipsed by his infatuation with futbol, Oxnard and Valentina hot sauce. 


Published on August 6, 2021

Read more stories about: Education Reform, Equity.