Connecting community: Roaring Fork Schools’ Brianda Cervantes brings families, district together | PostIndependent.com
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Connecting community: Roaring Fork Schools’ Brianda Cervantes brings families, district together

Roaring Fork School District School-Community Organizer Brianda Cervantes talks with a preschooler at Riverview School during recess.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

A passion for helping people instilled in Brianda Cervantes as a child by her grandfather in rural Nayarit, Mexico, helped her land on her feet after immigrating to the United States as a young woman fresh out of law school.

That same passion eventually steered Cervantes toward a unique and important role with the Roaring Fork Schools soon after she enrolled her son, Freddy, at Riverview School in Glenwood Springs.

Cervantes, now 31, started in what at the time was a fairly new position of community liaison with Riverview when the new dual-language-focused school opened in fall 2017.



The idea was to better connect families of students at the pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school and, through a very intentional communication process, encourage them to engage more in their education.

Based on its immense success at Riverview, her role has since expanded into a districtwide school-community organizer position through a partnership with the Manaus Fund, serving schools and their families in all three district communities.



“My grandfather, he always used to say, ‘Whatever you do, you do the best,’” Cervantes said of her grandfather, Domingo.

When Cervantes was 15, her mother, Ana, came to the United States and her father, Miguel, was often busy traveling as a working lawyer in Mexico.

“So, in a way, I grew up with my grandparents,” she said.

A simple businessman with a small ice cream shop in their small town of Tepic, Nayarit, Domingo, because of his community activism, had some political connections.

Cervantes tells a story of when she was maybe only 6 years old, the governor of Nayarit came to Tepic, and her grandfather had her read a letter out loud that he had written to the governor. The local newspaper wrote a story about it with her picture and all. She hung onto the clipping for years as inspiration.

“My grandfather had a big passion for helping the community, and thanks to him, the little community where we lived had electricity for basic services,” Cervantes said. “He never went to school himself, but he was like a great politician, and everybody in the community would know and recognize my grandparents.”

Immigrant path

Cervantes’ grandfather died in 2007 when she was still in school in Mexico, and her grandmother died after she came to the United States.

After leaving law school, due to some difficulties in her life at the time, Cervantes joined her mother in the U.S. in 2013, helping her with housekeeping jobs before giving birth two years later to her son, Freddy.

She took a few years off to raise her infant son. When he reached preschool age was when she first set foot in Riverview School just as it was gearing up to open.

At the time, she didn’t speak English, but her law background caught the attention of the school’s family liaison at the time, Janeth Niebla.

Niebla encouraged her to consider applying for a job with the school to help implement the dual-language program, in which classes are taught in both English and Spanish.

Hesitant at first, in part because of the language barrier, as Cervantes became more involved at her son’s school, Niebla kept nudging.

When Niebla decided to leave the liaison position later that school year, she turned to Cervantes as a potential replacement candidate.

It took some persuading, but she eventually agreed and vividly remembers her interview with Niebla, Riverview Principal Adam Volek, former assistant principal Jami Hayes and the late Roaring Fork Valley education philanthropist, George Stranahan, founder of the Manaus Fund, Valley Settlement Project and the charter Carbondale Community School.

“It was hard, because I didn’t speak English, and I tried my best, but I didn’t think I did well,” she said. “A couple of days after that, they call me and say, well, that position is yours if you want it.”

Learning the language

It’s perhaps fitting that Cervantes grew into her new job with Riverview School in much the same way that its students learn a new language — with a lot of help from the front office staff, and even from those same students.

Cervantes never has taken any formal English classes. Instead, she learned on the job.

What really helped, she said, was when Volek approached her about working directly in one of the middle school classrooms, teaching students about how to be leaders in their community.

That interaction with the students forced her to learn the language in more of an intercambio (direct language exchange) setting.

“They were super helpful,” Cervantes said. “It was like I could be vulnerable with them and say, ‘This is my story, and this is who I am.’

“I think the kids connected with that, and they were helping me at the same time I was teaching them,” she said. “It’s been a learning path for me where every single day I learn something new.”

Roaring Fork School District school-community organizer Brianda Cervantes talks with a Riverview School Principal Adam Volek.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent

Volek acknowledged Cervantes’ role as a crucial one in the early development of the school’s unique learning approach.

“Brianda was a very important part of helping Riverview establish a place in our community and to ensure that equity was at the forefront of our work as an organization,” he said.

“Her role at the school helped in establishing avenues of communication between our school and our families, supporting one-on-one conversations, leading house meetings and providing our school with direction on what our community was needing and asking for in terms of inclusion and voice.”

Roaring Fork School District school-community organizer Brianda Cervantes plays with preschooler Kamilla Corral at Riverview School during recess.
Chelsea Self/Post Independent

Expanding voice

At Riverview, Cervantes worked side by side with the school’s parent leaders, school leadership and teachers and was instrumental in establishing the school’s Family Volunteer Organization, Parent and Community Advisory Committee and student leadership projects.

Not long after Riverview opened, leaders in other district schools started to take notice.

“We did a parent survey, and we scored super high on family engagement,” Cervantes said.

Other schools were looking to have that same kind of engagement, so what started as a sharing of strategies between the district’s schools grew into a new job for Cervantes in 2019 when Manaus agreed to expand her role to a districtwide school-community organizer position through the district’s Family Resource Center.

“A lot of it is just trying to meet families where they are and to break down some of the barriers,” Cervantes said. “It made complete sense that the work I was doing with Riverview needed to expand.”

As her focus grew to include working with families throughout Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt, she noted that some of the issues were different depending on the school or community, but people’s experiences were much the same.

“I was able to connect with them in a way that they will trust me,” Cervantes said.

That became incredibly important when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in spring 2020, shutting down schools and sending students to online classroom formats. Latino families in particular were not equipped to accommodate their children’s online learning the same as other families.

Cervantes and the school-based family liaisons played a critical role in communicating with individual families to identify their needs, working with district IT to get them set up with reliable internet connections and conducting one-on-one meetings to make sure they and their students continued to engage.

Many families were impacted by loss of employment and the resulting financial loss, so their work on rental assistance or health care access increased substantially.

“A lot of the school communications were only going out in English, so we needed to do something about that,” Cervantes said.

Facebook became a major platform for communicating with Latino families, as did Spanish-language radio, via Radio Tricolor and public radio station KDNK in Carbondale, she said.

Cervantes was asked to be one of those regular voices on the air, sharing information and giving updates. It was a role she said she embraced.

“Public speech is one of my passions, especially if it’s in Spanish,” she said. “I feel very comfortable speaking in public, and I think my career has prepared me for that.”

In Mexico, Cervantes attended public schools, but when she went to university she said many of her fellow law students had been through private schools.

“Honestly, I didn’t feel any disadvantage coming from a public school,” she said.

Cervantes credits that to the strong mentor roles her grandfather and father provided, as well as Stranahan, whom she was glad she got to know before he died this past spring.

“He was my first coach,” she said. “He would always do weekly check-ins with me and make sure I had everything I needed to do my job, and that I was happy.”

Though she couldn’t practice law in the United States without extensive followup education, Cervantes said her law background is helpful in her current role with the school district.

“I studied civil and family law, so a lot of that is about social justice and equity. So I think there are a lot of interconnections with that,” she said.

As the district school-community organizer, Cervantes also serves on the district communication team and equity steering committee, and she facilitates the Family Advisory Council.

“I am deeply committed to strengthening social justice and equity in schools and communities,” she said.

In addition to her work with the schools, Cervantes also serves on the board of the Mountain Voices Project and is still active as a Riverview parent (her son, Freddy, is now in first grade) with the school Parent Volunteer Organization and Accountability Committee.

She also became an official citizen of the United States this past summer, taking her oath of citizenship in Denver on July 13.

“It does give you a lot of pride,” Cervantes said of the near five-year process to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen. “To go through all the hardships, and then to feel like you’ve accomplished something very important in your life, it means a lot.”

Senior Reporter/Managing Editor John Stroud can be reached at 970-384-9160 or jstroud@postindependent.com.


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