This September, founding principal Jose González welcomed 130 students from Transitional Kindergarten (TK) through second grade to Voices West Contra Costa. Gonzalez is one of 50+ alumni from Innovate’s Start-up Schools Fellowship, which trains and supports principals to start new schools or redesign existing schools.

The first Voice College-Bound Language Academy is a dual-immersion K-8 school in San Jose. With strong results for low-income Latino students and demand from families, Voices expanded to open a second school in San Jose and one in Morgan Hill in 2017, followed by the newest school this year, with principals at each site completing Innovate’s Fellowship.

González himself was an English Language Learner as a student. This personal connection to many of his students’ background makes him feel “a tremendous responsibility” as a school leader.  

“Having experienced similar struggles with our education system, I want our school to be a place where students feel their culture is valued,” González said.

All Voices schools operate on four values: “shared leadership, “students in the forefront,” a “si se puede” attitude, and “In Lakech” — a Mayan phrase that means “I am you, you are me.” González says the Innovate Start-up Schools Fellowship helped him understand how every component of a school must ultimately relate to these values.

“How we praise, when we praise, how we support students in behavior management — it all goes back to the values,” González said. “The Fellowship helped me realize how that creates our school culture.“

In these crucial first months, González says his staff embodying these values has helped carry their students through the inevitable obstacles of opening a new school.

“They’re fighters. They know why we’re here, and they know that parents wanted us here.” he said. “They want to learn and they’re working really hard to get better.” And that trickles down to our kids.”

In just three months, González has already seen evidence that the Voices model is working. A mother recently approached him with a story of going to a restaurant with her four-year old daughter. Her daughter immediately sat down with her back straight, hands to the front, and told her mother “This is how students in college sit.” A woman at a nearby table overheard this. She told the mother she worked for the district and expressed her surprise at her daughter’s behavior. “She’s talking about college already? What school does she go to?” she asked.

González said: “Her mother was proud to tell her ‘Voices.’”