Wake-Up Call: Padres Unidos unites for another award

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Pam and Ricardo Martinez met on a United Farm Workers picket line in California. Now, almost forty years later, they share a life, a family, a passion for social justice and Padres y Jovenes Unidos, the Denver nonprofit they co-founded in 1991 -- as well as another big national honor.

The Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil-rights think tank, honored the organization yesterday for its work rewriting the Denver Public Schools discipline code, a six-year project designed to end the schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track that was sending a disproportionate number of minority kids out of the school system and into the juvenile justice system.

Since the program's implementation, out-of-school suspensions in Denver have declined 40 percent, according to the Advancement Project, which worked with Padres Unidos to get the new school discipline code adopted. And given DPS's abysmal drop-out rates, that's a giant step forward, working off the many advancements the Martinezes have pushed for over the years.

While living in Texas in 1978, Pam and Ricardo helped organize an effort that successfully overturned a state law barring undocumented immigrant children from public schools. In 1981, when the Texas economy went bust, the oil company where Pam worked as a legal secretary transferred her to Denver -- only to have this branch go bust a year or two later. But by then, the Martinezes were hooked on making Denver a better place to live.

Their work with parents concerned about ethnic inequities at Valverde Elementary School led to the formation of Padres Unidos in 1991. The name came from a celebratory potluck after the Valverde fight, when one father said, "This is a great victory, and we can't stop. We are united parents."

The Advancement Project honor wasn't Padres Unidos's first major prize. Four years ago, the organization won $100,000 and a Ford Foundation 2005 Leadership for a Changing World Award. "You don't just stand by and watch injustice happen," Pam says. "I think we can do better, and that's what this is all about."

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