Ever since she arrived at Wooddale Middle School in Memphis seven years ago, Marlen Martinez had a single goal in mind: to become a business owner. “My plan is to major in business management because I want to open my own nail shop,” said Martinez. “Once I get my license, I want to go into business, go into my own.”
In May, the 17-year-old completed a crucial step toward that goal when she graduated as the Salutatorian from Bluff City High School. She, along with Valedictorian Jordan Joyce, became the first students since Green Dot Public Schools opened in Memphis seven years ago to be at the top of their classes.
Both attended Wooddale Middle School in the sixth grade and finished at Bluff City High School. Both schools are part of the Green Dot network in Memphis.
Martinez will attend Mississippi State University to work on her major. The school was a finalist on the student’s list, as she made her decision to compare the code of conduct at the university with the way Green Dot schools work.
“I’m going to Mississippi State, and with me being so accustomed to Green Dot district rules and policies, it also better prepared me for Mississippi State. It’s a stricter school,” explains Martinez.
Executive Director of Green Dot Tennessee Jocquell Rodgers has been following Martinez’s academic prowess during the last few years. Taking away two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she explains how the Bluff City graduate has been visiting university campuses since she was in middle school.
“Marlen has been visiting a college campus every year,” said Rodgers. “ Annually during her academic career since sixth grade, she has visited a college campus. So it’s real for her. It’s one thing for me to tell you to go to college, but when I take you there and show you this is what life could look like for you, it opens a completely different mindset for our students.”
For Martinez, school was a different and satisfying experience that got better as she embraced Green Dot’s goal of graduating all students prepared for college, leadership, and life. Having the chance of continuing through school with the core of her classmates together was also key to her academic success.
“All of the kids spoke to each other; it wasn’t like everybody had their own clique. Everybody was familiar, everybody grew with each other” continued Martinez. “It was also a good experience, very challenging as well, which I think definitely helped me as well as my classmates achieve more.”
Green Dot Tennessee’s Chief of Staff and former Wooddale principal Marysa Utley adds that being able to support students through their academic experiences and choices at Green Dot is vital in them becoming successful.
“For me it’s like a part of motherhood. When they first come to me, they become our children. The partnership with Green Dot means that they can go from sixth grade to twelve grade with a consistent academic model, where we are able to continue to see them grow … it comes down to our focus on readiness for college, leadership and life,” said Utley.
Martinez was the first in her family to graduate from high school and she expects that her sisters will follow her example, and set their goals and expectations high. Naturally, her parents and sisters are proud of what she has accomplished.
“They are proud of me. It’s an achievement that hasn’t been done yet for them and for myself I feel they are very proud of me,” continued Martinez. “Academically, it was a great experience and one that I would encourage my sisters to go as well because it prepared me for the road ahead and the journey.”
For Rodgers, Martinez exemplifies what Green Dot’s vision represents, as she embraced the values taught during the past seven years. Rodgers shared that the first-generation Latina student considered herself the face of Green Dot.
“I know the salutatorian extremely well because she considered herself the face of Green Dot and she was. I loved to introduce her when visitors came, she’s their focus and she knows where she wants to be since she was a sixth-grader. I’m excited to see what life has in store for her,” comments Rodgers.
“Those students are an amazing testament to what we want to do, when we say ‘all’ we mean all. We want all students to be prepared for college, leadership, and life.”