By Melanie Asmar
When Martha Urioste visited Denver schools as an advocate for bilingual education, she often leaned down and told the students something her grandmother told her.
“No deje su español,” friends recalled her saying. Don’t give up your Spanish.
Her efforts with Denver’s Congress of Hispanic Educators helped bring bilingual programming to thousands of Denver children over several decades. A teacher who later became a principal, Urioste also brought Montessori education to Denver’s public schools, starting in a neighborhood where most children were Black and Latino and from low-income families.
Urioste died on Dec. 8 at the age of 85. She was thinking about education to the end. When her friend and colleague Kathy Escamilla visited her in the hospital a few days before her death, Escamilla said Urioste asked for the latest Denver schools gossip.
“She was always instigating good,” said Darlene LeDoux, a longtime Latina educator who now works for Denver Public Schools’ ombuds office and knew Urioste for decades. “She was always making sure we went further, tried harder, did better for kids.”
Urioste was born in New México and came to Denver as a teenager, according to her obituary and speakers at her memorial service. After graduating college, she began a career as a first-grade teacher at the now-closed Gilpin Elementary in 1958. Urioste taught elementary and middle school, and even taught Spanish on public television for the district.
With two master’s degrees and a doctorate, Urioste eventually became an assistant principal at North High School and then principal of Mitchell Elementary in northeast Denver in the mid-1980s. Denver Public Schools was under a federal court order to desegregate its schools, but white flight to the suburbs and to private schools made it difficult for Mitchell and a few other schools to meet the court-ordered quota for white students.
“We were told, ‘What are you going to do to make sure that you have white children, middle-class children to get on a bus and go to northeast Denver?’” Urioste recalled in a short video documentary produced by the city as part of its “I Am Denver” series.
Urioste chose Montessori education, which wasn’t available in any Colorado public schools. She went to Rome to study the curriculum, which encourages children to work independently on hands-on tasks and learn from each other in multi-age classrooms.
At her memorial service, her friend Erlinda Archuleta told the story of how Urioste’s suitcase burst open as she was getting off the return flight to Denver.
Instead of gathering her clothes, Urioste called out to her brother, who’d come to pick her up: “‘I found the key! Montessori!’” Archuleta recalled. “She wasn’t worried about her clothes.”
Honey Niehaus’ oldest daughter was in kindergarten the first year Mitchell offered Montessori. The program was wonderful, she said. But Urioste and others noticed that the white students were progressing faster than the students of color, Niehaus said — an inequity Urioste wanted to address by starting a neighborhood Montessori program for infants and toddlers.
An abandoned building across the street from Mitchell presented an opportunity. Niehaus peeked inside one day and was concerned by what she saw. She said she flew into Urioste’s office and asked what the principal was going to do about the drug activity across the street.
“She looked at me and said, ‘Honey, what are you going to do about it?’” Niehaus said. “Everywhere she went, she’d pull people into the system. Whenever she met people who were authentically for kids and for education, she would support them.”
With help from community leaders, politicians, and volunteers, Urioste and others bought the building and transformed it into Family Star, an early childhood Montessori school that opened in 1991. The school trained women from the neighborhood to be the first teachers. Niehaus later served as executive director.
More than 30 years later, Family Star has two locations in Denver, and Denver Public Schools has five Montessori schools. Urioste has been dubbed “La Madrina de Montessori,” or Denver’s “Godmother of Montessori.” The original program at Mitchell is now housed at Denison.
In addition to her pioneering Montessori work, Urioste was a member of the Congress of Hispanic Educators (CHE), which sued Denver Public Schools over its treatment of Spanish-speaking students. That lawsuit led to the current modified consent decree, which requires that the district provide bilingual education to students whose primary language is Spanish.
Urioste was a member of CHE for 50 years. Escamilla, who joined the group in the 1990s, said in addition to Urioste’s advocacy for bilingual education, she’ll be remembered for mentoring young teachers, encouraging them to earn advanced degrees and become leaders.
School board member Carrie Olson was hired by Urioste as a first-year bilingual teacher at Mitchell in 1985. Olson recalled how Urioste found her crying in her classroom one day.
“She came in and she held my hands and she said, ‘Carrie, you are going to be a great teacher. You just can’t quit. You can’t give up on these children,’” Olson said at the memorial service.
Others said Urioste had a great sense of humor. She was a big Denver Broncos fan, loved to play the slot machines, and was a “bonafide Cher groupie” who used to travel to Las Vegas with her brother Richard to see the singer in concert, Archuleta said.
Craig Peña, whose father Robert worked alongside Urioste in CHE, said he’ll remember her as “an incredibly capable, an incredibly caring woman, and very gracious and very kind.
“But she was not a pushover,” he said. “Don’t mistake kindness and graciousness for weakness.”
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