Brianna Martinez' family sit outside their Sheridan home. From right to left, stepmom Rondelle Shambo, father Phil Martinez, Briana's 6-year-old sister Shayllan and Brianna herself.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Answering a question on what she believes are the characteristics of a good leader, 17-year-old Brianna Martinez confidently faces her questioners in a scholarship interview.

The Heritage High senior talks about how a leader is the first to arrive and the last to leave. She explains how she’s tried to emulate that as co-president of Rachel’s Eagles, a student organization that spreads kindness, brings food baskets to families, and makes other students feel welcome. The group strives to meet the personal philosophies of Rachel Scott, a Columbine shooting victim.

“One act of kindness causes a chain reaction,” Martinez offers.

In response to who has been a big influence on her, Martinez speaks of her stepmother, Rondelle Shambo, saying “she’s one of my rocks.” Neither her birth mother nor father went to college, so her stepmom helped pick up the slack as Martinez seeks out colleges and scholarships.

The interviewers then hear one of the things Martinez is most proud of: Her decision to come from her home in Sheridan, a high-poverty school district, to Littleton's Heritage High.

“Just being able to come from that area and then back to here and build myself up even more, because I know these is a huge opportunity for me and taking advantage of it,” Martinez says.

Brianna Martinez listens intently to a question during a mock interview practicing for the Daniel’s Fund Scholarship interview. Her interviewers are members of the community, from left, Chris Hancock, Chris Lukowicz, and Kristi Russell. Joni  Lieb, at the end of the table, she is the school's post-grad coordinator.

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

After the half-hour session, her questioners gave her feedback on her performance. This wasn’t a real interview, instead neighbors from the community are helping Martinez prepare for the real deal: The prestigious Daniel’s Fund Scholarship, a full ride scholarship for low-income students with demonstrated character and willingness to give back to the community.

Searching For Opportunity

Martinez’s family lives in a modest house, just a few minutes from Sheridan’s elementary, middle and high school. But she chose to attend Heritage High School 5 miles away in the neighboring Littleton Public Schools district. She wanted to take advantage of more challenging classes and extra activities in a district that offers more.

The two bordering districts, Sheridan and Littleton, have one of the biggest child poverty gaps in the nation, which matters a lot in a state that ranks near the bottom in per pupil spending.

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Back when she started school, Sheridan’s elementary school was in the bottom point-five percent of Colorado elementary schools. In third grade, her parents divorced and she and her mom bounced around for several years. She went to different schools but always felt she didn’t quite fit in. A lot of the kids she met didn’t seem to care about school, didn’t do their homework or just didn’t show up.

Martinez felt she needed to be in a place where the majority felt school was important to them. She wanted to push herself. Returning to live with her father full-time in Sheridan, she and her parents researched schools. Taking advantage of the state’s laws on open enrollment, she applied to a middle school in Littleton.

“There were crazy long wait lists for all of the schools in Littleton, so that just shows that there are all of these students who aren’t necessarily as well off, who want to push themselves to get into those better schools,” she says.

When it came time to move on to high school, Martinez was looking for a big, well-developed theater program and Advanced Placement classes. Sheridan didn’t offer AP courses, so she picked Littleton’s Heritage High. It’s an arrangement that isn’t all that out of the ordinary. While Heritage has only nine students open enrolled from Sheridan, 20 percent of Littleton Public Schools’ overall population is composed of students from other districts.

Brianna Martinez, costume director at Heritage High School's student theater department, adjusts Jack Ladow's bowtie backstage before showtime of their production of "The Addams Family."

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

At Heritage, Martinez threw herself into all that she could, eventually becoming costume director of the theatre program.

Backstage at the spring production of "The Addams Family," student Jake Ladow points out that all of the costumes are "all thanks to her." Martinez is in her element here, bustling around, adjusting Lurch's bowtie, fixing a button on Gomez Addams.

Martinez’s grandma used to sew her clothes, her mom sewed, and Martinez just got a sewing machine for her last birthday – so it kind of runs in the family. She also works at a men’s luxury clothing store, saving money for college.

When she graduates, she’ll participate in the time-honored tradition of Heritage High costume directors before her: writing her name on the backstage ceiling.

Brianna Martinez watches Eden Farr apply costume make up before showtime at the school’s production of "The Addams Family."

Jenny Brundin/CPR News

Readying For College

Sitting at the kitchen table of their Sheridan home, Martinez and her stepmom Rondelle Shambo, are writing out graduation announcements. It’s a big family. She’s been accepted to Utah State University to study business administration. Her dream would be to start a nonprofit to help families going through divorce.

“People have been there for me and that’s why I want to be there for other people,” she says.

Her dad, Phil Martinez, is proud of his daughter, how far she’s come and her strong-willed nature. “She always wants to succeed at whatever she does,” he says.

That drive helped her weather one setback on the college and scholarships front. The Daniel’s Fund Scholarship. She didn’t get it.

“That’s OK, it’s no biggie, I’ve moved on,” Martinez says.

It was a biggie at the time though.

“I opened the letter and I was devastated, I was completely devastated,” she says.

Her stepmom’s advice was “every challenge is an opportunity to push ourselves, to be better to do more.” Without the Daniel’s Fund scholarship, Martinez is still nervous about having the money to pay for college. She knows her job at the clothing store and some of the scholarships she’s gotten can get her through her first year.

She’ll take the rest day by day.