Fernando Branch has no problem facing down the toughest odds. The veteran educator worked for Denver Public Schools in the role of turnaround principal. This was a temporary position brought in to help improve schools with low test scores or other issues.
Branch told Denver Business Journal that 'you're entering a situation in which teachers, students and parents - the larger community - are kind of guarded'. Nobody wants to hear that they are doing a poor job. You can't change a school's direction if you refuse to acknowledge that it's your job to fix the problems.
Branch says that despite what can be an awkward start, he has found that a humble and flexible approach to the job is what wins over communities who are hesitant. In many cases, even the most difficult students asked him to stay on after his tenure.
Branch is today the co-founder, executive director, and senior director of programs and partnerships at the Colorado "I Have A Dream" Foundation.
Branch has moved beyond his turnaround work but his commitment to harnessing education's power to improve his community is still at the heart of his work.
The foundation of education is the school
Branch, a self-described "life-long learner", fell in love with the school system during his childhood years in Memphis, Tennessee. Branch described a city that was rich in talent and culture, but also characterized by economic disenfranchisement.
These struggles were evident in Branch's neighborhood and school, where he claimed gang violence and drug abuse was rampant. Branch found school to be a safe place.
I felt that school was my safest place. I didn't feel any judgment. He said, "I always felt there was a way out." At school, I always knew that I would get two solid meals per day.
Branch also met African American educators at school who were key to his support. He remembers Ms. Mannis from middle school, who worked with him extra hard until he made the honor roll. Or perhaps his high school guidance counsellor, who encouraged Branch to attend summer programs in elite East Coast prep schools for opportunities that were not available at Branch’s school.
Branch, in a funny twist, tried to avoid becoming an educator himself by majoring instead in history at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff. Branch was eventually drawn to teaching because of his memories of how his teachers changed his life.
He spent eight years working in Shelby County School District in Memphis, before moving on to Denver Public Schools. Branch's first gig in the Mile High City? Branch taught at Montbello, a school with a majority of Blacks and Hispanics that was controversially closed in 2010 (it was reunified 2022).
Branch began his transition to turnaround work. He performed this for about a decade, despite the demanding nature of the task.
He said, 'Nobody would do that unless they love service leadership. They must also support youth and communities.' In my case, the youth often looked like me. That was important.
Branch wanted to grow as a leader in education and to be more involved in his daughters' lives, who are 8 and 11 respectively. He left turnaround work and pursued a PhD in education leadership and policies studies at the University of Denver.
Kimberlee S., the President of Colorado's 'I Have A Dream Foundation', hired him in 2020. He had been working at College Track, a nonprofit based out of Oakland, California, with branches around the nation, helping low-income college students.
Branch stated that the concept of allowing children to achieve their dreams was very appealing.
Branch is the senior director for partnerships and programs at the Foundation's two centers in Green Valley Ranch and Westwood. Each outpost is home to around 75 children in the third through eighth grades. The foundation also runs a high school evening program and summer camp.
Branch and his team invite professionals to speak and give tours to the children, or to host interactive activities that will help them visualize their future.
Students have, for example, designed their own city, while keeping in mind real world concerns such as budget and resources. This exercise has shown them the intricacies of urban planning.
Branch stated that the best corporate partners are those who get something from working with "I Have A Dream."
Saunders Construction Company is highlighted by Branch, as it offers kids hands-on experiences. Construction is a field that faces a shortage of workers. Helping kids see their potential for a well-paying career in the industry helps to build the talent pipeline.
After Youth Service
Branch wants to expand the foundation throughout the state in the future. He believes his efforts will help reduce inequalities in Colorado, as well as the work of his colleagues in mental health and social emotional skills.
He said, 'I am 43 and the gaps are not much different from when I was in secondary school or grade school.' "So, that tells me that there is still a great deal of work to be done in order to change the outcomes for youth."
Branch's 'I Have a Dream Foundation' in Colorado is not the only place he tries to achieve this goal. And youth aren’t the only ones he wants to help. He co-founded the Colorado Men of Color Collaborative (CMOCC) less than a calendar year ago.
CMOCC was founded when Branch realized that his isolation during Covid had led to depression. He started talking to other African American professionals who shared his mental health struggles, and also the aftermath of George Floyd's murder in Minneapolis.
He said, 'It was so obvious at that time that we had to create a place for male youth, minorities, and men to have conversations we were not raised to have.' We were not taught to express our emotions or feelings.
Branch and Jeremy Eddie (who works in recruitment at DPS) founded CMOCC to create this space for emotional truth. The nonprofit operates on a "for community, by community" model where members share their knowledge and skills with the other CMOCC members. CMOCC's original focus was mental health, but it has expanded to include other goals such as social mobility and educational. A financial expert from Metropolitan State University of Denver taught a recent course on financial literacy.
Branch is confident that CMOCC's growth will continue thanks to corporate sponsors such as 365 Health and a grant provided by the Colorado Health Foundation. His vision includes what? Connecting companies seeking diverse talent with the successful men of colour being served and served by CMOCC.
Branch stated that 'CMOCC is a radical container'. Branch said that the goal was to not just disrupt, but rebuild in a different way.
Colorado Men of Color Collaborative co-founder, executive director and senior director of partnerships at the Colorado "I Have A Dream" Foundation
Industry: Nonprofit & Education
Surprising hobby: Beekeeping
Favorite Denver restaurant: La Loma