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Liberty HS principal goes the distance with recent immigrants

2013 June 19
by HISD Communications

In this week’s I am HISD, which features district students, graduates, employees, and other team members, Liberty High School Principal Monico Rivas talks about how he got involved in helping recent immigrants, why it’s so important to serve that student population, and how his campus’ unconventional hours and location help him do so.

You’ve been in charge of Liberty High School essentially since its inception in 2005, first as the program director and later as the principal. What did you do before that?

Monico Rivas

I started out as a social studies teacher at Pershing Middle School in 1993, where I was also working with the newly arrived. I was in the second cohort of aspiring principals under Dr. Rod Paige, and Lee High School really attracted my attention. It had always had a very international population, and it seemed like a good opportunity to work with (former Principal) Steve Amstutz. Initially, I was over one of the small learning communities, as an assistant principal.

Your campus was originally named the “Newcomer Charter High School” and it serves students who are recent immigrants to the United States. Why is it so important to help that population earn a high school diploma?

We have been serving a need that is very essential. Our community has a continuous stream of newly arrived young adults, and many of our students work and have other family responsibilities. So our focus has been the same since the beginning, building up critical English skills and preparing them for secondary education. With night classes offered until 11 p.m. and on Saturdays, too, our flexible schedule allows them to meet their other obligations. Another important component is the year-round school calendar. Except for one long weekend and district holidays, we’re open all year, so they can continue to practice their English over the summer. I consider having the opportunity to work with these students a privilege. I feel very privileged to be a part of their lives and to collaborate with them in succeeding and reaching their goals.

Your students come from 22 different countries and speak about 15 different languages, and some have escaped some really harrowing circumstances in their native lands. How do you reach those kids? What are some of the challenges specific to educating that subset of students?

One of the ways we have learned to address those types of needs is to make sure that our students feel safe and very welcomed. We pay attention to little details, like being sensitive to students who bring transcripts from their home countries. If we can’t translate them in house, we bring in people who can so that we have a complete picture of their record and what they have accomplished. It’s something we give a lot of attention to, and I think it helps students feel comfortable, knowing their achievements are being honored and taken into consideration. We also hire former students, and because they have had similar experiences, it helps our current students to feel connected. They have a strong sense of belonging here and know that we’re not only looking to make sure that their academic needs are met, but also to connect them to services in the surrounding community that can help not only them, but their families, as well.

Your campus is located in a strip-mall-type shopping center off of U.S. 59, not far from Sharpstown. How does being in such an unconventional setting affect instruction?

It is different. And it’s something that many of our students have to get used to. Fortunately, the rest of the property is being utilized by businesses that are less like a mall and more event-based (such as meeting facilities), so a lot of the activity is school-based. But it also has its advantages. One positive aspect is that right across from our parking lot is a METRO station, so this is very helpful to many of our students. We’re also located in the heart of the Gulfton community, and close to the freeway, so we’re very accessible.

With a school schedule that starts at 7:45 in the morning and goes until 11 o’clock at night, I don’t imagine you have too much free time, but what do you like to do when you’re not at work?

I enjoy going out to walk on the trails. Houston has some great parks. I was a distance runner back in college. I ran track for the University of Houston. And even though I don’t really run like that anymore, when I have some time—especially on the weekends—I still like to get out there and go for walks. I also read books.

Oh? What are you reading right now?

I’ve been doing some reading on sports medicine, mostly leg injuries. It’s probably not the most fun topic for most people, but it’s something I’ve always been interested in.

If you know a member of Team HISD who should be featured in I am HISD, please email us at info@houstonisd.org.
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