Summit Middle School principal Joel Rivera focuses on relationship building
Joel Rivera kept hopping up to grab more chairs.
The conference room behind the Summit Middle School principal’s office overflowed with about 30 parents at the school’s monthly Parent Teacher Organization meeting on Thursday, Oct. 1, just before 8 a.m. A handful of extra chairs later, and one parent still sat on the floor.
Rivera, who was named Colorado’s Middle Level Principal of the Year in April, said the scene was different when he arrived in the 2010-11 school year. About three parents came to one or two PTO meetings that year. Now the overflowing conference room is typical.
More parent involvement isn’t the only change Summit Middle School has seen under Rivera’s leadership.
A TIME OF CHANGE
The school then was the only one in the district the state labeled improvement — the third of four ratings — when Rivera became principal. Parents didn’t feel welcome. Some told him they hoped he would turn the school around.
In the last five years, the school moved to standards-based grading, implemented a controversial merger of honors and non-honors classes and started approaching discipline problems by recognizing positive-behavior.
Rivera also created a transition program for sixth-graders and their families and established a home-visit program for incoming students from non-English backgrounds.
Teachers say he consulted the school’s staff about if, when and how to push changes, and he valued their input. They say he’s entertaining, approachable, supportive and honors their time when prioritizing new initiatives.
“He has fought for us at the district level,” said Trisha Berry, a sixth-grade humanities and science teacher.
All the changes have benefited the teachers and seem to be working for the students, she said, because the school has seen better results.
Academic achievement and growth improved, especially among students labeled gifted-and-talented, Rivera said. The number of students sent out of class for discipline reasons decreased from 1,400 a year to 150. Parent perception changed.
He now learns every student’s name in the roughly 750-student school. He answers students’ questions about how tall he is (6-foot-8) a few times a day, and sometimes lets them try on his shoes (size 16).
He said of all the changes he has overseen, he is most proud of the standards-based grading switch and the way the school better connects with families.
In mid-September, he traveled to Washington, D.C., for a few days to be recognized among the other 49 principals given the principal of the year award in their state, and other school leaders picked his brain about those strategies.
SHAPED AS A STUDENT
Rivera grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and his dad’s family came from Mexico and his mother’s from Germany. His parents had him when they were young and divorced when he was 8.
Then his mother was laid off, so he, his mother and sister moved in with extended family for a few years. They shared a bed, and Rivera slept in the middle. He struggled academically.
“I got in a lot of trouble at school, so I was one of those kids,” he said.
His school once moved him into an honors chemistry course, so he wouldn’t share any classes with one of his friends. The only difference he noticed was the honors class was mostly white kids, he said. He was still sometimes bored.
He remembers the teachers and coaches who believed in him and gave him hope. He became a teacher to connect with kids, like him, he said, who have factors working against them. He was also driven by his mother’s passion as a special-education teacher to help students learn when others might’ve given up on them.
At Texas State University, he majored in math and dreamed of a business career. Then at a job fair, he and his now-wife, Christina, were drawn to a Colorado school district recruiter. Both college seniors were hired on the spot, and the couple moved to Colorado Springs.
Rivera became a middle school math teacher and later a dean and assistant principal.
The leadership roles felt like natural transitions, he said, because he wanted to support teachers and he enjoyed the less predictable schedule.
Plus, his wife came from a family of teachers, and, in college, she told him he’d make a good principal. He became Summit Middle’s principal at 31.
BARE OFFICE, WARM LEADER
In Rivera’s office, there are no bookshelves, no cabinets, no stacks of papers, no photos.
The only items on the walls on Thursday were a clock, a small TV and a whiteboard with two notes to himself on it. He called his desk cluttered with a walkie-talkie, two laptops and a few snacks.
Some of that is because he stays organized with files on his laptop and schedules on his phone. Mostly though, he was told once at a training session that his office should be a place to talk with people, not a shrine to himself or a distraction from working with parents, teachers and students.
“It’s meant to be ugly, so we — so I — don’t spend a lot of time here,” he explained to a parent Thursday who asked if he’d just moved in.
Outside his office, above the door, a yellow construction sign placed secretly by a district employee reads “Low Clearance” in capital letters.
Sixth-grade humanities and language arts teacher Ashley Smith said, “You would think someone that tall intimidates children, but they just run to him. They love him.”
Students eating lunch in the cafeteria remarked on his height and then said he was “nicer than he looks” and “so chill.”
Seventh-grader Payton Purcell said, “He makes the sixth-graders look like ants.”
“He’s actually super nice,” said Madi Fortner, 12. “He’s helped me with quite a few issues in the two years I’ve been here.”
“If you do something wrong, he doesn’t scream at you. He takes the time to listen to you,” said Banta Sylla, 12.
Most of Rivera’s days are filled with meetings and popping into classrooms to ask kids about how their teachers are making their lessons relevant.
He’s up by 5:30 a.m., and he builds time in his schedule to talk with parents and deal with unexpected issues. After school, he often coaches a sports team practice for one of his three elementary-aged kids.
His perfect workday would be spent doing classroom visits, giving teachers feedback and talking with kids, he said. His strategy hinges on building relationships with students and encouraging parents to get involved.
“If you get a kid on your side, there’s nothing that they won’t do for you,” he said. “We’ve stuck with that relationship building since the beginning.”
He sends an email every Monday to the staff that ends with a positive message or example about building relationships, and he credits the school’s teachers, other staff members, the greater community and the students when his work is recognized.
“We did it all together,” he said.
‘NOT DONE YET’
Last year, Rivera thought about leaving Summit. He was starting to ask, “Now what?” and feeling like he’d shocked the system and reached his capacity.
“I’m just very action-oriented. Sometimes it drives people nuts,” he said. “I can’t sit back and just manage.”
He was convinced to stay after conversations with his boss, district superintendent Heidi Pace, who nominated him for the principal of the year award.
“Heidi would say, ‘You know what, your work’s not done yet,’” he said.
He turned down two out-of-district jobs and became excited about moving forward with new ideas.
The changes coming include the peer-observation model for professional development, one-to-one computers or tablets for every student, blended learning options online and increased efforts to address behavioral and mental-health issues, substance abuse and suicide and bullying prevention.
Plus, the school faces ongoing challenges with a fast growing population and an increasing portion of students who are non-native English speakers, come from poverty or both.
The middle school is often where students from Breckenridge first interact with those from Dillon and kids from Silverthorne get to know those from Summit Cove. Despite recent improvements from the dual-language program, students still gather socially with others who speak their native language or look like them.
“It’s one of those things that I kind of desperately want to overcome,” he said, not only because students benefit from diversity in their friend groups, but also because cross-cultural understanding reduces bullying.
Rivera also wants to improve the school’s marketing and communications and expand its home-visit program.
“If you’re not working to get better, then you’re ultimately getting worse,” he said, and he’s excited about the future.
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