GREAT HONOR: Blackshear chief earns Elementary Principal of the Year

When a group of Ector County ISD officials turned up at Blackshear Magnet Elementary School, Principal Valerie Rivera thought the campus had won a grant or someone else was getting an award.

But that person was her. Rivera was recognized with the Elementary Principal of the Year award recently.

In her 28th year with ECISD, she has helmed Blackshear for four years. Rivera started as a bilingual teacher and worked her way up to assistant principal and principal.

Born and raised in Odessa, Rivera never thought about becoming a principal until she was a teacher.

She earned a bachelor’s of education in bilingual education and master’s in special education and leadership with a certification on top of that from University of Texas Permian Basin.

Blackshear has 620 students in grades kindergarten through fifth and 31 classroom teachers. Eleven of those teachers teach Blackshear’s magnet designation of health and wellness.

She saw Education Foundation Director Celeste Potter and thought the campus had gotten a grant, or that maybe the custodian or nurse had won the award.

“It was a great honor,” Rivera said of the laurel. “Of course, you have to be nominated by staff members in the district, so what a great honor that … someone thinks I’m outstanding. That’s awesome.”

At Blackshear, she said, they focus on student and teacher growth and try to show appreciation for teachers with monthly motivational gifts, breakfasts, sundae and snack bars.

“We’re here promoting our vision. We know where we want to go. We want to see our kids be successful on grade level content, but there are so many gaps,” Rivera said.

“When I started here four years ago, we were fifth-year IR (Improvement Required under state accountability standards), so I stepped into that. My role, they said, was to get them out of IR in a year so we made enough growth that year we’re now a C-rated campus. We went from an F to a C in one year. We’ve maintained that … and then COVID hit … so we took a backslide there, of course, so now we’re having to make growth and fill the students’ gaps. That’s our goal is just to get them up to grade level curriculum, at least, or as close as we can.”

She added that they have seen a lot of growth this year.

Seventy-eight percent of Blackshear students are economically disadvantaged.

What she has enjoyed most about being principal at Blackshear is delving into the community, the families, their needs and where students need to grow, among other things.

Back in 1980 when Blackshear was an elementary school, it was a double magnet and they stayed until 5:30 p.m.

“Back then, it was a prominent magnet school where all the doctors, lawyers and nurses kids came because it was a double magnet. They needed that extra two hours during the day because they work long hours. But now we’re just a regular magnet, so our kids are majority neighborhood kids. We only have about 120 kids coming from other areas. … I was at Dowling 10 years, so that’s all we had was neighborhood kids. That’s the community I like working with is neighborhood,” Rivera said.

The magnet of health and wellness hasn’t changed since Rivera got to Blackshear four years ago.

Health and wellness includes kickboxing, yoga, aerobics, sports and nutrition. That would be making snacks on your own that don’t need to be cooked on the stove or put in the oven.

“… Some do sports outside. They might do a week or two of soccer or basketball; just different sports. Some set up stations where the kids rotate stations. One station might be kickboxing; the next station might be jump roping; the next station might be hula hooping. We try to make it fun; just various things anything to do with movement and health,” Rivera said.

She added that health and wellness will remain the magnet designation.

In place for two years, Opportunity Culture has been a boon to her campus helping allocate the work more.

She also has been able to start retaining staff.

Her first year, 16 staff members left. The next year as COVID, so she had to fill nine of those 16 positions with long-term subs because there were not enough teachers.

Her second year, 14 more left. Last year, six left and this year, three left.

“So it’s becoming my campus finally,” Rivera said.

She added that she wants people to know that Blackshear is a great school.

“I think because of its location, people sometimes wonder and they think it’s a hard and difficult, challenging school, but every school has its challenges. Blackshear is a great school. My kids are so respectful, and as a school, we have a clear vision. We know where we’re going and want to go,” Rivera said.

Chief of Schools Keeley Simpson said Rivera is an exceptional leader who is passionate abut student learning and success.

“She is a skilled instructional leader, highly respected by her colleagues and a true advocate for kids,” Simpson said in a text message.

Corey Seymour, an executive director for leadership who has taken a superintendent’s position, said Rivera is an amazing person.

“She has a true love for children. She is poised, proactive, and positive. Although she has been a principal for several years, she is always open to coaching and improving her craft,” Seymour said in an email.

“She is more than deserving of this honor. She is an awesome principal. She is part of an amazing cohort of principals. They work together as a team and support each other like family. They were all deserving, but this was Valerie’s year. Our cohort has produced the principal of the year for the last three years. They have shown some of the highest growth and achievement in the entire district. The friendly competition among peers made Valerie better,” Seymour added.

“Valerie has always been a good principal. I simply challenged her to accept accountability in all areas. She accepted the challenge and did an incredible job,” he said.

Rivera’s whole family lives in Odessa. She has two children and four grandchildren.