May 31, 2008

Richard Esparza, Granger’s VIP — Very Inspiring Principal

By James Joyce III

Richard Esparza, Granger's VIP -- Very Inspiring Principal

Granger's Very Inspiring Principal:

Hard work and high expectations raise academic achievement at high school



GRANGER -- Granger High School principal Richard Esparza needs to look no farther than the wall a few steps outside his office for inspiration to students.

Posted on a bulletin board in the hallway is a photo of a 12- year-old Esparza posing in a Grandview asparagus field with a tin container hanging from his hip.

The son of Yakima Valley farm workers, Esparza was taught early on that his family's income didn't have to determine his own.

"Do you want to do this the rest of your life?" he remembers hearing his parents ask often.

He pursued the college education his parents urged, and that's been his key to success.

Now, after nine years as head of the 400-student high school that was once known as the "ghetto" school, Esparza has decided to retire. Although he's just 49, which is 16 years shy of the traditional retirement age of 65, Esparza has decided to leave the high school setting where he has spent the past 25 years of his career.

He's moving to Denver and will be working for Family Friendly Schools, a Virginia-based company that consults with schools and districts across the country to increase student achievement by creating a culture of high performance.

Esparza's first assignment: to improve student achievement in Katrina-struck Louisiana. He will be working with a different demographic. Louisiana public schools are mostly white and black, whereas nearly 86 percent of Granger students are Latino. But he'll start by using an academic model that has proved to be a winning formula in this small community.

After two decades in public education, Esparza has come to believe that students do best when they have the integrated commitment -- and support -- of the student, adviser and parents.

"The secret to success is no secret," Esparza said. "When it comes down to it, it's hard work."

Hard work, coupled with a bit of teamwork and high expectations, is what Esparza attributes to the improvements that has earned Granger High School national recognition during his nine-year tenure.

During his first year as principal, only 32 percent of 10th- graders met state standards in reading and 8 percent in writing. Since then, those numbers have shot up dramatically -- to 76.5 percent of 10th-graders meeting state standards in reading and 66.3 percent in writing for the 2006-07 school year.

The school's graduation rate, meanwhile, has increased from less than 50 percent when Esparza started to 92 percent for the 2005-06 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.

"He came in and shook things up," said Kris Vickers, who's been teaching physical education, health and weight training at the school for 15 years.

"His father worked in the fields and he worked in the fields, so he understood where kids could go," Vickers said. "He helped create a can-do kind of attitude."

Esparza has held his position with one basic belief: Success is the goal and everyone can achieve it.

Much of the way he approaches being a principal is the same way he approached being a wrestling coach at Grandview, where he started out as a teacher, back in 1983.

"My coaching background is about winning and losing," he said. "These kids can win (if) given the opportunity."

In Granger, Esparza started a daily advisory class. For 30 minutes, four days a week, each of the school's 24 teachers serve as a mentor for 18 students. The teacher works with each student from their freshman year until they graduate, making sure they make progress toward graduation. Even as principal, Esparza has taken on an advisory class.

With the boastfulness of a proud father, he is quick to point out that of his 18 students, most will be the first generation in their families to receive a high school diploma. Thirteen are going on to college.

As he maneuvered through the hallways earlier this week, it was common for him to call a student by name and talk about their plans after graduation. He has made it a point not only to know each student by name, but also by their grades.

"It's so much easier when you see a face to know where their grades are," Esparza said. "Their grades will always tell you when something is going on in their life."

Anthony Winkelman, for one, recalls Esparza taking particular interest in his success.

"All the support I get comes through him," said Winkelman, who is graduating from the school's alternative program.

"He's kind of like a family member in a way, by giving me encouragement," he said.

Winkelman, who has bounced between foster homes during high school, started going to Granger after leaving Prosser High School and doing a stint with the Fort Simcoe Job Corps. Winkelman wanted to return to school but was short on credits. Esparza told him he saw something in him and kept tabs on his life, both in and out of school.

"If it weren't for him actually pushing me, I would have slacked off," Winkelman said.

Jackiy Roedel, a junior, provides another example.

When she entered as a freshman, she felt she'd been labeled a troublemaker by teachers and administrators at the middle school because she had been disciplined for being loud and outspoken.

"Mr. Esparza didn't treat me like that," Roedel said. "He didn't judge me."

Even when she got in trouble in high school, she said, Esparza didn't come down on her. He talked to her about why she was in trouble and tried to channel her energy instead of stifling it.

"He's loud, too. He's an outgoing guy himself," Roedel said. "That really helped me. I'm never scared to do anything outgoing. I feel more comfortable here than I do in public."

Roedel said Esparza has pulled her aside to talk about her grades and notices when she fall behind in classes.

That was the kind of attention and encouragement that he received from his wrestling coaches and his parents, who still live in the area.

After graduating from Grandview High School in 1977, he went on to Columbia Basin Community College for his associate degree, then Central Washington University for his bachelor's and master's degrees. He also picked up administrative credentials from Central.

Esparza did his student teaching in the West Valley School District in Yakima but decided he would be better suited working in schools where he felt he could have more of an impact.

So he landed his first teaching/coaching job at his alma mater, Grandview High School. He advanced to athletic director, then assistant principal before taking over as the principal of Granger High School in 1999.

There, his focus on caring for each student and creating a culture of support has translated into high student performance and graduation rates.

The school's improved test scores and graduation rates were recognized by the International Center for Leadership in Education when it named Granger as the model high school for the state of Washington.

Esparza also introduced a focus on getting more parent participation at student-led conferences. (Instead of parent- teacher conferences, schools like Granger encourage students to lead the discussion about their own academic performance.)

In his first year, Esparza said, 23 percent of parents attended those conferences, which are held once or twice a year. At that time, teachers were thrilled. Prior to that, they were getting only about 10 percent parent participation. Now, 96 percent of parents attend these conferences.

"Parents aren't afraid to come into the school because they have been here," said Lisa Shinn, who has worked at the school for 13 years, the last four as librarian.

As the school's first Latino principal, Esparza more closely reflects the face and experience of the student body than the school district's mostly white administration and board of directors. His push for high expectations for students is also a principle he emphasizes with his staff.

When he first arrived at Granger, Esparza laid out his philosophy with the expectation that his staff would also adopt the idea of high standards for all students. However, some teachers didn't buy in and either left or retired. Only about a quarter of the staff that was at the school when he started as principal remains today.

It was not uncommon for him to clash with some of those teachers; Vickers was among them at times. But she has since come around. Esparza said getting some administrators to accept his approach has also presented challenges over the years.

With his imminent departure, staff and students alike said they'd like to see many of the things Esparza implemented continue.

Next year, Paul Chartrand will become the principal. He has served as vice principal at Granger High this year after being a middle school principal in Pasco.

"I know great things have been done over the past nine years while Richard's been here," Chartrand said. "He took me under his wing and showed me the ins and outs of this community and students."

As Esparza prepares for his final Granger High School graduation as principal, there is particular pride for him because he will also be there as a father. His youngest daughter, Tasha, is one of the school's 60-plus graduates.

There's a philosophy, he says, he wants his current staff to remember, which can also serve as a reminder for himself as he moves on: "If you lose sight of what motivates kids, you'll lose more than you'll save."

James Joyce III can be reached at 577-7675 or [email protected]

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