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White City principal sits front and center

Mountain View Elementary School Principal Karina Rizo has been prepping her whole life for her role as Jackson County's first Hispanic principal.

A classroom teacher for 10 years, Rizo become Mountain View's principal in August. The White City school's student body is 53 percent Hispanic and Spanish-speaking, Rizo said.

"We want to provide an equitable education," said Rizo, 31. "The experiences that I had helped me. I can relate to English, Spanish and other language speakers."

Rizo's path to the principal's chair began in the Los Angeles area. She initially attended a school where the student body almost entirely spoke Spanish. Pushed by her parents' strong emphasis on learning, Rizo initially excelled at school.

"I learned how to read and write (in Spanish) at age 4," Rizo said. "We were not allowed to speak English at home. My parents knew we'd be taught English in school. But they wanted us to be truly bilingual and bi-literate — and they knew it was the only way."

But in the third grade, Rizo was dropped into an English-only classroom and left to fend for herself.

Anxiety-ridden and ill-prepared for her new classroom, Rizo remembered, she racked up the sick days.

"I was absent because I was anxious. I didn't understand anything," Rizo said.

For two months Rizo struggled in vain. Then she was given an ELL teacher.

"I picked up (reading and writing English) quickly because I had a strong grounding in academic Spanish," she said.

Rizo's family later moved to the Medford area, where she attended Hedrick Junior High and North Medford High School. She left the area to attend college, then returned to Southern Oregon University to get her master's degree and become a principal, she said.

"I want to have a greater impact on our students' learning. I want to be an instructional leader," she said.

Mountain View Elementary received a Level 3 grade in the new five-tier rating system unveiled by the Oregon Department of Education last Thursday. The below average rating was counterbalanced by the fact the school scored a Level 4 in the growth area of the scoring, Rizo said, adding the district's hiring of a Hispanic principal also aligns with the state's goals of having staffing better reflect cultural demographics.

Rizo's history also helps Hispanic students and their parents feel comfortable coming to her with concerns, and also with encouraging community involvement, she said.

"Being part of their culture, that's what makes the strongest connections," Rizo said. "It helps when the leader is multi-cultural and multi-lingual."

Rizo changed Mountain View's formerly wordy mission statement to a simple message emphasizing quality teaching and collaboration among teachers, administrators and parents.

"We want the parents and the community to come into our school and be a part of our team," Rizo said.

The school's parent/teacher organization at the high-poverty level school has grown from fewer than five to almost three dozen members under Rizo's leadership, said PTO treasurer and school volunteer Marie Poppa.

Poppa has been involved at Mountain View since her daughter, now in the third grade, first attended kindergarten there. Poppa praised Rizo for being a "collaborative and inclusive team player."

"She sure is a breath of fresh air. She is all about community and collaboration with family inclusion. She is bilingual and that is wonderful in this community. It's necessary," Poppa said.

Rizo's parents and two siblings also reside in the Rogue Valley. Her brother is a teacher at Jackson Elementary School and her sister works as a medical assistant while she studies to become a nurse.

"My parents are very big on education," Rizo said, adding they expected each child to attend college.

"They were strict. But in a loving way. I think that's why we are the way we are," she said.

Rizo takes her parents' message to the students. She considers herself and her staff to be "graduation coaches" and encourages the elementary school students to look far down their educational path.

"One day a month we wear our college gear to school," Rizo said. "The whole reason to graduate high school is to go on to college."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

White City principal sits front and center