Rancho San Justo Middle School Principal Deborah Armstrong and Assistant Principal Samantha Rivas have come full circle in their new positions.
Armstrong and Rivas returned to the school this year after previously working together at Rancho and Hollister High School. They have enjoyed working with each other over the years and shared a sentiment that drew them back to the Hollister middle school.
“Rancho is my home,” Armstrong said. “It’s very, very nice to be back here. The family feeling still exists.”
“Rancho has always had a strong feeling of family,” Rivas added. “When I was working here, I always loved working here. It always felt like home.”
Armstrong and Rivas shared their backgrounds and expectations for Rancho. They both emphasized a need to focus on culture and students’ wellbeing as the staff works toward improving core academic performance.
Armstrong is originally from Cupertino, and has spent time living in Georgia and California. She noted how education is her second career after 15 years in marketing. She started her teaching career at Rancho, where she taught math and science for five years before pursuing an administration role at Hollister High School. She taught there for a year and then served four years as an assistant principal.
A signature endeavor at the high school for Armstrong and Rivas was working together to launch the Baler Wellness Center that opened in the midst of the pandemic. They came to know each other well as a “pair” assigned to the project and development of the campus Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) effort at Hollister High, Armstrong said.
Her priority at Rancho is establishing a positive school environment from the outset.
“We need our students to feel very safe when they’re here,” Armstrong said. “Then the teaching and learning will follow.”
Staff members set that tone on the first day of school with a special dress-up day.
“Every single staff member, without exception, dressed up,” the principal said. “We were all wearing leis so that students could immediately identify us and to create a festive and welcoming atmosphere.”
She pledged to follow a style referred to as “servant leadership” in her interactions with teachers and other staff members as part of efforts to improve school culture.
“To the best of my abilities, I’m right in there with them,” Armstrong said. “I’m in their classrooms. I’m picking up trash at lunch. I’m supervising every break and lunch.”
For the broader community, the goal is to rebuild trust while emphasizing positive communications with students. Some immediate changes include holding one lunch period for all students and altering the system for breaks between classes.
“We just want everyone to feel super welcome and safe here,” Armstrong said. “This is a second family for some of our kiddos.”
Longer term, the new administrators are aiming for improved academic results and test scores, and one related area of focus is on improving attendance, which has lagged post-pandemic.
With such a vision, it helps to have a good rapport with Rivas, who has fluctuated between teaching and counseling during her career. She started teaching at Gilroy High School for a few years before moving into counseling.
Rivas spent the past five years at Hollister High School, and echoed the importance of opening and running the Baler Wellness Center where she coordinated school-based resources as well as community-based organizations’ involvement.
It helped to spur her interest in administration.
“I really like creating processes and systems and looking at data,” Rivas said. “That’s what I did in the Wellness Center, and I thought if I could do that at a school level, that would be really rewarding. I think that really inspired me to go into administration.”
Rivas said the pandemic had a “huge effect” on students that will continue to show impacts for a long time. Sometimes students need a “soft place to fall” by checking in with someone, Rivas said.
“I think it brought mental health to the surface. It’s normalizing the way students and families address and support it,” she said.
She also said the primary goal for Rancho administrators is to build culture. That will include promoting involvement in extracurriculars such as clubs and the Associated Student Body.
“We want students to feel safe and comfortable,” she said. “We want them to know of all the support we have in the community and on our campus.”