Dr Rocío Rivas. Photo by Andrew Lopez for Boyle Heights Beat.

As a first-generation immigrant from Mexico, Dr. Rocío Rivas remembers growing up in a new environment in East LA, where she struggled with her identity as a Mexican and an American. She graduated from UC Berkeley in 1996 with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and Development Studies. She then earned her Doctorate from Columbia University in 2008 in  Comparative and International Education.   

Dr. Rivas has been serving as a LAUSD board member for District 2 after successfully getting elected in December 2022. This comes after her experience as a LAUSD student herself and a parent. Prior to becoming a board member, she served in School Site Councils and PTA. What strengthened her passion for public education was her involvement as a teacher assistant in a bilingual preschool in Berkeley when she was an undergrad student. 

Our youth reporters spoke with Dr. Rivas about how her values align with her goals as a school board member. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Boyle Heights Beat: Dr. Rivas, you won your election in December and you’ve been on the job for almost a year now. How has it been?

Rocío Rivas: It’s been a roller coaster ride, you got some ups and highs and twists and turns, but, but I will say I am enjoying this position, being of service to public schools. And I’m putting all of my skills, my doctorate, all my research, everything I’ve done totally prepared me for this position.

BHB: Have there been any hardships?

RR:  Well, you know, I’m a single mom, I have a teenager. We have a really good relationship. So the hardship, I guess, has been in the beginning, dedicating so much time into the campaign, it takes away from the time I can spend with my son. And so it was really being mindful and conscious of how this will affect him. That’s why I incorporated him into everything.

And now, as a board member, it’s even more overwhelming the work. I’ve been able to balance it, make sure that I turn off the computer and the phone and dedicate the time to him. The other hardship really is also with my family, I don’t see my mom and dad as I used to, I used to see them every weekend. And now I’ll see them maybe every other weekend, if at that. It’s really hard because we’re a very close family [but] they’re very understanding because they know that what this job entails.

BHB: You were the first in your family to complete a college degree and continue on to earn a doctorate in education. How was it navigating school and college?

RR: I was born in Torreón, Coahuila [Mexico], norteña! I was raised there on and off because my mom divorced and, in the 70s, being a divorced single mom in a little town was very controversial, so we had to leave. We moved to El Paso/Juárez for a little bit. That affected me because I’ve always felt displaced, I never felt like I belonged anywhere, right. Born in Mexico but then raised here, a border child. I’m not really Mexican, but I’m not American.

I came when I was two-and-a-half y me quedé with my mom [in] LA. I remember being in kindergarten, and I didn’t speak English, solo hablaba español, no sabia inglés, no sabía cómo comunicar. It was very hard for me to have make friends. And then my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Brandt, I was crying and she’s like “why are you crying?”. [I said] “nobody wants to be my friend,” so she hugged me so hard and said, “I’ll be your friend.” And I was captured by school, and I navigated it as my second home.

Dr. Rocio Rivas being interviewed by Boyle Heights Beat students. Photos by Andrew Lopez for Boyle Heights Beat.

When I got into fourth grade, my mom signed up my brother and I to be bussed to the Valley, so from mid-city LA, where I grew up and went to elementary, all of a sudden I was displaced to the Valley. All of these black and brown and Asian students that were with me, all of a sudden went to another school which was predominantly Caucasian, predominantly white. So all of a sudden displaced from my community into the Valley because of overcrowding. My mom was like “los voy a mandar para allá, porque allá dicen que  las escuelas están mejores,” the schools are better over there.

I was a very good student, it wasn’t hard for me to get A’s. It just came easy. So I navigated it being a straight-A student, I navigated it by going with the flow. I went to high school, everybody was going to college, I was in AP and Honors courses and I just went with what other student were doing. Then, luckily, I got into UC Berkeley and [there] I struggled a lot cause I realized that other students were smarter than me and I always had to work harder. I was luckily to have good teachers that helped med along the way.

BHB: On your campaign website you stated: “I will prioritize making all our schools welcoming, supportive, inclusive, respectful and safe for LGBTQ+ students.” What does that look like at elementary or middle school level,  or even the high school level?

RR: What that looks like is that our schools have a welcoming and positive culture. And what does that mean? That students feel like they have a voice, that there are outlets for them to exercise that voice and whatever passion they have, that they feel cared for, that they feel loved. It’s the ambiance around you, that you have to feel accepted. So if there’s a child who feels they have a different gender identity, they can have that discussion with their teachers with their peers.

BHB: You’re an advocate for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. How are you supporting disabled students and their families now?

RR: I feel that that is a group of students who have been very voiceless, and so have their parents, because it encompasses a lot of legal and funding, and it’s very complex. And it also comes in chunks, it’s a complex system, there’s a lot of need. I am now I’m one of the members of the Special Education Committee with Mr. Schmerelson and Dr. McKenna, because I want to delve deeper into these issues. When my community affairs deputie go to each one of my schools, the questions that I want them to ask is: “special education, what are your needs? Do you have assistant principal, who deals with special education?’” Then also want to talk to parents and talk to teachers. So it’s really trying to understand what are the issues at the school and understanding the patterns, doing research… You go to schools, you get the data, you see the patterns, you see the areas that need to be addressed. And then up those topics and special education [to the board] so we can talk about them.

I’m advocating at the state level and at the congressional level, Multiple things need to be addressed, so you have to address them from different angles.

BHB: You say you’re a strong advocate for authentic parent participation. What do you mean by that?

RR: We’re going to different schools in District Two, one of the areas that I visit are parents’ centers, I want to know, “do you have a parent center? Do you have a community rep, what are they doing?” And I go in and ask “what are the needs of the parents? What are what are parents asking that you’re not able to provide?” A lot of parent reps got workshops going on mental health, different workshops going on, and parents are not coming. I’ll come and talk to them and tell them my story as a parent and also the research about parent participation and how that impacts greatly in the education of your child. And you personally, when you’re in school, you’re learning, you’re caring about your community and it’s not only [that it] makes your child feel loved and mattered, because it does, but all the other students see that there’s a parent that cares. And then it’a a ripple effect.

At the board level, following up on committees and how things are going. if I get emails from constituents  saying this is the issue, this is what’s going on, we respond, because that parent is present and participating So there are different levels of addressing that, but it really is bringing the authentic voice of the parent.

“I want to know, “do you have a parent center? Do you have a community rep, what are they doing?” And I go in and ask ‘what are the needs of the parents? What are what are parents asking that you’re not able to provide?’ I’ll come and talk to them and tell them my story as a parent and also the research about parent participation and how that impacts greatly in the education of your child.”

BHB: Mental health is an ongoing issue in many schools; sometimes it has become so intense that it interferes with academics. How should schools combat this issue?

RR: Well in many of the schools that I’ve been to, they’re doing a lot of changes within the classroom, and within the school. For instance, they’re changing the seating arrangements, not all of them, but we’re getting there. They’re more inclusive there, the tables are facing each other, they’ll have a reading area with nice cushions, they have a decompression section where if a student is feeling like I don’t want to deal with this, they can go and sit, they have like a little tent to give little space. I can go over there and then have my own alone time, or I can go and read a book, or I can take my book, because I’m tired of sitting here. So those are different ways of feeling comfortable in your space.

There are some a lot of schools that have a special room, a safe zone. It smells like lavender, you have flowers, it’s really welcoming. So the child or the student can go in and have that conversation with the adult with a [Psychiatric Social Worker] (PSW) or a [Pupil Services and Attendance (PSA) counselor] or even the principal, so they can address what’s triggering them.  And then at the board level we’re pushing the district to hurry up [and] create pathways to hire more PSAs and more PSWs, to bring Teaching Assistants, help them become teachers, because we need more practitioners in our schools.

For me at the political level, I’m always out there supporting healthcare workers, supporting different ways to address health care and mental health. Because the reason we have shortage of people is because people like yourselves, looking for work, are not going into counseling, they’re not going into psychology, they’re going to other areas. And that is what the shortage is. And I think that as a society, we have really done a disservice to mental health, because it’s always been stigmatized. And now that it’s a big issue now that it’s toxic, we realize our infrastructure for mental health is very weak. So I’m one [lookin] to really eliminate the stigma and strengthen the infrastructure for mental health. Hopefully your generation will really look at combating mental health, because if we don’t address it, we’re really going to face a lot of suffering.

BHB: Schools have been targeting attendance issues lately. As a student, I feel intense pressure to attend school, even if I’m not feeling well. how can schools and students work together to help lower attendance issues without affecting senior activities?

RR: A lot of that is because of funding, because the district has these priorities of money. They don’t understand how it impacts at the at the lower level, when you say you must come to school. I’m very conflicted on that, very conflicted as a mom as well, because I’m not going to send my [sick] son just because “Well, I’m gonna have to go because of it.” You can’t. You’re not well, you cannot go to school, because you’re going to affect others.

We have to really re-evaluate how we’re pushing for attendance and why that is impacting our schools. So one of the ways legislatively we’ve been trying to address this, is to not connect, attendance to budget, instead of enrollment. The number of students who are enrolled, that is what you’re budgeted for. Because if you look at attendance, then attendance fluctuates, there’s times where we will be sick, and there’s times when you won’t be sick. So it’s not always going to be consistent, which means that the money that’s coming from a state level, federal, it’s not going to be consistent because of the attendance. So let’s change it to enrollment.

For me as a board member, I will stress to the superintendent and to my principals, “I know [there is] pressure for attendance. But can we do it in a way that doesn’t impact the students and the families. So there’s different ways that we can do it. It’s a tough issue, but something that we have to address them in a better way.

BHB: I go to a charter school where class size is relatively small.  My LAUSD peers tell me that they have about 30 to 37 students per class. What are you doing [about these schools} and what are you going to do with charter schools that have less students?

RR: In the last contract with the teachers’ union UTLA, there was a clause that addresses class size, the district will reduce class size, it’s something that we’re doing gradually.  Then some schools have extra funds to address that, right. Schools that are overcrowded get extra funding for class size reduction.

Charter schools are independent and have your own school board, so they are the ones that are in charge of their enrollment. So it’s totally different unless it’s an affiliated charter school. Where I do have oversight over charter schools, is asking for enrollment data, I have asked for that. And what I say is “Hey, we have this group of charter schools, I have under enrollment with that one. The reason I bring this up this up as urgency is because those schools [could potentially close]. I am ultimately concerned about what’s going to happen to those students, which are within my board district.

BHB: Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights recently underwent a $173 million renovation. What other schools in the area are struggling with infrastructure? What is your plan for other schools in the area? Have there been conversations to fund other renovations in the Eastside?

RR: The district receives bond money, tax dollar money that the voters agreed to fund. This bond is there to fund facilities to fund athletics. Each board member receives a small portion of this money. I have a little under a million dollars. So this is a million dollars that I have for 160 schools. So how do I [use] these million dollars? I look for help. I want to be equitable with the funds that I have. I know the district has funds for athletics. I’m like, “Hey, I have I have this school that really needs renovations in athletics. How can you help?  I need to fund the needs of my schools, and find where the money is.

So it’s like, what is plausible? What is not possible? Where do we need money? Maybe some people can raise money, and then part from the community, part from the district, and we can do something. For me it’s to assess the situation, convene people, find the money and get it done.

“I have no political aspirations. I’m not a politician. I see myself as a public servant. I’m here to serve my schools, my communities, my students. Unfortunately, politics is involved in that. But no, I have no political aspirations at all. I am here to serve as much as I can serve. As long as the people vote me in I’m here.”

BHB: Your predecessor ran for city council after being termed out.  Is that something you’d be interested in? What is your long-term goal?

RR: I get asked that question all the time. I have no political aspirations. The only reason I had to run for this is because in order to get this job, I had to run for office. I’m not a politician. I see myself as a public servant. I’m here to serve my schools, my communities, my students. Unfortunately, politics is involved in that. But no, I have no political aspirations at all. I am here to serve as much as I can serve. As long as the people vote me in I’m here. If there’s, you know, further along the way, there’s another avenue that I can be of service, I’ll be of service but no, I have no political aspirations.

BHB: Is there anything youd like to add that we haven’t touched on?

RR: The other thing that we’re working on as a district that’s a priority is really transforming our schools, transforming what they look like from the outside, so that they are inviting and makes you want to come inside.

BHB: Beautification?

RR: Beautification, greening shade, we need to make sure that our schools are climate resilient. So when you are going in, that it’s environmentally safe, that is welcoming. So we’re working on that. I’m the chair of the greening committee, and trying to push the district forward, how can we do this for our schools? It’s, it’s going to take $15 billion to do that. We want our schools to be spaces of healing.

I want our schools to be open so that on the weekends our students and families have a place to be. Because if we have healthy schools, we have healthy communities. We have healthy communities, we have healthy schools. [If] our schools are not thriving, that means we’re doing a disservice to our youth.

The other thing I wanted to say is go girl power. Because, if you connect with that feminine quality of yourself, that goddess within you that we all have, then you will live a purposeful life. And I love that you’re all journalists and you want to bring truth out, and that you’re doing what you need to do.

BHB: Thank you so much.

Janelle Quintero is a senior at James A Garfield High School.

Vianca Sanchez is a senior at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School.

Emilie Santana was born and raised in Boyle Heights. She goes to PUC eCALS High School where she is currently ASB President

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