In an electric celebration on the campus of the University of Southern California, the Spirit of Troy marching band played as Cardinal and Gold pom-poms pumped through the air amid chants of “Fight On!” It was a touchdown for teachers, students, and literacy in the Rialto Unified School District.
RUSD celebrated the 127 teachers who recently completed the USC Reading and Literacy Added Authorization program, a rigorous year-long program designed to train teachers with strategies to develop each student’s abilities in literacy, with a Teacher Celebration on June 25 at the Bovard Auditorium on the campus of USC.
RUSD Board of Education President Edgar Montes and Vice President Stephanie E. Lewis joined RUSD Superintendent Dr. Cuauhtémoc Avila, RUSD administrators, and education support staff to celebrate the momentous occasion alongside the teachers and their families.
According to Superintendent Dr. Avila, who is also a USC alum, the historic celebration put an exclamation point on each teacher’s hard work in the year-long program and the training they processed will continue to pay dividends for years to come.
“It’s been a great thing to go through this program, learn so much and finish it,” stated Michael Rawls, Eisenhower High School teacher, after the ceremony. “I can’t wait to take what I’ve learned here and use it for my students and be able to serve them and our community. I love being able to diagnose and work with specific students and watch them grow over the course of a year.”
The program was inclusive to RUSD elementary, middle, and high school teachers.
“The program was rigorous and time-consuming, but well worth it,” Shelley Gastelo, Dollahan Elementary School Reading Specialist replied. “I learned so many strategies to work with my students and help them succeed.”
Under the direction of the superintendent, educational services worked alongside personnel services to spearhead a push for literacy and numeracy by investing directly in training teachers. The training will go on to benefit students for years to come in the District.
In 2021, the District introduced the Foundations: Literacy & Numeracy Initiative, a plan to help students achieve more in the areas of reading and math. The first pillar of that initiative is support and professional development for teachers, which included the opportunity to enroll in USC’s Reading and Literacy Added Authorization. Many teachers jumped at the chance to enhance their skills to help students, and enrollment in the program and textbooks were paid for by the RUSD.
“It is no secret that investing in our teachers is a direct investment in student achievement.” Dr. Rhea McIver Gibbs, RUSD Lead Personnel Agent, said during the ceremony.
The program focuses on helping teachers gain valuable tools and tactics to address literacy in students. These skills help teachers to be well-prepared to help students develop into proficient and advanced readers and writers. According to the USC Rossier School of Education, the program included strategies to help educators “diagnose reading difficulties” in students by using a variety of assessments to identify students’ needs and “design comprehensive instructional plans to remediate reading instruction.”
The teachers have already begun to implement lessons from the program in classrooms across the RUSD.
Yessica Stewart, a Reading Specialist at Curtis Elementary School, was emotional as she spoke at the graduation celebration. She grew up just a few blocks from the USC campus, making the program extra special for her.
“I only dreamed of ever attending this school and now I get to have this,” Stewart said. “I want to thank the Rialto Unified School District for giving me this opportunity. This is helping me as a teacher and as a reading specialist. I see the difference in the students already. I feel more equipped. I understand assessment a lot better and I get to see what the kids need, which is so important as a teacher.”
The ceremony started with Xiomara Reyes, Henry Elementary School teacher, leading the Pledge of Allegiance. Bringing the focus back to the students, Gabriela Beatriz Patron, a Rialto High School student, drew many cheers from the crowd as she sang the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The program included speeches by several teachers who completed the program: Laura Schneider, Rialto High School teacher, Brent Copeland, Jehue Middle School Reading Specialist, and Shirley Lee, Trapp Elementary School teacher. Lee graduated from USC and was enthusiastic to be back on campus.
The celebration featured a few big surprises for the graduating teachers. The teachers watched a special video message from NFL Hall of Famer and RUSD and USC alum, Ronnie Lott, congratulating them on their achievement.
Lott sent the video by email after recording it from his home in Northern California. Lott attended Bemis Elementary School and Frisbie Middle School and graduated from Eisenhower High School, as an honor roll student, in 1977. He graduated from USC in 1988.
“You guys just completed this incredible program at USC. Congratulations!” Lott exclaimed in the video. “I know that it was a rigorous program. I know that you guys did a wonderful job, and you are going to be able to help some struggling students. But more importantly, I want you guys to know that you are making a difference in the lives of a lot of kids for a long, long time. And by the way, who knows, (smile) you might graduate a Hall of Famer!”
One teacher cheered from the audience, “This is just epic!” The crowd
“The District did a lovely job on the ceremony,” Teresa Robinson, Jehue Middle School teacher said. “I really appreciate it. It showed that the district really cares about the teachers and bringing literacy to our students.”
Finally, the auditorium exploded with delight as the Spirit of Troy, the USC marching band, delighted the audience with a bombastic performance to close out the ceremony.
“I loved the band. We had all these exciting things that went on during the whole ceremony,” Tonia Willis, an Education Specialist at Werner Elementary School, said as she beamed with joy from the celebration.