Oscar Romano graduated from Harvard in 2009 and joined Teach For America. He taught 8th grade science for two years at HISD’s Fondren Middle School before starting his career at YES Prep Brays Oaks. Now in his 6th year at YES Prep, he is a Director of Student Support. Below, we interviewed him about his:
- choice to work at YES Prep
- participation in YES Prep’s leadership opportunities
- role and student support initiatives
- experiences as a parent
Tell us about your background. Where did you go to college and how did you end up in education?
My parents are immigrants from El Salvador, and I was the first person in my family to go to college. I originally started studying economics because I was thinking more about what I could do to ensure I could provide for my parents and extended family. After the first few years of college, I realized that I needed to find more meaning in what I did. I was a member of different service organizations, which opened my eyes to the fact that I could make an impact on people’s lives. I switched to social anthropology. We studied immigration– something that I could relate to as a child of immigrants. Those were the classes where I found value and where I could offer a unique perspective. Around December of my senior year, I was looking at positions in investment banking and consulting, but I couldn’t get myself to write those cover letters. I’d heard about Teach For America through a friend, and I finished that application in just a few hours. It was so easy to talk about why I wanted to work in education and the impact I wanted to have on students. I wanted to provide that space and venue for others to learn more about themselves and succeed in life through education.
Why YES Prep?
One of my coworkers at Fondren left to lead Brays Oaks and convinced me to come visit. I saw that it was the same community I taught at Fondren. Students came from the same neighborhoods and apartment complexes. It was just that the culture of the school was different. That was powerful for me. Everyone is speaking the same language and working toward the same message at YES. It continued to resonate after a year here. I was teaching siblings of kids that I’d taught at Fondren but in an environment that was aligned with my values. At YES, we are working hard to teach the whole child– looking beyond academics and ensuring that students are invested, that they build visions and goals for themselves, and that they are exposed to colleges. That’s super important. I didn’t visit one college until my junior year of high school, and I didn’t visit any of the colleges I ended up applying to. It’s very different for YES students. They have seminar class. They are going on college visits frequently. It has been messaged since they were 6th graders– even in the naming of their homerooms after colleges and universities. College becomes the norm for them rather than the exception.
At YES, we are working hard to teach the whole child– looking beyond academics and ensuring that students are invested, that they build visions and goals for themselves, and that they are exposed to colleges.
Why do you remain at YES Prep?
I believe I provide a unique perspective in leadership at YES Prep. I grew up with Spanish as my first language. My mom tells this story where I was in preschool and she was called to come into school. She brought my uncle who knew some English so he could translate. The school asked why I wasn’t standing for the pledge, and my uncle had to tell them I wasn’t standing because I didn’t understand English and what was going on. After that, I was pulled out for ESL support through kindergarten and maybe first grade. That’s a perspective I can provide. I can bring students’ experiences to the forefront and help others become aware of those experiences when we put together programs, messaging, and more.
I also stay because I believe in YES Prep’s All Means All messaging. YES has changed and grown and is focused on addressing every student’s needs– whether a student is at the top academically or a student that faces behavioral challenges. And that’s exciting to be a part of. We’re really changing what it looks like to educate students on a grand scale. I want to be a voice for students in whom I see myself and for parents in whom I see my own parents. There’s no place I’d rather be than working at YES Prep.
I want to be a voice for students in whom I see myself and for parents in whom I see my own parents.
As a Director of Student Support, what campus leadership opportunities have you experienced?
I did Leading Excellence for two years. I’m in the School Director Pipeline now. One of my biggest strengths is input. I love to learn and am constantly trying to work toward bettering myself. Leading Excellence provided an opportunity to learn about leadership through a different lens. On the job, you learn the technical and practical skills: how to design programs, how to build a meeting agenda, etc. Leading Excellence provided the softer skills: how to build trust, how to be vulnerable, how to lead with passion, how to bring your team together. I learned I could be who I was and lead with my own conviction and passions.
What does your current role encompass?
I work on supporting and coaching the Deans of Students this year. The idea is to build capacity on campus and to make sure knowledge isn’t lost if someone leaves. We want to make sure we have people who’ve done the role for a while training others to do it well– rather than them having to start from scratch. It’s a chance for me to have a greater impact because I can guide others.
I learned I could be who I was and lead with my own conviction and passions.
What are some of the student support initiatives that you’re particularly proud of at Brays Oaks?
This year is pretty exciting. We started a Reset Center, which is an alternative placement center– a place where students can go rather than facing expulsion. We can provide more intense behavioral interventions. In the past, a student might face escalating consequences and then expulsion. Now, they have a consequence that is aligned with the code of conduct, but there’s learning too. There’s a reentry plan. Maybe it’s a circle or a mediation with students and teachers. Maybe it’s a lesson on a topic relevant to their infraction– something like coping with anger and working through emotions. We have a Reset Center teacher and a Behavioral Support Specialist to work with the students.
This year, we also started Legacy on campus, which means we have a mental health counselor onsite to provide therapy for certain students and to make sure they get the support they need to focus on school.
One of our biggest pushes is making sure that our students feel that this is a community and a family. Our college counseling team does an amazing job having events throughout the year for parents and making sure they’re aware of everything going on. Recently, they had a senior parent dinner night. Seniors and parents joined for a family-style dinner in our cafeteria. Seniors could share where they wanted to go, what the process was, and why they were choosing some schools over others, so that parents feel involved in the decision.
One misconception we hear frequently is that you can’t be a parent and work at a charter school. What has been your experience?
I’ve been perfectly happy balancing my work and home lives while working at a charter school. I drop off and pick up my daughter almost every day. What makes things work well is the support I get from my School Director. I have been very transparent with her over the past two years about my needs and she has extremely helpful in making it work. I still have the same amount of work that I need to get done, and sometimes I take it home in order to pick up my daughter on time. Furthermore, we plan out after school responsibilities with plenty of time in advance, so I can make appropriate arrangements if necessary.
Does being a parent change how you approach your work?
Being a parent definitely influences how I approach my work. I constantly think to myself, “Am I treating my students how I would want others to treat my daughter?” Answering this question helps ground me in the reality that we are working with children. Although they might sometimes want to be treated like adults, they are far from it. As a parent, I have learned to approach my work with more patience and love than anything else.
As a parent, I have learned to approach my work with more patience and love than anything else.
Oscar also has a blog on school leadership and culture. Visit www.oscarreneromano.com to learn more.