In the Principal's Office
This is a weekly series shining a light on principals in Charlottesville’s and Albemarle County’s public schools.

Eric Irizarry didn’t always know he wanted to go into the education field.

In fact, he said he didn’t know what he wanted to do for his undergraduate degree.  After working for a public housing community in Wilmington, North Carolina, he realized he enjoyed working with children in after school program.

While serving for the first four years of his career as a teacher, he noticed there was a difference in students who had resources and those who didn’t.

He wanted to take the next step, so he went into administration. Before taking the reins as principal of Charlottesville High School in 2016, he was principal of D.C. Virgo Prep Middle School in Wilmington.

The 39-year-old said he aims to continue developing the school’s ability to meet the needs of all students, including mental health, financial barriers or the division’s gifted program, Quest.

During his time at CHS, Irizarry said he has continued his goal of increasing the graduation rate. In June 2016, the school’s on-time graduation was 89.4 percent. The next year, it was 89.6. The 2018 rate was 92.6. Although it has not been released yet, that number is projected to be even higher for June 2019.

Q: Four years in the job — how fulfilling is it? 

A: Incredible. I wouldn’t spend the amount of time involved here in the building … if I didn’t truly love what I was doing.  That’s something that I am very fortunate to say: That I love my job, and I love it here at Charlottesville High School. I love working here for Charlottesville City Schools.

Q: You’ve previously served as principal in North Carolina. What’s the difference between your previous school and CHS? 

A: One is age group. I think the large difference was the size of the school — 250 to 300, compared to 1,200 students here. So, overall, just the demographic of the school, the number of students at each school and grade level is a lot different. What we saw in North Carolina was definitely a less resourced school, money-wise.

We’re very lucky to have resources here, both allocations from the state and local money. There’s also a really strong community partnership here at Charlottesville City Schools. That’s the big difference. My last school division was 45 schools large, so there were four major high schools within the city. Here, it’s just one.

Q: Working in education can be stressful; what do you do to de-stress? 

A: I run, and I try to get home as early as possible to see my two boys. They’re 6 and 3. I also like to read.

We're very lucky to have resources here, both allocations from the state and local money. There's also a really strong community partnership here at Charlottesville City Schools. That's the big difference. My last school division was 45 schools large, so there were four major high schools within the city. Here, it's just one.

Eric Irizarry Charlottesville High School Principal

Q: You’re not from Charlottesville. How did you adjust to the area? 

A: Being part of the community is essential, no matter what school I’m associated with. Charlottesville is definitely a lot smaller than what we’re used to. Moving to this city, I really wanted to make sure that I was connected with my local community and just being visible at city events and the neighborhoods that I serve.

That was one way to adjust. It [also] could be a school event, like the fall festival at Buford Middle School. Just taking my family there, showing that we support the city schools in general, as well as the community.

Q: I’m sure you’re involved with other organizations in addition to being a principal? 

A: This job takes a lot of time, but I am part of the [Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center] Foundation Board of Directors. That’s one of my roles here. That’s something that, even though it’s still associated with the school system, it’s a board that I serve on that’s outside of my traditional role as a principal. I’ve also fostered many partnerships. I try to find ways to better support my students, whether being an advocate on the board, or giving a lens on how the board can benefit students and families.

Q: Students here to go CATEC. How does your role on the board benefit the school? 

A: The CATEC Foundation Board’s primary focus right now is advocating for CATEC and also raising funds to help scholarships for students to go to CATEC for the certificate program.

So, what that allows me to do is — my perspective as a principal working with families, working with students who may need the financial assistance — is relaying some of the barriers that students may have and some of the areas where I feel the board could help support CATEC as a whole and the partnership between CATEC and Charlottesville City Schools, as well.

Q: I’m sure you’ve accomplished many things since you got here. Can you elaborate on your achievements? 

A: We continue to raise graduation rates consistently every year. We’ve also been continuing some of our initiatives, such as expanding our career and technical education program. There’s an urban farming program here that’s really becoming popular among students, which started with a teacher and an idea.

Over the past four years, we’ve been able to build a pathway for students in entrepreneurship. What does an urban farm look like? We have a full track now, or full sequence, of computer science classes that complements our engineering classes really well. For the first time this year, we have a complete pathway, I should say, for computer science and urban farming and entrepreneurship.

Another area that we’ve expanded on is our social and emotional learning. We have multiple programs that supports students. In high school, it’s important to make sure that these resources are there for these students.

For example, we have a freshman mentoring program that allows them to get mentorship from upperclassmen. They have an orientation where they spend the entire day with incoming freshmen. That allows freshmen [to be] aware of what’s happening. That helps freshmen get connected. We’ve seen a drop in students failing courses. We’ve seen a drop in referrals. We’ve seen more freshmen at athletic events.

Q: What are your big plans for CHS? 

A: I want to continue to develop our ability to meet the needs of all students — just every aspect of students. It could be mental health, whether that’s some financial barriers, whether that’s gifted students. It’s important to me to figure out how we can individualize instructions as much as a major high school can to make sure that whatever need a student has, we can meet them here in the building.

And that involves a lot of professional development and thinking outside the box. I want to make sure CHS is not just a school that they come for academics or athletics. I want it to be a place where they belong.

Q: What interested you about CHS? 

A: CHS is unique. It’s incredible to walk down the hallways and just see all students from all walks of life in one building. It really speaks to the city as a whole, as well. There are things that we’re continuing to improve on, but there’s a sense of community here in the school that’s unique.

Every time there’s a tragedy in the community, it’s really the strength that we find in the students who come together and support each other and being advocates with each other makes it an incredibly, exciting place to walk into in the morning.

Q: Tragedy in the community; can you give me an example? 

A: You know, a few years back, there were more restrictions on immigrants coming into the country or refugees coming into the country — there was a lot of rhetoric about what we needed to do. I remember coming to work just having a group of students here asking what they can do to make sure their peers feel welcome at CHS. Knowing they can’t control what’s happening out there, they wanted to know what they can do in the building to make sure that their peers are supported.

Q: How did they do it? 

A: They made signs — Hate Has No Home Here. There was some partnership between our art and [English as a second language] departments on making some signs and some banners. We saw some of the similar responses for the August 2017 event. They show support, whether that’s the Young Feminists, or the Black Student Union, coming together to say although we all have differences, … here, we’re one. That’s always been a very unique thing about this school that’s different than any other schools that I’ve been to.

Q: What role do you play in hiring and recruiting minority teachers? 

A: We’re a small school division. Principals are involved as much as they can on the recruiting side. We go to various schools, historically black colleges. We do go to these schools to make sure that we’re recruiting.

We try to take a look at the candidate pool for that position to buy in to what we’re doing here — to buy in our work and culturally responsive teaching and setting high expectations for students. That comes out in the panel interview process with help from human resources. It’s really a team to make sure we’re getting the best candidates into our pool.

Say there’s a math position. HR post it, but what I can see is how candidates start to come in. I can start to see their résumés. From there, what we do is, during the interview process, we make sure we have a very diverse panel of staff — [this] usually involves central office, as well.

Eric

Eric Irizarry became principal of Charlottesville High School in 2016.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow

Q: As a principal, what challenges do you face? 

A: Time. I go to bed each night thinking about what’s happening in the community and [how] that’s going to impact my students. I go to bed thinking even though I spent 12 hours in a school day, what could I have done better.

As principals, those are things that keep us up. There’s no typical day for a high school principal. You don’t know what you’re going to walk into. Sometimes there are emergencies that happened that are unforeseen. But I think … what makes the job exciting is going to work with an incredible group of teachers and counselors dedicated to students.

Trying to get through that 10-hour a day sometimes is tough. It’s a job that can never be completed, and it’s a job that will never be done.

Q: What type of work do you do that’s been overlooked? 

A: The things that we see are the things that we can measure. And those are the things that make the news — whether that’s graduation rate or test scores. What we do that’s very hard to quantify, and sometimes we don’t even want to share the numbers that we have, are the social and emotional programs and interventions and resources that we have within these buildings that we work really hard to make sure stay in the building, whether that’s students struggling with stress and anxiety, poverty or trauma.

Students are complex. We’ve launched a teen mental health program, teaching students how to look out for warning signs among their peers. That kind of work is really important.

Q: In terms of resources, what do you think that you’re missing?  

A: As a principal, you never say you have enough. I would say we’re very fortunate to have a lot of resources in the building. With the diversity of students that we serve, I think there’s trauma, and trauma takes different forms for different students.

I don’t know if that’s a lack of resources, but just continuing to educate our team on what to look for in the way of trauma. We’re making sure we’re being responsive to our students, not only the academic side but their mental health and their emotional sides, as well.

Until we can acknowledge and try to support the student on the emotional side, they’re never going to be prepared academically to be successful. You cannot have one without the other. It’s more stressful now to be a teenager than ever before. Technology has complicated that in terms of social media. I’m not that old, but it was a simpler time when I was in high school. Charlottesville City Schools really strive to be on the cutting edge as much as possible, and that we’re proactive to support our children.

Q: What are your thoughts on students going to a four-year or two-year college? 

A: It’s a complexity for students choosing a two-year or a four-year college, some of that could be financial. Some of that could be based on their career choice. Some of it could be they want to stay local for a few years and go to a four-year college.

I really think our job as a school is to make sure that the opportunities are there for each student, no matter what they want to do.

There are a lot different reasons for students’ choices after high school. We have a lot of successful students taking advantage of four-year, two-year colleges or into the workforce.

Q: What does success mean to you?

A: Success to me means I have made sure I’ve given all my students the opportunities they need to follow their dreams. I want to make sure that I’ve given them the opportunity to fulfill their goals and continue to support them after they leave us, as well.

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Graduation rate at Charlottesville High School has increased under Principal Eric Irizarry.

Credit: Billy Jean Louis/Charlottesville Tomorrow