As one of her first orders of business as Farmersville Unified School District Superintendent, Ofelia Caja-Lariviere decided she would check out the Aztec football team’s first home game.
“The game was like a big family gathering,” she said. “It was kind of a like a huge picnic for a family reunion.”
It was a much different experience than what Caja-Lariviere is used to after an education career spanning 36 years in the Los Angeles Basin. She started her career as a teacher with Pomona Unified School District. Caja-Lariviere would spend the next 34 years of her career which included time as a staff development specialprogram coordinator, vice-principal, principal and as Administrative Director to one of the largest Early Childhood Education Programs in California. More recently she worked for two years as assistant superintendent of education services with Inglewood Unified School District in Los Angeles County. The district is much larger than Farmersville Unified (FUSD) with a student population of 12,500 students at 13 elementary, two middle and K-8 schools and three high schools. By comparison, FUSD has five total schools serving a student population of 2,600 students.
“Education is more of an occu-passion than an occupation,” Caja-Lariviere said. “And when teachers walk onto a campus, not even their own campus, they know students by name. There are great relationships in Farmersville can be the foundation for solid education.”
Caja-Lariviere said she was touched by the respect and admiration students had for teachers and staff during the game when she noticed they were wearing the away jerseys for the Farmersville High School students playing in the game. Back in Inglewood, she said it was not uncommon for there to be four or five armed officers searching everyone as they came through the gate and then remain on alert to protect fans from gang rivalries within school rivalries.
“I saw a few students get up and walk out of the bleachers,” she said. “I was a little worried because in LA that usually means something bad is going to happen.”
But in this case, Caja-Lariviere overheard a parent in the stands say a few of the sheep got out of the corrals at the high school ag farm, so they were going to make sure all of the animals were OK.
“We didn’t even have ag classes in Englewood,” Caja-Lariviere said. “If we could bottle up the way people treat each other here down south every school would be a success.”
Caja-Lariviere said she first visited Tulare County two years ago during a demonstration of performance based learning at Lindsay Unified School District. On the way up Highway 99, Caja-Lariviere said she wondered where the schools were when all she could see was agricultural land on all sides of the freeway.
“I thought to myself, is there really a city out here,” she said. “I had no idea at the time that this beautiful place would be my new home.”
Despite her differences, Caja-Lariviere has many things in common with Farmersville families. She was born in Michoacan, Mexico and then emigrated across the border with her parents. Growing up in Baldwin Park, Caja-Lariviere said was an English Language Learner who benefitted from caring teachers and staff members who helped and many others adjust to life in a new country.
Her experience in school convinced her to become a teacher. She went on to get her master’s in education from the University of La Verne and her bachelor’s degree in art from Cal Poly Pomona. She is Past President of the California Association of Latino Superintendents and Administrators, (CALSA), served as Member At Large for the ACSA State Board, was a member of ACSA’s Elementary Curriculum Council representing Early Education, served as the Vice-Chair for the YMCA Pomona Chapter, and was Executive Member to the Child Care Alliance of Los Angeles, a non-profit organization working for the betterment of Cal WORK participants.
“My first time here I met the County Superintendent of Schools,” she said. “It would have taken months down south to meet with that person. It also doesn’t take me an hour to drive from one campus to the next. I can visit every campus in one day. That was not possible in Pomona.
Attending a football game is one of the many ways Caja-Lariviere plans to reach out to parents and community members. She said she wants to begin holding town hall meetings with parents at each site.
“Parents know what the needs of the students are,” she said. “I want to listen to them and find out what those needs are.”
Caja-Lariviere replaces Dr. Christina Luna who was a polarizing figure in Farmersville. The Board and administrative office became split on Dr. Luna as a small group of community members and a many outspoken teachers began to question everything from afterschool contracts to staff development decisions.
“I’m not sure what happened with the previous superintendent but I want to be out there in the community as much as possible,” Caja-Lariviere said. “I think the unity is already there between teachers and administration, we just need to nurture it.”
Caja-Lariviere said the biggest problem facing FUSD is not getting the community on the same page but rather getting teachers the tools they need to help students succeed. She said FUSD needs more technology at the fingertips of teachers who need training on that technology as well as other professional development.
“The staff here is hungry for professional development and the Board [of Trustees] is committed to providing those resources,” she said. “We need to improve the image from being a teacher’s last job option to being a destination for quality teachers.”
Lariviere has raised two children of her own. Her daughter Erin followed in her footsteps by becoming a math teacher in Pomona Unified. Her son Damien is a project manager with the U.S. Army Crops of Engineers on the Santa Ana River. And on the same day she was hired on Sept. 3, her first grandchild, Aries Holder, was born in Southern California. She said that first Farmersville football game brought back memories of when she was a cheerleader in Baldwin Park cheering on her future husband Leonard Lariviere, who was captain of the football team.
“There is a lot of work to be done in Farmersville but there is a lot of potential here with a committed staff and wonderful kids already in place,” she said.