’93 BS Secondary Education, ’98 M.Ed. Curriculum and Instruction, ’09 M.Ed Educational Leadership
College of Education Alumna of the Year
Following her sophomore year at UNLV, Ramona Esparza accepted a summer job as an enrichment tutor for marginalized kids in Las Vegas’ eastside. She took the gig with one goal in mind: Earn enough cash to cover tuition expenses for the ensuing fall semester.
By the time summer ended, Esparza had the funding she needed — as well as a new major and road map for her life.
“My job was to create lesson plans to improve the kids’ reading and math skills, organize field trip experiences, create social emotional activities that would improve their self-esteem, and visit families so they were informed about their child’s progress,” said Esparza, who at the time was studying hospitality and tourism. “It was the most difficult work I had done at that point in my life, but it was also the most rewarding. Seeing the figurative light bulbs turn on when students began to understand a concept and/or when they started to enjoy reading or being read aloud to — that’s when I found my purpose to serve as an educator, so I enrolled in the College of Education.”
Thus began a journey that has spanned nearly three decades. Upon completing her undergraduate degree, Esparza went to work as a public services intern with a state-run mental health agency (Children’s Behavioral Services). She then embarked on a 27-year career with the Clark County School District, wearing multiple hats as a teacher, a project facilitator, mentor, and administrator (among other roles), while also returning to her alma mater to earn her master’s.
She instilled a love of learning in countless students — particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds — and inspired teachers and administrators throughout Clark County to challenge outdated educational practices, eliminate inequities and develop innovative concepts that focus on the holistic well-being of all children.
In July, following a seven-year stint as Valley High School’s principal, Esparza joined The Leadership Institute of Nevada, where she is a vice president.
Indeed, the summer tutoring job Esparza accepted more than a quarter century ago has paid off — in many ways and for many people.
“That summer was the hardest I had ever worked,” she said. “But I felt extreme satisfaction because it felt like a reciprocal exchange. I was learning from my students — about how they thought about the world and processed information — as much as they were learning from me.”
You have spent your career helping children cultivate a passion for learning. As you were growing up, who or what exposed you to the wonders of education?
When I was young, my mother purchased books so we could read them at night, and in doing so she instilled in me a sincere love for reading and writing literature.
I knew that becoming an English teacher, I would be able to share my passion for short stories, poetry, autobiographies, and writing with my students. That was confirmed when I taught poetry like “Harlem, A Dream Deferred,” by Langston Hughes. Or a short story from The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. The reason I was so passionate about teaching students how to read and write literature was that there were very few teachers in my life who exposed me to authors of color.
The way those authors spoke about growing up in their communities was an experience I knew my students could relate to — because I did as a person of color.
Explain why it’s essential for educators to go beyond the “three Rs” and teach children at a young age to truly embrace learning.
Teaching is more than learning about content; it’s about connecting with others. Being able to shape and mold young minds is life-altering for students, especially those who were marginalized. Early in my career, I came to appreciate that education is the key to opening the doors for transcending beyond one’s own circumstances. And as I taught my students to be exposed to new authors and news ways of thinking, it shaped my own thinking about the world.
You have devoted your career not just to helping students but also fellow teachers, encouraging them to become leaders so they can impact education in a transformative way. Why did you assume this responsibility?
We need innovative thinkers and doers to do the hard work of improving our education system, which includes not just bolstering student achievement but also ensuring fair and equitable practices, as well as shifting the culture to be more student centric. For instance, during my principalship at Valley High School, my staff and I worked hard to foster a collaborative and compassionate culture, one in which every decision was based on what’s best for the student.
This experience motivated me to lead differently and open gates for others who shared a similar philosophy that educators could lead with compassion and still get results. That’s why I’m proud to say that by the end of my tenure at Valley, seven administrators who had worked alongside me has been promoted to principalships, three of whom were from diverse ethnic backgrounds.
There were countless days when I questioned if I was truly making a difference. But then a student, teacher, or staff member would tell me how much I changed their life, and I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Drawing from your experience, what three attributes should every educational professional strive to have a boundless supply of?
Integrity, compassion, and adaptability.
How does the phrase “Rebel spirit” apply to the education world?
A Rebel is someone who moves against the grain, disrupts the status quo, and is an innovator creating change that is necessary and sustainable.
In the education world, that means being a risk-taker who is willing to disrupt systems that no longer work. It means going out and doing what others cannot (either by choice or by fear). And it means reimagining learning and leading while having the courage and conviction to influence change, forge new paths and implement new systems and processes that work in the best interest of students and their families.