Longoria keeps focus on equity, student success in Ontario

Ontario Middle School principal Lisa Longoria. (The Enterprise/AUSTIN JOHNSON)

ONTARIO – When Lisa Longoria was a senior at Ontario High School, she became a teen parent.

“It was scary, but my mom taught me strong work ethic,” she said. ““I knew I now have a child, I’m going to have to be more responsible.”

Longoria, now 48, “had to grow up” and care for her daughter. She gave up early dreams of joining the Army in favor of clerical work that was a better match for her new lifestyle. 

She couldn’t have guessed that her work would eventually lead her back to the Ontario School District, first as a teacher and later as an administrator.

Longoria is currently the principal at Ontario Middle School, and last year was named Oregon’s Middle School Principal of the Year. Longoria serves as a member of the Governor’s Ready Schools Safe Learners Council, a board member on Oregon’s Educator Advancement Council, a member of the Oregon Association of Latino Administrators (OALA), and a member of COSA’s Equity Board (Coalition of Oregon School Administrators

“It’s a lot to balance,” she acknowledged. “But everything that I’ve decided to apply for or be a part of is to support growth in equity within our school and district.”

Longoria, like many of her students, grew up in a Latinx family with roots in farm work. Her mother’s parents were migrant workers who traveled between Texas, Arizona and Ontario before eventually settling in Oregon. 

“I feel that I can be effective here in Ontario because I was born and raised here, and grew from here,” Longoria said. “I understand the culture of poverty. I understand the culture of discrimination.”

Longoria said, however, that as mother to children with an Anglo last name, she also understood the culture of privilege and had seen how having an Anglo last name could alter the assumptions people made. 

Longoria said that when she was a student in Ontario, perhaps because of her Hispanic last name, she was placed in an English as a Second Language class as a middle schooler. 

“English is my first language,” she said. “I didn’t know why I was put in ESL class. I felt really awkward in there because I didn’t understand Spanish. I could only assume that I was put in there because of my last name, because both my parents spoke English.”

The assignment was for only one year, with Longoria using the period as a study hall. But being randomly placed there made a lasting impression on her.

As an adult, Longoria worked as an attendance secretary in Nampa, building many relationships with students and families. She was married by that point, and had the support of her family when she decided to go back to school for bilingual elementary education at Boise State University. She taught fourth grade in Payette for three years before eventually deciding that she wanted to go into administration. 

“During one of my practicums, I was in a kindergarten classroom and the teacher at the time was telling me that she was going to go into administration,” she recalled. “I was dumbfounded at the time because she was such a good kindergarten teacher.”

Longoria described feeling bad for the students who would no longer get to learn directly from the teacher. But the teacher explained that she had realized that she was effective in the classroom with up to 30 kids a year, and that being in administration would give her the chance to be effective for many more. 

Longoria went back to school for a master’s degree in educational leadership from Northwest Nazarene University. It was through this process that she made her way back to Ontario. 

“I wanted to do (my internship) in a larger district where there might be more opportunities to grow afterwards,” she said. “And being from here, it made sense.”

In 2008, Longoria accepted a position at Alameda Elementary School, where she taught fourth grade under Nikki Albisu, the current superintendent but then Alameda’s principal. There, Longoria began an after-school program geared for students who weren’t meeting the benchmark for mathematics on their state assessments. 

“A lot of the fourth and fifth graders who had never made benchmark in a state assessment were able to experience that success and gain confidence and increase their academic progress in other areas, (like) spelling and reading,” Longoria said. “It was small-group instruction.”

The program was eventually replicated in other Ontario schools, with Longoria becoming known for its success. That victory helped propel her to her first administrative position, as vice principal of Ontario Middle School, in 2012. 

“When I first got to OMS, I thought to myself, oh my gosh, why would anyone go to college to work at a middle school?” she said. “The students pretty much ran the school. There was a lot of disrespect. There wasn’t a lot of consistency with expectations, which affected the culture. There wasn’t a lot of consistency in administration years prior. Every principal’s going to come in and have different expectations. That poor staff, I commend them.”

In 2013, Longoria became principal and hired Jodi Elizondo as her vice principal. Elizondo later became the high school principal. At the middle school, the two set to reforming the middle school’s behavior expectations. 

“Not rules, but expectations,” Longoria clarified. “Students knew what to expect in every area of the school. Teachers as well…Teachers made comments that ‘I finally get to come to work and teach, not just manage behaviors.’ Teachers appreciated consistency and students thrived with it.”

Longoria said that over time, she’s observed the middle school’s reputation improve. Every year since she became principal, enrollment has increased – including during the pandemic. Her greatest accomplishment, she said, is the shift in middle school culture from opposition between parents, students and teachers to collaboration.

Longoria sets a lot of stock in conscious discipline, which she called “social emotional work.”

“It’s not our job to discipline students, but instead to instill discipline in students, and also to understand that every behavior is a form of communication,” she said. 

Longoria’s other priority as an administrator is equity.

“Meaning that we are meeting all students where they’re at, and providing them with the strategies and skills to progress wherever we’re meeting them at,” she said, explaining what equity is.

Equity, as Longoria understands it, ican be sought not just in the classroom, but in the broader school environment. 

Longoria said she is interested in equity work is because she experienced inequitable practices when she was a student at Ontario. 

“When I came to school, we had lunch tickets and students who had free lunch got a red ticket and students who paid for lunch had a white ticket,” she explained. “I don’t know what the reasoning for that was. It probably was to keep records of selling lunches. However, the lens of equity wasn’t there – it was labeling students.”

She eventually paid for her lunches after her mom was able to increase the financial stability of their home.

“When I got to the white tickets I remember walking into the cafeteria with my head held up high. No student should experience that classism,” she said.

Longoria said that equity and empathy go hand-in-hand, and that while some may have a natural instinct for equity, it can also be cultivated. 

“Oregon is investing money in equitable practices and equity for our LGBT community for students and staff of color, for all stakeholders,” she said. “That looks like providing safe places that allow all students and families to access what they need to be successful.”

News tip? Contact reporter Liliana Frankel at [email protected] or 267-981-5577.

EXCELLENCE IN JOURNALISM – Available for $5 a month. Subscribe to the digital service of the Enterprise and get the very best in local journalism. We report with care, attention to accuracy, and an unwavering devotion to fairness. Get the kind of news you’ve been looking for – day in and day out from the Enterprise.