The art apron is once again hanging on a hook at Lawrence Central High School. A different hook, though, in a different room.
Rocco (Rocky) Valadez has returned to LC, and he’s brought the apron back with him. It’s the same one he wore when he started his teaching career in art at LC in January, 2001. It was with him when he was an assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School beginning in 2008, and then when he moved on to being principal at Lawrence North’s freshman school last year. He says he’ll continue to wear it from time to time as LC’s new principal. “It keeps me grounded,” Valadez said, “and helps me remember how I got to where I am today. It always reminds me of being connected to the classroom and dedicated to doing everything I can, every day, to help kids.”
The 34-year-old Valadez replaces Thomas Oestreich, who was LC’s principal for one year. Oestreich had been an assistant principal in Washington Township’s Eastwood Middle School and North Central High School before his stint in Lawrence. He has returned to Washington Township as the district’s director of human resources.
But some of Oestreich’s ideas, said Valadez, will stay. “I don’t want to change anything for change’s sake,” he said. So if something worked well, he plans to keep it. “Obviously there are places where we can improve,” Valadez said. “But I also think great strides have been made and I want to build on those. I think big things are on the horizon. I think we’re on our way back.
I want to make sure we’re maximizing all of our potential and doing whatever we can to get better each day. If that means keeping some things already in place, absolutely. Why would we change that?”
But make no mistake. This young dynamo will put his own stamp on LC. He said, “I want people to say, ‘Wow! Lawrence Central is fantastic! I want to be a part of Lawrence Central!’” It’s where he began his career in education. Valadez was a brand new teacher when he got to LC, having just graduated from Ball State. He replaced a teacher on maternity leave and stayed for seven-and-a-half years, ultimately serving as department chair. He moved on to Fall Creek and then to Lawrence North as an administrator.
He commended both schools’ principals for their leadership.
“I had some great experiences at both,” he said. He was particularly appreciative of the freedom he felt to do his job. “I was lucky to have that.” He also said he learned a great deal by watching students transition from elementary to middle school, and then from middle school to high school.
Valadez said he was “pushed out of Fall Creek” by principal Kathy Luessow, who told him he needed to move on when the freshman school principal position opened up at LN. “She told me I’d be a high school principal one day and that I needed the experience,” he said. “She said, ‘You’re a high school guy and you’ll be a high school principal one day; you need to do this.’”
So Valadez became LN’s freshman school principal when Brett Crousore moved up to LN’s principal’s office. “I had no plans to leave LN; I loved what I was doing there,” Valadez said. But this spring, as soon as he heard that Oestreich might be leaving LC, he was quick to make his interest known.
Valadez plans to work with Crousore to continue aligning the two high schools. “I’m definitely going to use Brett,” he said. “We’re neighbors (in Fishers), and we have a lot of respect for each other.” According to Valadez, Crousore was a successful wrestling coach and brings a coach’s mentality to his leadership. “He sees the school climate as a coachable place, trying to get the best out of each person in that building, athlete or not.” Valadez understands the coaching analogy since he also coached cross country and track.
Calling himself “a kid guy,” Valadez said, “I want to make sure kids have every opportunity to be successful. I want teachers to have the resources and tools and support they need to make those dreams a reality.” He often tells students, “Give it your all. Take advantage of the lessons which your teachers have prepared for you.”
His theme for the year: turning possibility into reality. It builds on what he learned as a young child when education was stressed in his home. His parents’ message was clear: Education is the key to success and is to be valued; so is a strong work ethic. Valadez and his three brothers all have college degrees – some multiple degrees. “I refuse to be out-worked,” he said. “I will not be out-worked. I won’t. That’s directly from my parents.”
Principles he and his wife, Lisa, are passing along to their three children – 7-year-old Lily, 4-year-old Gabe and 2-year-old Rafe.
Despite his surname, Valadez is not bilingual. “Although I think a lot of people expect me to be,” he said. “But those kids (Latinos) flock to me.”
He acknowledges he is a role model for them. So, too, he said, is assistant athletic director/attendance assistant Alfie Hernandez. “My dad is bilingual,” Valadez said. “Spanish was his first language.” He continued, “My dad really struggled with that. It wasn’t celebrated like it is now. He was told lots and lots and lots of times that he was not to speak Spanish at all in school.”
Valadez’s grandparents were migrant workers and followed the crops from Texas to Michigan to Indiana. They eventually settled in Kokomo, where Valadez’s father was born and raised. “Dad is the youngest of 12 children. He was in the fields when he was very young but he never picked the crops.”
The family stayed in Kokomo. It’s where Valadez himself was born and raised, the son of an Italian mother and a Mexican father. “I’m half Italian, half Mexican – and all-American,” he said.
But he knows, and appreciates, the struggles his parents and grandparents faced. And he’s obvious in his excitement about LC’s diversity, calling it “a microcosm of the world.”
The start of school is weeks away but, Valadez said, “I want the kids to show up tomorrow.” He’ll be in the hall, waiting for them. “I don’t want to be a closed-door, sit-at-my-desk guy. I’m going to be out there. Now that I’m not in the classroom or coaching, I still need to be out and among the young people. That’s what keeps me going. That’s what drives me.”
The place to be? Definitely LC. “I love this place,” Valadez said. “I’m the luckiest guy in Lawrence Township. I’ve been here since 2001, and it will take the National Guard to get me out of this office.”