Manuel Rivera, Ed.M.'75, Ed.D.'94, has been named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). The award honors an educator who exhibits leadership for student learning, personal and organizational communication, continuous improvement of skills, and active community involvement.
"It's a terrific honor and really unexpected. I'm really humbled by the whole thing," Rivera says. "You don't tend to think of yourself as one of the best superintendents in the country."
Over Rivera's six years as superintendent of Rochester, New York, schools, he has made a tremendous impact in the classroom and community.
"He rallied his district and community, business and government leaders to systemically improve preK–12 instruction and achievement and build a local social infrastructure to support the learning process. The results clearly prove that his leadership has been successful," says Paul Houston, AASA executive director. "Despite pervasive poverty--Rochester ranks 11th in the nation in child poverty--the district has achieved dramatic improvements in the number of students passing the statewide exams in the past three years. AASA is proud to have him represent the best of the profession in 2006."
Under Rivera's leadership, the Rochester City School District has seen the greatest increase (15 points) on the grade four English language arts exam among the state's largest school districts. In addition, seven Rochester schools had passing rates of 90 percent or higher on the grade four math exam.
Rivera refuses to take total credit for the changes in Rochester's school system or his recent AASA award. "This acknowledgement is more of a reflection of the tremendous collaboration with our partners, union, colleges, parents and school board, as well as others," Rivera says. "We've had a common focus on improving student achievement and people have rallied behind that."
Rivera has spent the entirety of his public education career in the upstate New York school district except for an eight-year stint in corporate leadership with the Edison Schools. He has served twice as Rochester's superintendent between 1991 and 1994, and again in 2002. He has already shown promise of turning the 33,400-student district into a model for urban school reform.
Rivera almost didn't pursue education as a career. In fact, he was accepted into law school, but decided to study at HGSE instead. Ultimately, his decision to earn his master's degree at HGSE contributed immensely to his future in education, he says.
[In Rochester,] we've had a common focus on improving student achievement and people have rallied behind that.
"It was a great experience for me. You tend to think of Harvard as an elitist place, but it was not," Rivera says. "I worked with great minds and people who cared a lot about kids." Rivera lists among his influences the late professor Jeanne Chall, Pforzheimer Professor Susan Moore Johnson, and Thompson Professor and Academic Dean Richard Murnane.
After leaving HGSE in 1975, Rivera began his teaching career in Rochester, where he taught elementary school. It wasn't long before he was working his way down the path to becoming an administrator taking on roles as a director of bilingual education, high school principal, and deputy superintendent. Rivera later returned to HGSE to earn his doctorate in 1994.
Many of Rivera's connections and friendships from HGSE have continued to help him throughout his career. He currently is leading plans for the Rochester Children's Zone, following the model of a similar initiative created by his friend, fellow HGSE alum, and school reformer Geoffrey Canada, Ed.M.'75, in Harlem. The zone comprises the quadrant of Rochester's schools with the most entrenched problems, and the city schools will manage an integrated system of health care, welfare, public safety, housing, educational, and social services. The teachers' union has agreed to let the superintendent transfer some of the system's best teachers into the neediest schools.
"I wanted to create a community climate that sees education as everybody's job," Rivera says. "The educational gains will begin with many of the services available to the zone's most needy families."
Under Rivera's leadership, the Rochester district has set up a series of early college schools with higher education partners and has changed the organization of many elementary schools from neighborhood to magnet schools. He also started a district-wide school choice program.
As a result of Rivera's secondary redesign plan, the graduation rate has increased by 2 percent, and the percentage of students earning a Regents diploma increased from 21 percent in 2003 to 56 percent in 2005.
Rivera joins Jason Kamras, Ed.M.'00, on an increasing list of nationally recognized HGSE alums. Kamras was named National Teacher of the Year in 2005.