Rafael Villalobos was determined to make a difference.
He thought he could do that by pursuing a career in law enforcement, so he earned a degree in criminal justice.
Then Villalobos noticed how warm and kind teachers and staff were to his younger brother, who was blind and on the autism spectrum.
“It touched me,” Villalobos said. “Somewhere along the line, I realized I didn’t want to put people in jail.”
Instead, Villalobos focused on building people up. First as a special education teacher in Miami-Dade County, then as a assistant principal and, since 2005, as a school principal.
Earlier this week, schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho announced Villalobos as the school district’s Principal of the Year.
Watching the award announcement live over the internet was unusual, Villalobos said. Being surrounded by family and school district colleagues in his back yard, however, made the moment that much more special.
Still, winning the award was not something the FIU Educational Leadership doctoral student thought would ever happen – especially not during such a challenging school year.
The COVID-19 pandemic caught everyone by storm. Educators had to scramble to prepare materials and lessons for the digital space. It was a tall order that was manageable for Villalobos because most of his teachers at John A. Ferguson Senior High already were familiar with the school district’s online applications. But the challenges didn’t end with education. Since state and local leaders ordered people to stay at home, Villalobos and his team of administrators, custodians and cafeteria employees continued being caretakers of the community, serving more than 20,000 meals to students and their families twice a week.
Soon, Villalobos and his team at Ferguson Senior High will be cheering on the class of 2020 as they graduate. The celebrations this year will surely be different, but Villalobos feels confident Ferguson has done everything possible to help every single graduate succeed. Today, graduation rates at the west Miami-Dade school hover at about 98.5 percent. And for two consecutive years, the school has earned an A rating from the state.
It’s not something that one person can do on his own, Villalobos said, giving his staff the credit for providing a clean and fun learning environment for their students. But he also realizes how much influence school principals have over their own schools. It’s why he’s focusing his doctoral research on how principals can create environments that inspire teachers to stick with a demanding career and energize individual students to succeed.
“My inspiration is to lay my head on my pillow every night and know that I have touched lives of children no matter how difficult it is, no matter how challenging,” Villalobos said. “We are reshaping the future of our country and if I can shape the future of our country one student at time and create better citizens with what I’m doing, I can’t be more ecstatic about that.”