Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with LPA: Rising to the Top

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Roberto Moreno is the assistant principal at Cherokee Heights Middle School

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By Jonathan Gramling

The history of America is the history of immigrants coming to its borders and shores in search for opportunity, people like Madeline Albright, the former secretary of State, Christine Amanpour, the CNN correspondent, Desi Arnaz, the musician and producer of I Love Luci and Isaac Asimov, the great science fiction writer. They came to America seeking opportunity and made the best of it, making America better and stronger because they sought to better themselves.

Roberto Moreno, the assistant principal at Cherokee Heights Middle School, is following in their footsteps. Moreno came to Madison 20 years ago as a teenager from his native Mexico.

“I used to work in the private sector,” Moreno said. “I worked for too many years. As an immigrant, I started working in a factory. Ask anyone who comes to this country, they have to pay bills and support family back home. I started cleaning bathrooms. And I worked my way up all the way until I got to a management position.”

But Moreno wasn’t satisfied working in the private sector. Along the way, he started his education, “trying to find his voice.

“I started learning English,” Moreno said. “I worked full-time. I went to college full-time. I went to WESLI, the Wisconsin English as a Second Language Institute here in Madison in 2005. And then I went to Madison College. I got an associate’s degree from there and then I transferred to UW-Madison. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science.”

Moreno was on a pre-law track, but decided that wasn’t for him.

“And I found my purpose in life, which is education,” Moreno emphasized. “I decided to become a teacher and I went back to school and got my master’s in education while I was working as an ESL teacher. But I never stopped. I went back to college again and got my bilingual certification.”

But Moreno wasn’t satisfied. While providing education to students, he was continuously enhancing his own education so that he could rise through the ranks.

“I noticed that I have natural leadership skills,” Moreno said. “I went back to school again and got my principal certification. And I didn’t stop there. I went back to college again and got my director of curriculum and instruction license. Again I thought about it. ‘You have the natural leadership skills. You have to go back.’ So I thought about finishing my Ph.D., but at the same time I thought I would be in the educational field for a long time and would like to retire from it. Instead of finishing a PH.D., I went back to college again and just recently finished my superintendent certification last month. That’s a big accomplishment there.”

And as he progressed educationally, he also progressed in his career.

“I started as a bilingual resource teacher in Middleton,” Moreno observed. “Then I became a teacher leader there. After that, I got hired in Beloit as a dean of students. And then I became an assistant principal in Beloit. And then I moved to Madison and I am working as an assistant principal here at Cherokee Heights Middle School.”

On the first day of classes at Cherokee Heights, Moreno was in front of the school, bull horn in hand, welcoming the students along with the teaching and support staff. It has been 1-2 years since they had been physically at school.

Moreno is enthusiastic and energetic.

“I wake up at 4 a.m. every single day and I go for a run,” Moreno said. “That’s what I love to do.”

As the assistant principal, Moreno is second in command.

“I help to run the building,” Moreno said. “I help with teacher evaluations. I help with facilities. I help out with pretty much everything with what a principal does. We’re not the person making the last call. I plan to be a principal someday. I like to really help my community as much as I can. That’s my mission. As an assistant principal, you have to know your lane. I’m here to assist my principal. I’m here to serve the students. But I know my role very well.”

But the main reason Moreno is there is the students.

“As a human being and as a person of color, I know the obstacles,” Moreno said. “I know all of the hoops that people who look like me have to go through. Sometimes students give up before they even try. When they see themselves in front of them, they can go, ‘Oh, you know what? If he can make it, I can make it too.’ And so I am serving here as a role model. That’s my mission right now, being a role model for a lot of our minority students who come to this building every day.”

When working to bring out the academic and social best in the students, Moreno is not asking the students to do anything he hasn’t already done himself.

“Don’t ever give up,” Moreno emphasized. “You are extraordinary. You are valued. You are great. And whoever you are, you have to be proud of who you are. It doesn’t matter how many obstacles you might find in your path, don’t ever give up. There will be a place for you. And if you can correlate the hard work today with the benefits later on in the future, go ahead and push. Push yourself to the limit. Persevere. It doesn’t matter the color of your skin, you matter. You are extraordinary. You can do it. It’s just that you have to work hard.’

With all of his hard work, one would not be surprised if Moreno would end his career on the assistant principal and then the principal level.

“If the opportunity presents itself someday, I will be there,” Moreno said about becoming a superintendent. “I always say that I was born ready for the challenge. If I reach that point, I would love to be a superintendent someday.”

One would expect Moreno to keep rising to the top. It’s something that he has done since he was a young man in Mexico. Why stop now.