Courtesy photo: Patricia Di Vasto

Longtime Rio Rancho Public Schools educator and principal Patricia Di Vasto is in the running for national LifeChanger of the Year, sponsored and run by National Life Group and the National Life Group Foundation.

Di Vasto was nominated by a relative, Tamara Strauss.

LifeChanger of the Year is an annual program recognizing K-12 educators and school employees across the country. The program celebrates those who are making a significant difference in the lives of students by exemplifying excellence, positive influence and leadership.

Going back in time

Di Vasto started her career in education as a math teacher in Albuquerque Public Schools’ Truman Middle School. Eight years later, she moved to Lincoln Middle School.

There, Di Vasto became part of a group who believed Rio Rancho schools could break away from APS and form a new district to better serve its students.

After nearly 20 years in the classroom, Di Vasto made the leap into administration, starting as an assistant principal at Lincoln. Soon after getting acclimated to the position, she was encouraged to become a principal by LMS’s former principal, Richard Von Ancken.

She thought she wasn’t capable enough to occupy the top slot. Then, a principal position opened up at Stapleton Elementary, and her mentor, then-Stapleton Principal Linda Sanasac, told her it “was time.”

Di Vasto spent four years as Stapleton’s principal. There, she realized she had her own vision of how to run a school and slowly she became comfortable sitting in the big chair.

In 2016, she was looking for a change — a smaller school, a Montessori program — and an opportunity opened up at Sandia Vista Elementary. When Di Vasto assumed the helm, the school had a “D” rating.

Di Vasto, who re-charges herself with trips to Brooklyn and Italy, acknowledges that she came to Sandia Vista as the “bad guy.” Ever the math teacher, she believed the standardized test results could help her chart a path to improvement.

Di Vasto hired an instructional coach to help her parse the data. Listening to the data, she re-wrote teacher schedules and formulated Professional Learning Communities made up of teachers teaching the same grade. The PLCs looked at the data and determined what students needed to focus on.

Di Vasto also instituted a culture of accountability with her teachers: Teachers needed to get to work on time, standardize how they taught and engage with each other about struggling students. Di Vasto recognized that this culture of accountability would not be for everyone.

Di Vasto emphasized that focusing on what the data was telling her and the PLCs did not mean Sandia Vista became a white-coat laboratory. She put greater structure in place to make sure school stayed warm and fuzzy for everyone.

For example, she got rid of homework so families could spend their evenings enjoying each other rather than pouring over worksheets. The only thing she asks is that families read together.

From a D to an A

Two years after the “bad guy” stepped into Sandia Vista, the school received an “A” rating.

Di Vasto has embraced Sharrocky Hollie’s “Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning.”

Additionally, SV El has partnered with Ronald McDonald House to build a national fundraising template that benefits both entities. For Di Vasto, the partnership is about the school connecting with its community and deepening its internal connections because of a shared goal.

Di Vasto believes in the concept of outrageous love.

“Students just need so much love,” she said.