If you ask most mentors why they do what they do, chances are it will take them a split second to tell you in detail the positive impact that “mentee” had on their lives and a heartbeat to tell you the names of their mentors. Dolores Riley, Hays CISD Executive Director of Elementary Education, is retiring after two decades in the district and more than 30 years in education. While she has served in various positions-and at each of them she left an imprint-her legacy remains in the hearts of others: those she mentored, who are now leaders.
And chances are very good that these individuals will continue the circle and become mentors themselves, if they aren’t already there.
“I can honestly say that I am who I am today because of Dolores,” said Cynthia Davis, principal of Blanco Vista Elementary School. Mrs. Davis opened Tobias Elementary School as principal in 2003 and helped drive that campus to “recognized” status. She will open the Blanco Vista campus in August. “She gave me a wonderful opportunity the day that she took a chance on me by offering me the assistant principal position at Elm Grove Elementary. Dolores was opening Elm Grove that year and she had a vision for the type of school she wanted to create. I was able to witness first-hand how Dolores worked with staff, administration, parents and students to build a strong community of learners. Dolores mentored me for the next three years. She is the reason that I felt I could take on the challenge of opening a new school.”
Mrs. Riley joined Hays CISD in 1989 as an assistant principal at Tom Green Elementary. She was named principal of Kyle Intermediate School in 1993. That transition was a challenge for both the school district and for Mrs. Riley and everyone learned from the experience.
“We were pulling middle school and elementary school students and staff together as one,” she explained. “Many of our students came from a school with a low performance rating.”
“We worked real hard under the Accelerated Schools Model to make gains in achievement,” Mrs. Riley said. “We were always asking ourselves, ‘What’s best for kids?'”
In her customary fashion, Mrs. Riley rose to the challenges of Kyle Intermediate School, steering that campus through academic gains. It was with the opening of Elm Grove Elementary School in 2000, however, that she took the risks and saw the results of a true leader.
“Michael (Hinojosa) was the superintendent at that time and he said he wanted me out on that limb and he wanted to see the limb bouncing,” she said. In the first years of Elm Grove, Mrs. Riley implemented a non-traditional report card, integrated teaching units and generally held high expectations of everyone.
“Nearly a year before Elm Grove opened, our faculty began a series of meetings to thoughtfully and thoroughly discuss what we personally believed about educating children,” said Myrna Cavender, Elm Grove Elementary Librarian, who also is retiring this year. “Not only did we formulate our belief, mission, and goals statements, but we also got to know each other personally. We played together at retreats and later at faculty meetings. We cried together during that first year too when we were totally exhausted trying to meet the high standards set by our families and ourselves.”
“We were learning new ways of formulating curriculum so that children could explore various self-selected topics of interest-and it was hard,” Mrs. Cavendar continued. “But Dolores was always there, teaching us specifics, guiding our planning, cheering on our efforts, and offering her whole-hearted support of the many risk-taking experiences we planned and implemented.”
One of the teachers Mrs. Riley hired at Elm Grove Elementary is Jodie Wymore, Principal of Fuentes Elementary School, another of the district’s recognized campuses.
“Dolores gave me a feeling that she believed in me very shortly after I first met her,” Mrs. Wymore said. “She allowed me freedom to be innovative and try things that were new to me. She allowed me room to make mistakes and learn from them. She took chances on me and gave me responsibilities that stretched me.”
“I truly believe at that time she knew I didn’t have it all figured out, but was willing to support me as I did learn and grow,” Mrs. Wymore said. “This only pushed me to want to do it that much more!”
Perhaps Mrs. Riley’s greatest lesson as a mentor is teaching by showing how to live and work outside the “comfort zone.”
“I think I am most grateful to Dolores for not always making it simple or giving me the easy way out,” Mrs. Wymore said. “She helped to foster in me a sense of being comfortable with a little disequilibrium. I will always be grateful to Dolores because that keeps me in a place to be constantly seeking, learning, stretching and growing to figure it all out.”
“I love seeing those sparks in people,” Mrs. Riley said, referring to her “habit” of encouraging those around her to stretch themselves.
Mrs. Riley formalized her mentoring tendencies in the Hays Leadership Institute (HLI), a year-long program offered to aspiring administrators. When asked, Mrs. Riley will admit that is her crowning accomplishment at Hays CISD. A quick tally has nearly 20 current campus and district administrators who have gone through HLI.
“Dolores helped grow educational leaders both at Elm Grove and throughout the Hays CISD,” Mrs. Cavender said. “Under her tutelage, a select group of up and coming educational leaders-often the very best of teachers-met regularly at HLI. The legacy of those HLI trainings can be seen in many of our current principals, assistant principals, and instructional strategists. Dolores generously shared her breadth of knowledge with others and gently prodded us all to investigate topics or curricula or methodologies further. She wanted us to become a true learning community-learning from one another and we did.”
“Her educational leadership and vision has always been solid,” said Dianne Borreson, Hays CISD Executive Director of Technology. Mrs. Borreson worked alongside Mrs. Riley at Tom Green Elementary and Kyle Intermediate and again at the Central Administration Office. “She handles situations with the utmost professionalism and poise. Teachers, co-workers, parents, students, community members are all worthy of her attention and respect.”
Continually one of the high performers in the district, Elm Grove Elementary School enjoys many of the hiring successes and programs implemented by Mrs. Riley. And few will argue with the sense of community she orchestrated involving parents, students and staff.
“You have to have a goal, something you’re shooting for,” she explained. “That way you’re working toward something as a whole group, arm-in-arm.”
“We all-children, parents, grandparents, faculty, and staff-blossomed because we had grown into a nurturing family,” Mrs. Cavender said. “We were there for each other, and we knew that Dolores would be there championing our children, our efforts, helping to meld Elm Grove into such an exciting, invigorating, and welcoming school. Whether Dolores was in the forefront or in the background, we knew that she was guiding us; she supported us, and she would encourage us to try offering constructive criticism and ways to make our teaching, our school even better. We grew stronger every year; we trusted each other.”
Mrs. Riley moved to the Central Administration Office in 2004, corralling the elementary curriculum and building a team of elementary principals and teachers, including coordinators, directors and instructional strategists. Her system of support is legendary. In fact on her resume, Mrs. Riley states one of her responsibilities is “supporting” 11 elementary principals.
“Dolores is always available to talk things over and has treated me as an equal for the past four years,” said Terry Fielder, Hays CISD Coordinator of Elementary Curriculum. “I have learned how important it is to listen carefully and then to gently nudge people to make changes. Dolores is warm, affirming, protective, and at the same time, can tell people things they don’t necessarily want to hear in a kind and supportive voice.”
“Dolores cares deeply for people, and she truly understands that a person is better at their job when they know they are cared for, supported, and understood,” Mrs. Davis said. “She makes every person feel as if they are the most important person in the room.”
Mrs Riley’s compassion is what sets her apart, according to Mrs. Borreson.
“Her compassion for learning, for teaching, for the underdog, just her basic compassion for believing,” Mrs. Borreson said. “She exhibits that compassion in all that she does. For that, Hays CISD is a better place.”
In her poignant letter of retirement, Mrs. Riley stated that “it is time in my life to seek out other leadership opportunities that will provide me with more time for my family, particularly my grandchildren!”
So we say, “farewell” to Mrs. Riley for now. Her beacon will remain in Hays CISD for a long time in the form of today’s administrators and instructional strategists, many of whom are mentoring tomorrow’s educational leaders.
In the words of many, her influence endures.
“I am honored to have been able to work so closely with her,” Mrs. Fielder said.
“I can say that I was truly blessed by working under Dolores’ guidance,” Mrs. Cavender said. “She knows how to draw out the very best in people, but she does so graciously, gently, and with humor.”
“I feel so fortunate for having known and worked with her in so many capacities and for so many years,” Mrs. Borreson said. “She was always committed to making sure all students had the opportunity to be successful. Each of those contributions has had a huge impact on education in Hays CISD.”
“Dolores has been my mentor for so many years that it is hard to imagine my professional life without her,” Mrs. Davis said.
By JULIE JEROME
Chief Information Officer – Hays CISD