Crook assistant principal a model for success

Brian Lemos is named to state panel that helps students attend and pay for college

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: March 03. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – At any time during the school day, a cluster of students may gather around the office door of Crook County High School Assistant Principal Brian Lemos.

Some students stop by to ask for the return of confiscated cell phones. Others are there to check in and chat in Spanish with Lemos, who is of Hispanic descent. Still more need to discuss disciplinary issues or their progress toward graduating on time.

Lemos, 34, said he tries to connect with many students because he knows what it’s like to grow up in a low-income household and struggle in school. As the son of migrant farmworkers who both dropped out of school early, higher education seemed like a distant goal when he was a child.

“We worked in the fields up until I was about (10) – I would help out with the family,” he said.

“We would go pick strawberries, and my brothers, who were older, did a lot of the hops.”

Two major factors helped him continue his education and eventually earn a master’s degree, Lemos said: his mother, who acquired her GED and went on to college, and wrestling.

An all-state wrestler in high school, his first school jobs came through coaching the wrestling teams at Nestucca High School and Tillamook High School, both in Tillamook County.

Lemos, a compact, energetic man who is in his third year as assistant principal, “has a great relationship with the student body,” Principal Jim Golden said. Lemos is also the principal of the Crook County School District’s alternative school, Pioneer High School.

“Brian’s role as assistant principal is he’s in charge of creating a positive, enriching climate here at Crook County High School,” Golden said. “He’s a very personable man who cares deeply for kids, and what we both try to do is focus on the positive and pay more attention to the positive things kids are doing because we believe you get more of what you pay attention to.”

Last week, the governor’s office named Lemos to the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, a statewide board that helps students attend college through financial aid programs. He will be one of seven commissioners who meet monthly and oversee programs such as Access to Student Assistance Programs in Reach of Everyone and the Oregon Opportunity Grant.

Lemos credited the support of his wife, Dena, his mother and several academic and professional mentors with helping him to be successful.

“I think the most important thing is having the mentors around you, and when we talk about connections and student connections here at Crook County it’s right up my alley, because if I hadn’t had that mentor in my wrestling coach we wouldn’t be having this interview,” Lemos said. “There’s been a lot of people supporting me.”

Putting down roots in Oregon

Lemos is the youngest of four siblings, with two older brothers and one sister. His mother, Delia Lemos, said that he benefited from being the youngest in the family and attending school early through the Migrant Education Program, a branch of the U.S. Department of Education that funds education programs for children who move frequently.

“That was a major difference for him because he was involved with other kids (and) he grew up in a class where he was taught,” she said. “I think that was one plus for him, that he got to be really sociable and got to be connected to a different environment versus how I grew up and my other kids.”

His parents were born in Texas and traveled between there and Washington as migrant laborers, Brian Lemos said. His mother’s family settled in Oregon because her father had a heart attack and died while working in the fields near Prineville.

Lemos’ father, Alfredo, also ended up in Oregon when his own mother became ill with diabetes and could not travel anymore. Lemos’ parents met in Oregon and married when Delia was 15. She had Brian, her fourth child, when she was 21, she said.

“I had to go back to school when they were still young,” she said. “I felt like that was the only way that I was going to make it.”

Brian Lemos said that his parents moved to Hubbard, where he grew up, to take advantage of a low-income housing program there. After earning her GED, Delia Lemos went on to college and worked as a drug and alcohol counselor in the Hispanic community, and she now works as a psychiatric crisis worker with the Marion County Mental Health Department in Salem.

“I had already done my education and I had a good job, so (Brian) was able to continue with his,” she said. “But it was a long ways. We come from a migrant family, which is really rough because you move around a lot and you go to different schools — you know, I went to three or four schools in one year — but somehow we were blessed and we were able to succeed.”

His mother originally left school after ninth grade and his father has only a fifth-grade education, Lemos said. He added that his parents split up when he was 14, which he described as “a real tough time.”

“I think of it this way: My dad was still that traditional style and my mom was getting more education and seeing that wasn’t the only role she had to play. She understood that women can do more than just being home taking care of the kids.”

He added that his mother was the one who always pushed him to pursue education.

“She’s really a self-made person — when I think about myself I know a lot of things come from my mother, the passion and drive,” he said. “My dad had more of a hard time understanding the importance of education. He thought you’ve got to provide for the family and go to work right away.”

Wrestling with higher education

While attending Woodburn High School, Lemos met another key role model in his life, wrestling coach Sam Jones. Lemos said that making a connection with an adult at school who was also Hispanic helped a lot during those years.

“He was a great mentor and was really positive with me,” he said. “I wasn’t the best student in high school … but wrestling was the thing that really pushed me.”

After high school, where he was also an all-league football player, he went on to wrestle at Clackamas Community College and then attended Southern Oregon University. He graduated in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and criminology, and began working in the Jackson County Mental Health Department.

He and his wife had their first child, Ashlee, in 1995. She was the first of four children, three girls and a boy.

While he was pursuing his bachelor’s degree, Lemos said, “we had a new child and times were tough economically,” and he and Dena relied on food stamps and the state Women, Infants and Children program. He also received financial aid to attend college, which he said is part of why he wanted to serve on the Oregon Student Assistance Commission.

Lemos and Dena eventually decided they wanted to move back to Tillamook, where Dena’s family lived, he said. He found a job as a mental health counselor and was the head wrestling coach at Nestucca High School. When Tillamook High School asked him to become the head wrestling coach there, he went back to school at Portland State University for his teaching certification. He earned a master’s in education, all while working as a special education teacher, head wrestling coach and assistant football coach.

“My wife very supportive of my passion to continuing pursuing education, because that can get old on a family,” he said. “There’s been a lot of bumps in the road, just personal bumps. When I was in high school, doing things I probably shouldn’t have been doing, then college — there was a lot of self-investigation that took place in the last 10 years.”

Inspiring Crook County’s Hispanic students

His background has inspired him to work with students of diverse backgrounds and try to serve as a role model for Hispanic students in particular, Lemos said.

“The most important thing I live by is do not judge: Do not judge people by race, do not judge people by economic status … do not judge people by past mistakes, because I would be dead in the water if people did that to me,” he said. “It’s something that’s really passionate for me, so I try to be a model for these kids, because we can make it and education is the way we do it.”

Ricardo Ortiz, an 11th-grader at Crook County High School, described Lemos as “a good friend.”

“Sometimes we come in here and talk about why we get in trouble, and sometimes we just come and talk because he’s pretty cool to talk to,” Ricardo, 17, said. “It’s just pretty cool because when he’s out in the stores and stuff he says hi — he’s not like other people that ignore you.”

Bert Ortiz, Ricardo’s cousin and a freshman at Crook County, said the cultural connection with Lemos is helpful.

“We can understand him better and he understands us better in things,” Bert, 16, said.

Lemos moved to Prineville to serve as Crook County’s assistant principal in 2004, and was one of four finalists for the principal job in early 2005. When the county opened an alternative high school two years ago, he was also named principal of that school.

The alternative school, Pioneer High School, is a smaller facility that helps students who are struggling academically to stay on track for graduation. Golden, the Crook County principal, said that Lemos spends most of his time in the main high school, but was an ideal choice to head Pioneer because of his work in special education and mental health counseling.

Ed Tillinghast, who was interim principal of Crook County High School during Lemos’ first year, said that Lemos had “a lot of energy and a lot of fire” and “really connected with the growing Hispanic population we were developing over there.

“He really understands discipline and athletics and not quitting and challenging yourself, and maybe being a minority and maybe taking a harder way to get things done,” Tillinghast said. “He knew almost every kid in that school, if not every one of them, yet he was a firm and strong disciplinarian, which is a really hard balance to reach — kids respected him, but they loved him.”

Delia Lemos said she was initially scared when her son said he was going to work at Crook County High School because of the prejudice she said she experienced when working in the fields near Prineville as a child.

“I didn’t think he was going to be accepted, and he was just like, ‘Mom, well, maybe it’s changed; maybe it’s different now,’” she said. “He really has a positive attitude about things. Even though he hears my stories and I tell him about how it was for us, his thing is that he tells me, ‘People have changed, Mom, it’s not the same as it was.’”

Golden said he thinks Lemos was chosen for the state commission because of his diverse upbringing and career.

“He has an understanding of the needs of kids who are less fortunate and an understanding of the issues of poverty and the underclass in the U.S.,” Golden said. “He just is a quality educator who has an understanding of the needs of all kids.”

Just as Brian Lemos benefited from a variety of mentors in his life, Delia Lemos said that a special relationship she had with an employee in the Migrant Education Program led her to get an education, and she passed that goal on to her son.

“It took a lot of encouraging because he didn’t have (family) role models — none of his brothers had gone to school and none of my family either — so it was something that was a whole new world to him and he was someone who needed a lot of support and encouraging because I think it was a scary situation for him and I think it is for anyone in that situation,” she said. “He was very adventurous always, and I think that was really a plus for him. I think that’s why he has gotten that far.”

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