January 2018 - Tara Peña

Colorado Association of Latino/a Administrators and Superintendents

January 2018

Welcome to the CO ALAS “Membership Spotlight.”  Each month we want to introduce you to one of our many CO ALAS members. Let’s see what they are doing and what’s on their mind.

This month we are featuring the Principal of Oberon Middle School in Jefferson County, Tara Peña.

Career Highlights & Education
I was born and raised in Denver and am very proud to be a Colorado native. Since I was a little girl, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I would use any money I earned to buy red pencils, which I used to grade the newspaper. I think this early passion for teaching came from having strong and dedicated teachers early in my life. Being raised by a young and working single mother, I spent a lot of time with my teachers. . . and also with my grandma. She was one of my life’s earliest teachers. She never learned how to read, a fact I learned much later in life, yet every afternoon she sat and read to me. I had no idea she was using her imagination to paint pictures that told beautiful stories. And in school each year, I had teachers that took the time to understand my circumstances.  They invested in me and believed in me and continuously went the extra mile to ensure I had what I needed: academically, physically, and emotionally.  My teachers helped me see a world with me in it that stretched further than anything I thought possible.  I owe them just about everything.

In middle school, we moved to Jefferson County with my grandparents so I could attend a good school in a safe neighborhood. This was my first real experience with culture shock. Up to that point in my life, my classmates had brown skin just like me and I never struggled to fit in. I had grown up hearing stories from my family about their committed activism during the Chicano movement, but the gravity of their sacrifices and courage never really resonated on my young heart and mind until I myself became “the minority.” Ethnically and socio-economically, it quickly became apparent to me how different I was from my new classmates;  this experience was a poignant and defining moment for me. Of course my new teachers played a huge part in my transition and I am really grateful for their guidance and support. I believe that critical time in my life helped instill a cultural resilience within me that I still rely on today.

High school was a rewarding and challenging experience. I attended Chatfield Senior High School, which was one of the largest high schools in the state at the time. Academically, it was and still is a front runner for the rigorous learning experiences it provides its students. When my senior year arrived and my classmates began making college plans, I naively did nothing. I had no intention of going to college. No one in my family had gone to college--no one had even graduated from high school!  Growing up, we didn’t talk about “when you go to college.” It was my family’s expectation that I was a good girl who respected myself and others. I knew I still wanted to be a teacher, but I didn’t know I needed to go to college to become one. Thankfully I had a wonderful high school counselor, Mrs. Gina Rivas, who advocated for me and supported me throughout my high school career. Mrs. Rivas, a strong and encouraging Latina, was an amazing role model who showed me that an educated Latina is someone to be respected. She gave me hope and belief in my future. When I told her I wanted to be a teacher, she immediately told me I needed to apply to UNC. I am so grateful for her kind persistence.

I was accepted to the University of Northern Colorado and immediately joined the Cumbres program. I majored in English with an ESL endorsement and a secondary education emphasis. My experiences at UNC were rich and diverse and they appropriately prepared me for my life’s calling as a teacher. Prior to graduation, I was offered a teaching contract in Jefferson County by none other than Gina Rivas, my counselor from high school.

Fast forward 16 years. Currently, I am the principal at Oberon Middle School, a position I have held for the past six years. I am also proud to be the elected president of the Jefferson County Administrators Association (JCAA). JCAA is the professional association for Jeffco representing its 700+ school and central based administrators. Directly following my first year of teaching, I enrolled in a master’s program and earned my degree in Educational Psychology. I quickly returned to school again to get my principal’s license through the encouragement of my principal at the time, Mr. José Martinez. I have worn many hats in my career: teacher, counselor, dean of students, assistant principal, and now principal. I believe I have found success by staying true to who I am even when faced with adversity. I’m honest with people about where I come from when they ask because each experience has molded me into the person and educator I am. As the principal of a large suburban middle school, I get to affect change on a variety of levels. I constantly am leaning on my cultural resilience to help set a positive example for my students and staff. I get to teach, and lead, and learn daily. And, I get to be a role model for my community and, I hope, for my own daughters. That means a lot to me.

I believe in the power of a good, public education. My daughters attend public school. It made the difference in my life. It allowed me to break the cycle of generational poverty for my family and will allow my daughters to aspire to be anything they want, even a teacher if they choose. But I definitely didn’t do it alone. My mission has always been to give back because I have been so blessed to have had teachers, and counselors, and leaders who believe in me, despite where I came from. Many doors have been opened for me along the way by others who saw something in me that I didn’t always see in myself. I hope to continue to be an educator that gives light to those who came before me, those walking alongside of me, and those following the path behind me. I am excited to see where the next 16 years will take me!

What is so exciting about my job?
The most exciting part of my job is that I get to positively impact the climate and culture of my school community to create a welcoming learning environment for students and teachers alike. It is important to me that each of my students and staff members feel safe and supported when they walk in the front door each day. I still get to teach, but I also get to learn. I am constantly inspired by the students I serve.

Words from a consejero/a.
Always be myself, and never be afraid to show people know my “authentic” identity because my strengths live in my experiences. There is power in my story, and I have always been encouraged to be proud of who I am and where I come from.

Advice you would give a new superintendent or school leader?
Take the time to listen and learn the culture of the community you serve before making big and bold decisions. Honoring what has been done honors people. That doesn’t mean you should shy away from making changes; however, be mindful to include your people as part of the change process. Also, trust takes time to build, and we only can build trust by doing what we say we are going to do time and time again. To build trust is an investment in people.  

If you catch me outside the office, you’ll find . . .
Outside of school, you’ll catch me spending time with my husband Richie and our daughters, Santana and Savanna. Our girls are active in sports, so we spend lots of time watching them compete. Our large extended family lives close by, so you can usually catch us at a birthday party, baby shower, family dinner, etc. We also love to travel and do so often!


CO-ALAS is a professional education association that advocates for the continued development and placement of Latino/Latina administrators who are committed to quality public education for all students.


PO Box 13109
Denver, CO 80201