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One makes a difference

Former Austin High student writes bill to give kids the skills that changed her life

Nicole Villalpando
Monica Rios, 25, returned to the Austin High School classroom that she credits for helping her dream of bigger things for herself. Keeth Matheny taught her social and emotional learning skills beginning in 10th grade. Now, Rios is a legislative intern and has written a bill that would standardize social and emotional learning class curriculum in Texas. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Monica Rios could have dropped out of high school and never attended a college class.

But this 25-year-old made a decision in eighth grade that changed the course of her life. She decided to take the AVID class — Advancement Via Individual Determination — offered to high schoolers who would be the first generation of college students in their families.

And she did it at Austin High, a place that combined the AVID class curriculum with a class that teaches social and emotional learning skills to freshmen.

Rios now wants other kids to benefit from the skills she learned in that class. As an intern in the office of Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, she wrote a bill in the Texas Legislature that calls for the State Board of Education to adopt evidence-based standards for social and emotional learning. The standards would cover self-management, self-awareness, social awareness and responsible decision-making. It calls for school districts to provide for programs in each grade level that follow these new standards.

While some individual districts have adopted standards, not every district has them or is providing instruction in social and emotional learning.

Rios credits the class, which taught her how to study and organize her work as well as how to cope with stress and her emotions, with being the reason she was able to serve four years in the Marine Corps, graduate college and now attend Concordia University studying international business.

Rios was a kid with many roadblocks in front of her. In first grade she was put into a special education classroom. She doesn't know exactly why; she believes it was because of a speech impediment that made it difficult to understand her. Her mom, Lilia Rios, believes it's because Monica didn't grow up speaking English and her lack of understanding English was interpreted as a reflection of her abilities.

"They treated me differently," Rios says about being in special education classes. "They taught me more slowly."

Her middle school realized in seventh grade that she didn't need special ed, she says, and she was dismissed from services. She almost failed eighth grade, she says.

That's when taking the four-year AVID class was recommended to her.

"This elective is actually important," she remembers thinking. "It could actually make a difference and teach me a skill."

Something in Rios made her crave a world bigger than what was around her. "One of my biggest goals was to go to college and graduate," she says.

It was a life path that would be vastly different from others in her family. "We didn't have knowledge about college," she says. "For us, it's a foreign concept."

Her parents both work in the restaurant industry. Her dad graduated high school, but her mom did not. Her mom, though, was one of the few female family members who didn't drop out because of pregnancy.

"She knows how we have struggled," says Lilia Rios.

An aunt who had dropped out of school to have a baby challenged Monica Rios. She bet her $100 that Rios wouldn't graduate high school.

It motivated Rios, along with this fact: As the youngest in her family, she knew she was the last person in her generation who could be the first to go to college.

That first year, the AVID class did not include social and emotional learning curriculum. It focused on study skills, mainly.

Rios did OK. She had a C average, but she remembers being stressed out and not knowing how to handle the workload of high school.

Everything changed when teacher Keeth Matheny took over the class her sophomore year. He brought social and emotional learning skills he was using in a new class he added for freshmen not in AVID to help them transition to high school. He called that class MAPS: Methods for Academic and Personal Success.

It taught skills in five areas:

• Managing emotions

• Organization for success

• Healthy relationships

• Resolving conflicts

• Creating a vision for your life

"Everything changed my sophomore year," Rios says. "I had the will and the determination to give myself a chance, but I had no guidance. ... I didn't know where I was going."

She also didn't trust anyone at school, she says. She hadn't learned how to control her emotions and thoughts, and she was stressed. "Then coach Matheny came and treated us like people," she says, "not like students, but actually people."

Through Matheny — he was a college and high school football coach before finding his true passion in teaching social and emotional learning skills and still is called "Coach" — Rios learned how to study in a way that best fit her learning style. She continues to use these skills in her college classes.

He also taught her how to deal with the emotional stuff:

"How to control my emotions and not let any obstacle overwhelm me and ruin me."

"Remember why you are doing what you are doing."

"Learn how to take every day as it comes, every moment as it comes."

And she learned how to prioritize her workload.

And how to breathe to calm down.

How not to panic if the answer to a question isn't coming to her.

"Kids are so hungry for these skills," Matheny says.

There were times in high school when Rios put these skills to the test.

That aunt who made the $100 bet with Rios was like a second mom to her — and she died five months before Rios' high school graduation. Then a cousin was shot and killed six weeks later.

"I wanted to give up," she says. "With the skills I had, I managed. I knew how to accomplish goals while mourning and grieving, as difficult as it was."

Also in the back of her mind: "I was the last hope." The last one who could become a college graduate.

The class taught her the value of studying and doing research. She applied to colleges and got accepted, but she thought about the debt she'd be taking on. And she remembered the couple of community college classes her brother had taken and not passed.

"I felt like I could better prepare to go to college," she says. He senior year, right after turning 18, she signed papers with her intent to enlist in the Marines. It would be a chance to be stronger emotionally going into college, and the GI Bill would cover college costs.

Her parents didn't believe she would follow through and enlist, but on June 23, 2012, she showed up at boot camp.

And this is where the social and emotional skills became key again. "They try to break you down," she says. Boot camp is about 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. "You have five people yelling at you this close to your face and you can feel the warmth of their breath and they're spitting on you," she says.

She made it through and served for four years as a chef at Camp Pendleton in California. She even competed in an "Iron Chef"-type competition in which her team won in part because of a chocolate peppermint shooter dessert she made.

One day shy of her four-year anniversary in the Marines, she finished her contract, headed home to Austin and got ready to head to college.

She remembered visiting Concordia as part of Matheny's class and enrolled in January 2017.

Her social and emotional learning skills came into play again when she learned the day before starting college that a friend from the Marines had died. She flew to California to be at the funeral and used her skills to grieve while not losing focus on school.

Today, she is juggling school two days a week, her internship with Rodriguez's office at least three days a week and a paying job at Spec's.

When Rodriguez offered the staff including the interns in his office the chance to author a bill, Rios couldn't believe what she had just heard, but she says she knew immediately that it had to be on social and emotional learning.

She did the research, including meeting with Matheny and talking to Committee for Children, which specializes in social and emotional learning. She wrote and pitched a bill to Rodriquez. In a statement, Rodriguez says Rios "powerfully argued for the importance of social and emotional learning based on her own life experience."

Rodriguez could get behind it, he wrote, because "rigorous academics are central to providing Texas students with a high-quality public education, but social and emotional skills often do not receive the attention they deserve.

"Mental health is vital to a successful career and life. Texas must do more to ensure that our students are equipped with the social and emotional skills they need to thrive as students and flourish after graduating."

The bill is climbing an uphill battle. "We are running out of time for the bill to receive a committee hearing, but HB 4454 is important to me," Rodriguez writes.

He says he's going to approach Public Education Committee Chair Dan Huberty, R-Kingwood, to request a committee hearing. He is hopeful because several similar bills have been filed.

"If HB 4454 does not pass, I will continue to explore the issue in the interim and consider filing the bill again in the next legislative session," he says.

The bill has a champion in Monica Rios.

"She's very passionate" says Lilia Rios. "Once she's doing something, she does not give up until she gets it."