Under the leadership of Principal Shawn Pietila, Miami High School has seen a smooth administrative transition and has started the year with many new faces amongst its teaching ranks, ushering in a new era in many classrooms as well.
Regardless of the circumstances that brought them to the Miami Unified School District, all share deep connections to the community and the people of Miami.
Lori Manzanares, Special Education
“I feel like I’m coming back home,” says Special Education teacher Lori Manzanares. “I’m originally from Mesa, but my son went to elementary school all the way up to fifth grade here at CAB (Charles A. Bejarano Elementary).”
Manzanares has a long history living in rural Arizona and a lifelong passion for Special Education, as she and her husband, Mario Mata, both have family members with multiple disabilities.
Her family moved to Miami—where Mata was born and raised—in 2001 in order to raise their son Jadyn in a small town. She worked with Kindergarteners at CAB for three-and-one-half years under MUSD Superintendent Sherry Dorathy, who was director of Exceptional Student Services at the time.
When Manzanares’ daughter Mercedes was born, the family moved to San Tan, but eventually returned to Miami in the months before COVID.
Last year, she hired on as a paraprofessional waiting for a teaching position to open and this year she is finally living a dream she says she’s had since sixth grade, when she wanted to be either a teacher or a professional singer.
“My daughter is here at the junior high, and I feel like this is my home and this is where I need to be,” Manzanares says. “So this is exactly where I’m going to be.”
Ian March, Social Studies
Social Studies instructor Ian March recently returned to Arizona after spending most of his youth in Vermont, and at age 24, is one of the youngest teachers in the MUSD.
Although he was born in Scottsdale and spent most of his young life in the Eastern U.S., March’s roots in the area are deep, as his mother’s family is firmly entrenched in Miami.
“Family is what brought me back and I really love the area,” March says.
March taught physical education in K-5 in Vermont. When he returned to Miami last June, he earned his teaching certification through the University of Phoenix just in time to enter the classroom. He teaches seventh and eighth grade at Lee Kornegay Intermediate.
“It’s going great so far,” March says. “We’re doing hands-on projects so my students are interacting and I’m not just standing up there talking.”
The school year began with Vandal Week, which gave teachers and students the opportunity to get to know each other and create a sense of community. March says it was a good beginning, given his recent return.
“It gave everybody a chance to put a name to a face and meet people we haven’t talked to before,” March says. “What’s great about Shawn is, he’s able to create and keep a great sense of teamwork amongst the staff.”
Ashley Tarango, Life Skills Coordinator
For the past two years, Ashley Tarango has been a familiar face in the MHS office where she worked as a secretary for the school.
A Globe native, Tarango attended Globe High School but graduated in the Valley after her family moved to East Mesa. She loves the sense of community in the Globe-Miami area, which was on display after the Tigers recently lost the Copper Kettle to the Vandals.
“To see how much the community came together was great,” Tarango says. “Whether you’re watching students or family, or whether you just went to see the game, one of the big things I like about living here is that, regardless of whether its Globe or Miami, we’re still one community.”
Along with her experience in the front office, Tarango brings more than a decade of work in the medical field at a family practice in Globe and at the Healthcare Corporation in San Carlos, where she worked as a medical assistant in pediatrics.
Tarango’s life skills classes teach students how to deal with life’s challenges, from the negative effects of drugs and violence to money management and personal hygiene and even how to set personal boundaries with other people.
“Transitioning to the classroom is a big change for me,” Tarango says. “Having a classroom of my own makes me really appreciate the things teachers do, the things they go through, and the things they have to deal with every day.”
Catherine Ustaritz, Special Education
Ustaritz is from Peridot originally and is another former paraprofessional who has transitioned to teaching. She worked in the San Carlos Unified School District for six years and for the past four has been with the MUSD.
She recently went back to college to work towards a bachelor’s degree in Special Education.
“I come from a family of teachers,” Ustaritz says. “My grandmother was the superintendent at the SCUSD for a few years and I have others ranging from K to third grade. So we have quite a few teachers in our family.”
She originally wanted to be a veterinarian, briefly working at animal control, but transitioned to working with the elderly. Neither field appealed to her as a long-term career, so now Ustaritz feels like she has found her place at the MUSD.
“It’s been a pretty smooth transition and I really like the administration we have,” Ustaritz says. “I like Shawn, and it’s nice to see that continuity and recruitment from within the existing community.”
Erika Vargas, Chemistry and Biology
Erika Vargas has deep roots in Miami and is a multi-generational coach and teacher in the MUSD. Her uncle is legendary Vandals basketball coach Ken Vargas and she has followed in his footsteps as the junior high volleyball and wrestling coach.
For the past three years Vargas served as a health aid for the District, but recently stepped in to lead a virtual classroom teaching a wide range of sciences to both junior and senior high students.
In her younger days, Vargas traveled to Washington State and California for summers with family members.
She became a mother during her sophomore year at MHS and after a short time away, returned to win the election for’ class president. Despite the support of family members and the community, she had to leave high school and seek a different path.
She eventually earned her diploma online and entered the nursing program at Eastern Arizona College, taking evening classes as she dealt with the rigors of motherhood.
“I never stopped my education, I just did it at a slower pace,” Vargas says. “I knew I wanted to be in the medical science field, so I completed all my prereqs and took my assessment and got accepted in the first round.”
Life intervened again and she had to put her education on hold once more, but with the support of her family and her own determination, she finally earned her nursing degree.
Vargas accepted her health aid position during the pandemic because she felt was a “responsible hat to wear at the time.”
She had her second child in May, and in the weeks prior to the beginning of the school year, Pietila convinced her to get an emergency teaching certificate.
Now Vargas feels like she has found her calling in a place that has always been her home.
“I just love Arizona, I love our small town,” Vargas says. “It’s close enough, but also far enough from everything.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.