By Bob Skolnik
Hector Freytas jolted Riverside-Brookfield High School like a gulp of an energy drink during the first week of the new school year, bringing a new level of energy and visibility to the principal's role.
He impressed students and teachers alike with his passionate style and effusive personality. Speaking to students at freshmen orientation and grade level assemblies last week, Freytas roamed around the RBHS auditorium like a motivational speaker or talk show host, leading cheers and passionately imploring students to do their best and take responsibility for their own lives.
"So far, I really like him," said RBHS junior Alyssa Zavala. "I think he's going to bring a different energy, a needed energy to RB. He really grabbed your attention. It was just an entirely different energy."
English teacher Wendy Cassens also noted Freytas exuberant style.
"It's definitely a different energy level, and I'm excited to see how RB can continue forward momentum," said Cassens, who serves as the English Department's instructional coach and is beginning her 25th year teaching at RBHS.
Freytas officially took over as principal on July 1, replacing Kristin Smetana who now holds the position of assistant superintendent. Freytas brings a much different personality and style to the principal position than did the soft-spoken Smetana.
"It's who I am. I've always been loud and proud. I've always been a leader, I'm not a shy individual," said Freytas, who turned 35 on the first day of school last week.
At the freshmen orientation and grade level assemblies, Freytas urged students to be proud of their school, pointing out the accomplishments of students and alumni. He told students that the staff at RBHS care about them.
"If you have not heard it from an adult, here at RB we love you, we care about you, and we got your back," Freytas practically shouted at students, who responded with applause.
Freytas has created a new hand gesture at RBHS. He calls it "the paw," an upraised right arm with fingers curled. Freytas said that he came up with the gesture after noticing a poster of the RB symbol, the bulldog Rouser, in the school's business office.
He used the gesture during his presentations, getting most students, after some initial hesitation, to go along.
"That means please be quiet, pleased be focused and have attention," Freytas explaining that it is a sign of respect for both the speaker and the listener.
Zavala said that she thought students liked doing the paw.
"I think it left an impression on a lot of kids, which is very important," Zavala said. "I think people knew that it was corny, but at the same time it leaves an impression. They remember it, they like it."
Senior Jonathan Swallow also liked the paw.
"I believe it's really cool, it's a new spirit in RB," Swallow said.
Freytas challenged students to work hard in the classroom and in sports and activities and to "win the week." He urged them to always do their best, to watch out for their friends, and to avoid drama.
The freshmen seemed impressed.
"I think he's pretty cool, and I think it's good that he's trying to connect with us," said freshman Moses Soto.
District 208 Superintendent Kevin Skinkis, who made the recommendation to the school board to hire Freytas, also noted his enthusiasm and outgoing personality.
"He's doing a great job building relationships with the students, staff, and parents, and it looks like it's going to be an exciting school year," Skinkis said.
During the first week of school, Freytas popped into classrooms, was out and about in the hallways, directed traffic outside when school let out, and roamed the perimeter of the school in the morning, greeting students as they came to school.
"I'm going to be outside as much as I can," Freytas said.
Before coming to RBHS, Freytas served for two years as the principal of a charter school on the Northwest Side of Chicago.
He began his career as a Spanish teacher at his alma mater, Morton East High School, became dean of the freshman campus at Morton East and then served for two years as an assistant principal at Westmont High School, where he worked for former RBHS Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann.
Since July, Freytas has been trying to meet as many students and parents as possible. He shook hands and introduced himself to students and parents at residency day, spoke to the PTO and the Boosters Club, met athletes and school clubs, and met with feeder school principals and local police chiefs.
In addition to being visible, Freytas said that his goals for the year are to improve RBHS's performance on metrics across the board. He told the Landmark he wants to increase the attendance rate to 95 percent, improve student performance by an average of 80 points from a student's PSAT test as a sophomore to the state mandated SAT test in the spring of a student's junior year.
He also wants to increase the number of seniors who graduate from RBHS having passed an Advanced Placement exam from about 50 percent to 53 percent.
Freytas said Smetana has been helping him during the transition to her new role as assistant superintendent. While Smetana is taking over the business manager's role, she will continue to play an important role in academics, especially in analyzing data and spotting trends. She also will play a major role in hiring.
"There's a reason why she was principal for five years," Freytas said. "She's very organized, she's highly competent."