ALAMO HEIGHTS — Alamo Heights High School has a dynamite doubleheader – a new principal and a new athletic director/football coach.
Longtime Florida teacher and administrator, Cory Ann Espinar Smith, is the campus’ latest leader starting this summer.
Ron Rittimann, a highly respected gridiron instructor for 29 years at North East Independent School District’s Johnson and Madison high schools, began in March as the new AD and head football coach — the first time AHHS has combined the positions.
The hires came after the simultaneous resignations of both AHHS’ principal and athletic director just after school started last September, followed by football coach Mike Norment stepping down in December.
Superintendent Dana Bashara said Smith is the right fit for the job.
“Cory has a long-standing history of serving as a principal who leads from the heart, prioritizing the work of building trust and positive relationships with her students, staff and community,” Bashara said.
While uncertainty remains about what shape classes and on-site attendance will take in 2020-2021 due to the novel coronavirus, both Smith and Rittimann are eager and positive about getting to work.
Smith, 44, plans a San Antonio arrival with her family in mid-June, to officially start July 1. In a way, it’s a homecoming. The Alamo City native moved to Florida with her mother’s family at age 5. She met her husband, David Smith, a veteran physical-education teacher, and settled down.
Married 21 years, they have two children: David, 16, and Cole Austin, 10.
Smith’s dad, Bob Bush, still lives in San Antonio; her uncle, Michael Bush, graduated from Alamo Heights in the late 1970s, she said. Gradually, her mom’s large extended family returned to San Antonio, too. Smith and her husband visited often.
This February, Jessica Bush, her mother, died unexpectedly here.
“She was very young and we were very close. It was a huge wake-up call. You only get one life, and it was time to get back, close to family,” Smith said.
The job offer at Heights came at a perfect time.
“(During) my first conversation with Superintendent Bashara, I felt we really connected in terms of our philosophy of education and education, helping kids learn in different ways,” Smith said. “The second interview was with a panel of teachers from the school, and again I felt that really strong connection.”
Smith, who is a national consultant on the Project Based Learning initiative, said she has a passion for the way the program motivates and energizes students.
“I’m not a fan of straight rows of desks and teachers talking for 50 minutes every day,” she said. “PBL includes teamwork in groups solving real problems, building something meaningful.”
Debbie Garinger, the interim principal since September, is looking forward to working with Smith.
“Cory has a warm and inviting personality, and the leadership skills that will guide the high school in a direction that is true to our ‘Profile of a Learner,’” Garinger said, referencing an Alamo Heights Independent School District program that recognizes innovators.
Smith’s professional career spanned more than two decades in Florida’s Broward County Public Schools, the nation’s sixth-largest system, centered in Fort Lauderdale. She taught English and language arts for eight years — the last seven at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — then moved up to assistant principal at Coral Springs High School.
Her last post, since 2014, was Ramblewood Middle School principal.
The murderous shooting rampage at Douglas in 2018 deeply affected her, she said, as it altered the district, the community and the country.
“As much as the nation felt it, in Broward, it will never be the same. It’s a close community. Coral Springs and Parkland touch. I taught there. My husband taught five of the victims for their six years in elementary. One of my assistant principals had two children there at that time. Aaron Feis (the football coach shot while shielding students) was my buddy,” she said.
“It changed the way we looked at safety and security as a district. I took some quick action to make kids and parents feel safe. We already had a single point of entry, we added a double-buzzer system and cameras and put decorative wraps on all the windows so the kids could see out, but you couldn’t see in. I had to start having conversations with kids about who to tell if they suspected something.”
She’s already learning about the security setup at Alamo Heights, she said, and will continue to work to keep pupils safe.
“Of course, we have a security staff, but basically safety is the job of everyone in the school,” Smith said. “We are all the eyes and ears of the campus.”
Smith is not in favor of arming educators.
“We’re here to educate our kids, and that just puts added pressure on teachers,” she said.
Building relationships with colleagues, educators, students and the community will be her first priority, she said. She’ll adjust to whatever situation the coronavirus creates as the semester begins.
“This is so unprecedented. I told my teachers we had to go from ‘The Flintstones’ to ‘The Jetsons’ overnight,” she said. “I’m hoping we open the year in the physical building. That’s one of my favorite times. I love meeting the community, inviting people in, learning how I can support their children — in person, I hope, rather than virtually.“
Rittimann is already off to a vibrant start in his new role as AD and head football coach. Hired in February, he worked on campus just a few days before the pandemic closed the campus, but COVID-19 hasn’t squelched his excitement going forward.
“This is my 30th year of coaching in San Antonio and I have never played the Mules,” Rittimann said. “That might have been part of the draw.”
The 53-year-old New Braunfels native, who quarterbacked for Texas State University back when it was Southwest Texas State University, started at Madison, then went to Johnson as head coach when the school opened in 2008.
In 2019, the Texas High School Coaches Association honored him with the prestigious Tom Landry Award; he’s also a four-time San Antonio Coach of the Year winner.
Alongside his wife, Patti, the Rittimanns are searching for a new home in the Alamo Heights area. Both their children are grown. Hunter, 24, is a graduate assistant football coach at the University of Texas at San Antonio; daughter Kylie, 22, was on track to graduate from Texas Tech University in May.
Two former Johnson co-workers will join him at Heights. Jennifer Fox, the head softball coach and assistant athletic coordinator, will handle the administrative side as assistant athletic director.
James Ricker, a Jaguar coach and teacher the past six years, will be the Mules’ new defensive coordinator.
Rittimann is preparing a full sports program when school starts.
“I’ve told all the head coaches to have a plan ready, but nobody knows for certain what is going to happen. The (University Interscholastic League) is communicating with the governor, the (Texas Education Agency), a bunch of agencies. Everything coming to us so far says we will play, but we don’t know what that will look like.”
For football, it would be only road games, due to Orem Stadium reconstruction.
“We’re on a regular schedule, meeting with coaches and football players. We’re sending the students workouts to do at home,” Rittimann said. “Some have access to weights, others just do body stuff in their garage or driveway or running. We cover a bit of everything. We’re also working a lot on character development. And, we’ve allowed each coach to talk about their family background and their own athletic experience, which you don’t always have time to do in a regular season.”
He added, “I feel we’re really doing more than physical work, we’re also training mentally, socially and spiritually.”
There are 12 AHHS football coaches, Rittimann said, with baseball, basketball, swimming, volleyball and the other sports taking the same approach.
“I always wanted to be an athletic director, but I still love coaching. While I’m head football coach, I want every program at Alamo Heights High School to be successful,” he said.
His peers are looking forward to working with him, one said.
“Ron is truly excited about all sports and committed to the needs of athletes and students,” said Norm Collins, AHHS’ aquatics coordinator, and coach for swimming, diving and water polo. The interim AD from September to March added, “He has already built some good relationships with the coaches and it is exciting to hear him talk about how he is going to support multisport athletes. We got a good one.”