MONTEBELLO – When Lili Atoyan was appointed to lead Potrero Heights Elementary this school year, she became the first Armenian-American principal at Montebello Unified School District, a cultural melting pot where more than 32 different languages are spoken – 15 at Potrero Heights alone. Montebello is also home to a thriving Armenian community.
As an administrative leader with strong ties to the community, Atoyan embraces the cultural diversity on her campus and across the District. These values are all the more important to her because of her personal connection to the history of the Armenian culture.
As the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide approaches on April 23 at the Armenian Genocide Monument in Montebello, Atoyan needn’t be reminded of the loss.
“My grandmother lost her mother and father that day. She was 5 years old,” Atoyan said. “I have direct family members who were victims in the genocide.”
But Atoyan does not like to dwell on the negative. Her life is dedicated to developing meaningful relationships with her Potrero Heights students, who never cease to amaze her. The Montebello native, who attended MUSD’s Washington Elementary, returned to the neighborhood where she grew up to teach and inspire a new generation of high achievers.
“We are very proud of Montebello Unified’s cultural identities and strive to embody diverse life and historical experiences at all levels within our District,” Montebello Unified Board President Edgar Cisneros said. “On a professional and personal level, I am thrilled to have recommended Principal Atoyan to her post as she truly illustrates our objective to ensure MUSD students and families feel represented and connected to their educators as they pursue a rigorous education.”
Interestingly, Atoyan didn’t intend to become a teacher. She enrolled at the University of Southern California (USC) to study environmental law and worked as a teaching assistant as an undergraduate. Pressed into conducting a freshman cultural geography class, her life changed after delivering just one lecture.
“A large group of students stayed after class wanting to learn more and I wanted to teach them,” Atoyan said. “It’s the students who made the choice for me.”
Atoyan quickly established herself as a forward-thinking educator and eventually found herself teaching first grade at her childhood alma mater, Washington Elementary. She developed a reading incentive program that proved so effective it was implemented school-wide.
Atoyan’s enthusiasm and work ethic prompted the District to appoint her principal at Potrero Heights. Typically, she credits others for her success.
“Support is part of the culture at Montebello Unified School District,” Atoyan said. “The staff, the teachers, the parents, everyone has great expectations. It’s gratifying and rewarding. I am so happy in my career. I wake up excited to go to work every single day.”
Atoyan is also quick to acknowledge the efforts of others within her school community. For example, the Potrero Heights PTA logs 3,000 hours in volunteer time each year. She marvels at the Potrero Heights student band – the only one based at a District elementary school. She is thrilled with a pilot STEM program brought to her school through a District partnership with USC and toymaker Mattel, in which fourth-graders use Hot Wheels to learn science.
“Lili Atoyan personifies the rich and deep character and academic fervor of the Montebello community,” Superintendent of Schools Susanna Contreras Smith said. “She came back here because this is where her heart is and she wanted to give back. Our District is that much stronger for it.”