Written by Rachel Chewakin
Principal Angelia Ross of International Newcomers Academy (INA) in Fort Worth Independent School District (Fort Worth ISD) understands the impact of leading with purpose and passion. Shaped by her time living around the world as a child and her service as a Peace Corps volunteer, Ross is utilizing these experiences to re-imagine what is possible for the immigrant and refugee students at INA.
In this PIC Principal Spotlight, we are excited to introduce you to Principal Angelia Ross, and to highlight her unique journey into education, what motivates her to lead her one-of-a-kind campus, and how she is using her Principal Impact Collaborative (PIC) experience to build her personal resilience and leadership capacity to continue working towards educational equity.
Q: Can you share what makes you, you?
A: When I was growing up, we traveled a lot because my father was an Air Force veteran. We lived all over the world and because of that; I was exposed to cultures, backgrounds, points of view, and customs different from my own. This experienced defined how I view the world and understood those around me. This has had a profound impact on my life that has carried me through my adulthood. Because of that exposure, I was able to learn to be more open to change, more open to hearing stories from others, and truly understanding how to build relationships with different people around me.
Q: Reflecting back on your professional journey, what led you to pursue a career in education?
A: I never wanted to be in education. I always knew I wanted to go into international business. When I graduated from college, I joined the Peace Corps and served in El Salvador for two years. While living there, I was a small business consultant supporting women displaced by the civil war. I taught them how to run and expand their businesses through a microloan program. Inspired by the success of the microloan support, the community in El Salvador wanted to start a similar street kids program. We would spend our mornings focusing on literacy and in the afternoon, we would support the students to develop their own businesses to lead. Most of the students I was working with were orphans and living on the street. In all, we were able to provide a place for 10 children and were able to get them back on track academically. After transitioning from my time in the Peace Corps back to the United States, I immediately went into a business role. I quickly realized I was not happy – and that what brought me more joy and fueled my passion was making a change in the life of all children. It was then I knew I wanted to work in education.
Q: Can you share more about your path to school leadership through education?
A: When I transitioned back to the states I moved back home to Arlington, Texas to be closer to my parents. At the time, my father was ill from cancer and I wanted to be closer to support him and my mother through this difficult time. To support them, I went back to school to obtain my teaching certification and from there, I worked at Rosemont Middle School in Fort Worth ISD teaching English language arts, reading, and AVID for six years. During my time as a teacher, I didn’t think I would ever go into administration. Then, there was this spark from my principal at the time that believed I had the leadership skills and ability to bring people together to collaborate. With this inspiration, I applied to the Aspiring Principals Program at University of Texas at Arlington and became a certified principal while earning my masters. I served as an Assistant Principal and Dean of Instruction in the district at a middle and high school. Eventually, I was asked to lead INA and am currently in my third year as a principal here.
Q: If you could describe INA in one sentence, how would you describe your school?
A: INA is giving children a chance where there was no chance before.
Q: Can you share more about the backgrounds that make your students so unique?
A: All of my students are coming from different countries and difference backgrounds from around the world, be it war torn or countries where there is no infrastructure. They have seen tremendous trauma in their young lives and all have a story to tell. When they come to INA, they are escaping some of those realities, and we are creating a new home for them. For some, INA is their first contact with a school system and community in America. This year, the majority of the students are coming from Central America, specifically Honduras and El Salvador. We also have student refugees from the Congo area, Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, France, and Canada.
Q: Given your student’s diverse backgrounds, can you share a little more about INA’s support structure?
A: INA currently serves 588 (with a continuous enrollment) students from 6th to 9th grade, of which most students come to school with zero to little knowledge of English. Given that, all educators on campus are trained in QTEL (Quality Teaching and Learning for English Language Learners). Our teachers focus on not just looking at the background of the child and where they are coming from geographically, but are also digging deep to amplify the knowledge they are coming in with and bringing to the table. This is why having diverse staff that focuses on being culturally responsive is key to the success of newcomers and English Language Learners. Our diverse staff works to be culturally responsive. This can be seen in the texts incorporated across classrooms-- texts that include characters and stories that look like the students we are serving, or in exposing our students to real world problem solving in new and familiar contexts. Students will often work in small groups to collaborate and learn from one another so that they feel confident in taking risks and build authentic relationships with peers and their teacher, even if the language isn’t strong in the beginning. With the way our school is structured, our students typically transition to their permanent school within one academic school year only. If the student is in our PEEL program (students who were unschooled or struggle with literacy in their own language) then we provide additional support during their first year. By the time they leave for their next school, they are leaving with a strong foundation of the English language in reading, writing, listening, and speaking. This is a true testament to how hard the staff works to identify and address individual students and family needs.
Q: Despite the many challenges your students may face, what unique strengths have you
observed in them?
A: They have so many unique strengths but there is one that definitely stands out. Because our campus does not offer extracurricular activities, students rely on other INA students to build relationships. Whenever we have a new student join us, and without any prompting from adults in the building, current students are immediately helping them out, inviting them to sit with them at lunch and showing them around the building. Each of them knows how it feels to show up at new school in a new country, learning a new culture, and not knowing the language. They truly embody what it means to act like and to be a real family. By opening the school with welcome arms, the students are showing one another this is a safe place and that this is their place to stay.
Q: What do you love most about leading INA?
A: I love the kids; it is all about the kids. It doesn’t matter how my day is going or what day it is, the students come up to me and they are so happy. They are smiling and they are working hard despite it all – and if they can come to school every single day, trying their best, then I should give at least 200% for them so that when they do leave me, I can give them a fighting chance at their new school. It is my hope that they will continue to be an advocate for their own education. The other thing I love about INA is when my students come back to visit me and I get to hear how grateful they are for their experiences at INA. One student in particular stood out. While he was a student here, he didn’t think he would be able to attend college. Now, he is a Junior in high school exploring his options to attend post-secondary education, and points to INA as his source of inspiration. All in all, I know that sitting amongst all of my students, there is someone that is going to change the world, someone that is going to make an impact – and I am giving them a chance to do that.
Q: As you think about your first three years as a school leader, what do you think is the most common misconception about the role of the principalship?
A: The most common misconception is that everything can be found in a book and that you have to accomplish everything on your own. That is not the case. As I enter my third year as a principal, I have realized the principalship is like a beehive. A beehive is one of the most complex, highly functional organizational systems found on earth. What we can learn from bees is that one bee cannot move the vision of the colony (school) alone but everyone has to be in one accord. We can also learn from bees that everyone has the opportunity to make a contribution to the greater good and can make a difference. This means everyone, from your campus monitor to the front office staff, has talent that can be tapped into for the greater good of serving students.
Q: How has your time in PIC impacted your ability to lead on your campus?
A: As principals, we rarely get the opportunity to step back and look at everything from above to improve the opportunities for our students. The most valuable part of PIC is the opportunity to think more creatively and to be exposed to different ways of approaching change on your campus. I have been in education for over 18 years, and in all of my professional development, PIC is the most valuable opportunity I have participated in. Because of PIC and my peers in the program, I have been able to gain tangible skills and thought processes that have allowed me to impact my unique school in new and important ways. PIC has allowed me to truly give back to myself and to grow myself as a leader. I know that I will never be perfect, but I know that if I am consistently challenging myself and am open to change, I can impact the teachers and students I am leading. With PIC, I know it is alright to fail and test out new ideas. This program gives me the flexibility to be human.