Leadership Insights: Michael Arreola, proud principal of North Garland High School
Read more to hear the inspiring story of a leader with clear conviction and purpose for serving Garland, Texas students.
Written by Rachel Chewakin
This spotlight highlights a conversation in January 2021 moderated by PIC team member Rachel Chewakin and Michael Arreola, Principal of North Garland High School in Garland, Texas.
In a five-part series, you will read more about the various journeys that have shaped his values and convictions as a leader.
Part 1: Identity Rooted in Family Culture & History
Part 2: The Importance in the Meaning of a Name
Part 3: Inspired to Make an Impact
Part 4: Journey as an Educator & School Leader
Part 5: Using Leadership Learnings to Create Equity Driven Practices
Identity Rooted in Family Culture & History
Q: What part of your identity do you think people first notice about you?
A: As a Hispanic male in a profession that does not reflect a lot of us, I think my ethnicity is the first thing people identify about me. The fact that I am Hispanic, my last name, and the way I look.
Q: Can you tell us about the parts of your Hispanic heritage and other pieces of your identity that have shaped who you are?
A: My father came to the United States from Mexico when he was a teenager as an undocumented individual and made a life for himself and my mother is a Caucasian woman who was born in Missouri. My mother left home when I was four and I was raised completely by my father, having no understanding of what happened until I turned eighteen and met my mother once again.
Being raised by my father, with two identities and cultures to contend with, really created a tension within me. When I was a child, I was very intelligent and I always had this dilemma in my head. I questioned, “Am I smarter because my mother is white?” I thought that way for a while, and often felt that as a person of color, I put myself down as if I was not good enough. When I was good at something, I thought maybe it was in part because of that one half. That was a component of my identity that was uncomfortable and something I never really talked about with anyone.
My father was intelligent, just in varying means. He was a mechanic with a sixth grade education but was very knowledgeable and curious about different topics beyond that of his trade. I realized intellect was something I obtained from both parents, not because of ethnicity, but because it was a pattern of thinking since an early age.
The Importance in the Meaning of a Name
Q: Being so close with your father and your Hispanic heritage, I am wondering if you could share the story of your name, and the meaning your name brings to you.
A: My last name (Arreola) originated in Spain. Growing up, it was never really an issue with being in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. There was not a lot of mispronunciation other than from teachers at my school. As I grew up, I always anglicized my name because people had a hard time pronouncing it. I remember even as a teacher, I did the same thing to try to make others comfortable. When people asked me how to pronounce my name, I would simply say the anglicized version; and would even teach students to say it in that way.
I worked with an Assistant Principal who was also Hispanic. He approached me and asked me to pronounce my last name. I told him the same anglicized version I had shared with others at school but that he could say it as its Spanish variant. He then questioned, “Well which one is it?” I explained the correct pronunciation and shared that most individuals say it otherwise.
He then stated, “Why do you say it that way, if that’s not how it is? Your name is powerful, that is who you are and who your family is. When you change it, it appears you are not proud of that and you give other people permission to diminish that part of you. Your students and staff see this; that who we are is not good enough for everybody else so we have to change ourselves to make everybody else comfortable.”
In thinking back, that is something that has always resonated with me. Ever since that experience, I state my name the way it was intended to be pronounced. I have students now who have heard me and stated that it feels good to have someone who shares their same culture as their principal. When I say it among parents, I believe it reflects who I am and is part of my identity. While doing so, I am also emphasizing to students that it is okay to celebrate who we are, to know we are powerful, and that we don’t have to change who we are to be successful in this country.
Inspired to Make an Impact
Q: Are there other inspiring moments in your background that have influenced who you are today?
A: I think there was definitely a moment when I realized that what was in my background empowered me more so than being an obstacle I had to overcome. When I graduated from High School, I initially rejected the idea of going to college because I did not have anyone around me who had aspired to go to college. I enlisted in the Marine Corps; an opportunity that I thought would provide the American Dream for me. However, when I arrived, I found mostly minorities surrounded me. It served as a wakeup call for me, in realizing everyone was there because of his or her socioeconomic status and desired to get away from the reality of poverty.
I was injured during basic training and came back with a different perspective about the country. I went to community college and one of my professors asked if I wanted to tutor students. I went to North Dallas High School and joined a program called Gear Up, in which I joined classrooms to support students. I fell in love with the idea of helping students see what was available to them by going to college. It was then I realized, I too had the opportunity to go to college, although I never believed that before. I assumed I had to join the military or would be limited to going to work.
When I got into college, I realized it was not an impossible dream. When I started college at Dallas College El Centro Campus, I saw more people who looked like me and were intelligent individuals. Shortly after, I received a scholarship to go to The University of North Texas to teach.
Looking back on my educational experiences, I feel the Marine Corps helped me garner more confidence and the discipline I needed to be more studious. When I became a teacher and saw the impact that I had on the lives of my students, especially those who looked like me, gravitated to me, and had questions about going to college, I started to find that it became a positive experience for me. All of the things I hated growing up and thought made me different from how America defined success, is what led me to be successful.
Journey as an Educator & School Leader
Q: As you transitioned into education, can you share the context of the schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area you served? And how this, if at all, has impacted your leadership today?
Teacher & Assistant Principal
I started my career in Carrolton-Farmers Branch Independent School District (CFB ISD). I taught at Ted Polk Middle School, a campus with about 50% Hispanic and 25%/25% Caucasian and African American students. It was a Title I school, but not low socioeconomic, so I learned a lot in this new environment. I then became Assistant Principal at Turner High School, which, at 80% Hispanic students, Title 1, and low socioeconomic families, felt more like the high school I attended. In this experience, I felt like I came into my own and could relate to the students.
My next role as leader of Early College High School at Brookhaven College, a campus of 350 students, 85% Hispanic and mostly first generation college students with immigrant parents, was powerful, because our small size really allowed me to get to know my staff and families.
Before me, the campus was doing well, with 65% of students graduating with an Associate Degree and students obtaining an average of 40 hours of college credits. But I felt the principals before me did not share my level of high expectations. Perhaps because of what felt like a common background with my students, I felt strongly that if they clearly had the drive to choose this school, they, deserved more. I wanted 100% of my students to graduate with their Associate’s Degree.
I am proud to share that when I left the campus, 90% of students were obtaining Associate’s Degrees, and the latest Texas Education Agency (TEA) rating showed a 99% completion rate.
When I moved to Newman Smith High School, a 5A high school with 2,000 students and in a turnaround situation, I faced two key challenges. First, I was replacing a principal who had served at the campus for more than two decades and who had been there for their entire career. Second, this was my first time leading a campus that served a larger African American student population (over 25%).
To address coming in as the new guy, I tapped into my personal and professional experiences to meet the needs of the campus. For example, while I understood the discipline processes, I did not believe long-term authoritarian approaches would be sustainable. After investing time and energy into systems and instructional changes, we moved the school from a low C rating to a B in two years.
And as I reflect on what helped me serve a larger group of African American students, I remember a particularly impactful conversation I had with a peer educator at a training I attended. After describing my campus, which I tended to think as a predominantly Hispanic school, he helped me to understand that even though African American students were only 25% of the student population, that the success of my campus would be driven by how well we served this group of students.
He expounded upon how the educational system has historically disenfranchised African American students. If one is not intentional about the way in which they educate and support African American students, if they are not focusing on providing equitable experiences in education, this group of students will continue to be negatively perceived and approached by society.
This radically shifted my thinking. I knew as a leader that I had to change the way I led. I would need to learn to be more empathetic with students who did not share similar backgrounds as me. I knew about the discrimination my father faced because of his skin color, but it was not until adulthood that I fully began to appreciate his lessons on treating others respectfully and reconciling bias. I became determined to do my part to eliminate the historical racial tensions amongst my students.
Current Campus: North Garland High School, Garland Independent School District (Garland ISD) My experience at Newman Smith supported me in my transition to North Garland with 2,800 students, 15% of whom are African American. Having that experience helped me to prepare and to determine how I could best meet their needs. This has also pushed me to take on my PIC design project and my work with anti-racism currently among staff and students.
Using Leadership Learnings to Create Equity Driven Practices
Q: How has the context in which you have led influenced how you lead your team, specifically through racial equity practices and approaches?
A: Through all these experiences, I have a few key lessons learned. First, you have to walk before you can run. At North Garland High School, we are working on anti-racism and equity driven practices with staff focusing on the work of Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. This has allowed us to ease into conversations about race because we had a solid foundation and common language. We could all, as individuals, reflect on our own behaviors, challenge our own subconscious acts of racism, and then ultimately go deeper into our work.
Second, this work requires a high degree of trust. Because of the trust we had built among staff, we were able to have transparent conversations. For example, when we analyze data, we are upfront
about calling out racism and ethnic stereotypes, and then work together to break down those stereotypes and find better solutions.
Having a foundation of trust was critical when the COVID-19 pandemic affected our progress. Working in a virtual environment makes all communication challenging, so trying to introduce critical conversations about race in the midst of the pandemic and our nation’s racial unrest would have been too daunting. Fortunately, my staff members were open, which I believe started with my own vulnerability about my racial identity and implicit biases.
Lastly, empathy is key, but it needs to extend beyond those that look like us. When we see ourselves in other people, we are inclined to want success for them. But what happens when we do not connect or empathize with others who don’t look like us? When addressing the definition of racism, it points back to how we have internalized messages about race and ethnicity. My childhood in a segregated community left me with a limited set of experiences and information, whether from racists or antiracists, which shaped my perception of other people. On the other hand, those in communities that were anti-racist would utilize that information in a different manner.
Those perspectives helped to break down initial barriers around implicit biases with hopes that we can dive deeper in the use of that information and prevent what may be harmful to our students and campus community alike.
Principal Arreola’s conviction to lead with a sense of curiosity and seek new perspectives is inspiring, and encourages us to break down racial biases we may have in order to push towards a more equitable approach to education for all students.
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