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From the Community, For the Community: Catching up with Jorge Arellano, Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement
October 19, 2021
Jorge Arellano, Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement, is committed to helping families and students understand their power to advocate for change.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your position at Alpha Public Schools?
My name is Jorge Arelleno and I am the Director of Advocacy and Community Engagement for Alpha Public Schools. I am in my fourth year in the organization. Prior to this role, I was the principal of Alpha Cindy Avitia High School. I have been in education over 20 years serving in a variety of roles such as instructional aid, teacher, counselor, dean of students and assistant principal.
Can you share some of the roles and responsibilities that you have in your current role?
In my current role, I am spending a lot of time working with parents and educating them about their rights as it relates to charter schools and school choice. I am also working a lot with parents to develop their leadership skills so they can advocate for themselves. We want them to learn how to organize themselves so they can have a voice. I’m also thinking a lot about how we can best support and educate our parents so that they can best support their scholars at our schools. We want parents to be visible, take ownership over different projects in schools, and teach our teachers about various things that can improve their teaching, such as cultural background, cultural knowledge, and specific dynamics that exist within their communities. I will also be working on branding for Alpha and making sure that we are promoting our story in the community and working with different community leaders to strengthen our community stature. Part of that work includes sharing all the amazing things that are happening with our scholars and families with our authorizing boards. Lastly, I will also be establishing partnerships with organizations doing work that aligns with our vision. For example, this month we launched a partnership with Dell to start a program that will provide mentoring and exposure to careers in tech to 18 of our juniors. Alpha’s goal is to establish partnerships with other organizations that can provide similar opportunities for our scholars to build their knowledge and confidence to pursue careers that require a college education.
I know you grew up and went to school in east San Jose. What was that experience like for you?
I grew up right here in this community. The office for Alpha is actually located down the street from where I grew up, and most of our schools are within a couple miles from that central location. I grew up in this neighborhood and attended local schools. At the time, the schools in this area were considered the worst schools in San Jose, not only in terms of data but also because of all the gang activity in the area. In terms of how the schools were serving the Latino community–at the time I was attending those schools, they were graduating about 15% of the Latino low-income students with A-G requirements completed. We didn’t perceive that there was a lot of interest from the schools in who we were as a community. Consequently, by 7th grade I started acting out in school and was kicked out to continuation schools my sophomore year. Luckily, just before I graduated, they enrolled me at San Jose City College where I experienced success for the first time in years. After 3 years, I transferred to Santa Clara University and became an educator myself. One of the things I vividly remember from my Chicano Studies class is learning about systemic racism and all the different systems that are in place and influence the outcomes of different groups within communities. I was exposed to the research that showed the impact of race and poverty on Latino students like myself and I realized how much my friends and I were simply falling into the patterns that exist in our society. As I studied this and peeled back the onion, I realized that I was a product of all these different layers that I didn’t understand growing up. Growing up you think, “oh, I’m just making these choices,” but you don’t realize that all these choices are predicated on what was around you and what was provided for you. When I learned all that, I knew that I needed to go back to my community and make sure that students learned about those systems so they too could feel like they actually had choices. I wanted to make sure that students in my community weren’t experiencing oppression or being cast aside, but rather that they were being embraced and encouraged to be successful. That’s what I have dedicated my life to. After graduating college I chose to buy a house not far from where I grew up precisely for the same reason. I didn’t want to be a college graduate that just leaves the hood; I wanted to stick around and be part of the change that we want to see. That’s why I am super excited to be working at Alpha, because they are engaged in the very same work. Parents from my community organized and said, “we want a layer of support for our students to help them go to college.” I am grateful to be a part of a system that is supporting our scholars so they attend and succeed in college.
As you reflect on your time as a student, were there particular educators in your life that stood out to you? What makes these people stand out?
I can think of very few in my K-12. In middle school, I had Mr. Robledo for sixth grade. He was just a cool guy; he was one of the few Latino teachers in the school and that’s probably why I gravitated toward him. I was an English learner and his class was memorable because he played songs on the guitar to help us learn. Another teacher was Ms. Caravaca in juvenile hall. She was just down to earth and really understood the students in her classes. She would reward us by letting us pick songs we wanted and she would go out of her way to record those songs for us in cassettes and later CD’s (equivalent of downloading for you young people) so we could listen to our favorite songs. She was always so joyful and had a great sense of humor. She made teaching seem so fun during one of my extended stays in juvenile hall, I decided I wanted to become a teacher just like her. Years later, shortly before she retired, I got to be an instructional aide in her classroom, and to this day, working alongside her at juvenile hall has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had in my life. In different ways, both of these teachers made me think that someone like me could attend college and become a teacher and that is a constant reminder to me of the tremendous impact we educators can have on students. I will be forever grateful to God for placing them in my path because in many ways I am who I am thanks to their influence.
You have been able to work in different capacities in education–teacher, school leader, network staff. What has kept you engaged in the work, and what have been some of your biggest challenges in the transition of roles?
Once I got the hang of teaching, my least stressful job in education has been teaching. Once I understood lesson planning and classroom management, teaching became predictable and I could do my thing. I was fortunate that I was teaching one subject so each year I took my lessons, improved them from the year before and I was able to focus on my delivery instead of having to create everything from scratch. Transitioning into administration, there is a lot of uncertainty. You don’t know what might come your way; there is a lot less control. You have a say on so many areas of the school you are often bombarded with responsibilities and requests and that can easily become overwhelming. A lot of leadership is relational, so it’s hard to have bad days without your staff feeling it; school leadership takes a lot of emotional energy and a lot of focus. What has kept me engaged is my life mission. Now that I see all the layers and systems that work against our communities, I can’t go back. I know too much about how the system keeps our students down, keeps poor students down, keeps poor students of color down. Knowing what I know, it is difficult for me to find meaning or enjoyment other than in working to support students and families. In terms of doing something meaningful that is making a change, I can’t think of any better than supporting our students, especially those who have previously not engaged in school. There are a number of students I have worked with that had no intention of going to college, and now I get to see them in college pursuing their dreams. When you see that transformation, and what it means for their families, it’s amazing to be a part of that. Because of the transformative power of education, I envision continuing in this field for the rest of my career.
Why is it important for schools to forge strong relationships with parents and local communities?
When you have parents that are involved and engaged, there is a lot of opportunity for cross learning. A lot of times we think of educators as teachers, but our parents also know their students, they know their community, so there is a lot of opportunity for collaboration so that our parents can help our teachers become better teachers. Also, it’s empowering for students to see their parents involved with their teachers. I remember when I was in ninth grade and we had a meeting at school, my mom never made the meeting because she got lost and couldn’t ask anyone for directions because she didn’t speak English. I felt terrible that she took two buses to get there and show me some support and at the end, she couldn’t even access the school. That experience was very disempowering to her and to me, and not surprisingly, it was the last time I informed her of any meetings I had with staff at school. At Alpha, we believe it’s important for parents to be provided opportunities to be part of our system from a position of power. We have School Site Councils, we have Cafecitos, we have workshops for parents, and one of the things we hear repeatedly from parents is how new it is for them to be able to speak in meetings, to have a voice. Oftentimes, they don’t see themselves in positions of power and it is important for us to help them see that they do have power and that they can use it to improve their circumstances. It’s also very important for students to see their parents in that light because it builds their confidence and helps them aspire for greater roles in society.
Are there any last words you’d like to share?
I just want to thank everyone who is engaged in this challenging work of providing an excellent education to students in our community. Early in my career I felt like I was fighting this good fight alone and I always desired to have a team of people working towards the same goals. I feel like I have found that team at Alpha and I am very grateful and have a lot of respect for everyone at Alpha and beyond who give so much of themselves to ensure educational equity for students in under-resourced communities, especially now with all the challenges due to the pandemic.
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