Joán Álvarez is a firm believer in the grit and perseverance of first-generation college students.
So much so, in fact, that the subject is the very focus of his dissertation. Along with being in his final year of studies, Álvarez, who is pursuing a doctorate in education, also serves as the national vice president of schools for IDEA Public Schools, a public school network founded on the belief that all children can succeed with access to the right tools.
As with his work, the focus of his dissertation is informed intimately by Álvarez’s background. “When my dad brought us from Mexico to the U.S., across the border, he said that he was bringing us for one main reason—so we could get a great education,” Álvarez shares. “When I was in school, I struggled academically but had great teachers, counselors, and principals who were dedicated to helping me one day go to college. I was going to be a first-generation college graduate in my family—the first generation anywhere in our family tree. That was really challenging for me.”
Álvarez says over a hundred people—including relatives he’d never met—attended his college graduation. He was confused until his father explained the significance of this first-in-their-family milestone. “He said, ‘This is a proof point of what will be possible for their kids, hopefully, one day too.’
“That moment sticks with me every day: the smile of my dad, my mom seeing me graduate, and my brothers looking up to me. I want that same opportunity for our students.”
As a school leader, Álvarez has continually worked with other leaders, teachers, and community members to ensure he honors that early goal. In 2012, he served as the founding principal at an IDEA school—McAllen College Preparatory in McAllen, Texas—and, in 2019, he was one of Accelerate Institute’s annual Ryan Award recipients for his transformational leadership there.
In fact, it was the recognition he received for his work at McAllen that encouraged Álvarez to expand his efforts through a more direct partnership with IDEA. Since earning the Ryan Award, Álvarez says that McAllen has awarded more than two dozen students—and counting—college scholarships, with many going on to pursue double majors, master’s programs, or their doctorates. “Every student’s graduation tassel is a proof point of success by design,” he says.
“No matter how big or how small a school is, … it takes a village, it takes an entire team [for it to succeed].”
And when it comes to leadership, success by design is Álvarez’s philosophy. Foundational to that design is community. “No matter how big or how small a school is, … it takes a village, it takes an entire team [for it to succeed],” he says, noting that his own successes, including his Ryan Award win, were made possible by the support of his team.
“I had to recognize what I call the dream team for our campus,” Álvarez continues, “because it really does take a dream team to say, ‘How do we work together to help the student, help this teacher, to help this leader, to help our campus?’ and then problem-solving, devising strategies, inviting ideas [and] being open to change.”
When working with his team, he prioritizes emotional intelligence, which, for Álvarez, means centering the school setting and its unique strengths and challenges. He says that while he does his best to step into the shoes of each student he serves, what works for one individual—or school—might not work for another.
“[There isn’t] one prescription,” Álvarez says, noting that needs vary from demographic to demographic. “It’s more [like], ‘Here’s a tool bank of strategy solutions … that you can pull from based on your need, based on your skill … to achieve the goals [of] the students.’”
Like educators across the country, Álvarez witnessed the needs of students and their families drastically shift both during the pandemic and in its aftermath. “[I couldn’t] overlook the fact that [the pandemic] was affecting families and students’ lives … [that they] were not able to be out in their regular [work and school settings].”
For Álvarez, addressing the challenges meant ensuring that he and his team were meeting their students’ new academic, social, and emotional needs. Thankfully, he says that while the effects of the pandemic continue to linger, his students and their families are now engaging with each other the way they did before nationwide shutdowns began impacting schools.
“Students are getting back into the traditions of their schools, such as football games. The celebrations, events, pep rallies, you name it,” he says. “So it’s becoming more like the student experience that we had before the pandemic, which is a student goes to learn to enjoy, to be a part of an organization that they belong in, because during the pandemic, a lot of those things were taken away from them.”
Like emotional intelligence, this return to togetherness underscores Álvarez’s beliefs about what makes student success possible. “When I think of a successful school, I think, … ‘This is going to take 100% from you, 100% from you, and 100% from us,’” he says, adding that equal effort from teachers, parents, and students is what helps school communities get through tough times like the pandemic.
What does 100% look like for Álvarez? Part of it is making an active effort to motivate those around him. To Álvarez, doing so regularly—and informally—is the best way to stay connected to his team and his students.
From catching up with tired teachers at the end of a long day to checking in with students after absences, Álvarez feels that the informality of the interchanges is what makes everyone in the school community feel seen and valued.
He also acknowledges the important role celebration plays in fostering student success, whether through an intercom announcement or hallway parade. “The student, the teacher, the staff member, the custodian … deserves that spotlight [saying], ‘Hey, this is what … achievement feels like,’” he says.
Each spotlight gives individual community members a chance to share their story. This aspect of McAllen’s culture not only strengthened Álvarez’s resolve to continue his role as a leader, but also continues to humble him. “Everyone has a story, has a name,” he says. “I was that kid who came from a low-income family across the border not knowing a word of English.”
“When things are … difficult or when you feel like,
‘How can I keep doing this?’
[Just] see what other doors you can open.”
Álvarez says that hearing the stories of his students and faculty helps him to remember his own beginnings. Earlier this year, he was asked to speak at a graduation ceremony. During his speech, he shared a story about his time in college.
“I checked my ATM, and it had 23 cents as the balance—I’ll never forget that,” Álvarez says. “I knew that giving up was not an option. I knew that dropping out from college was not an option. Across from the ATM, there was a job posting, and I said, ‘I’m going to apply there first thing in the morning.’”
“So, I did, and I got hired, and it was in a warehouse, and it was [my] second or third job, I forget, at four in the morning. And I took it, and I made it work. And that story reminds me—when you’re 22 or 23—[you can’t] take anything for granted. And when things are … difficult or when you feel like, ‘How can I keep doing this?’ [Just] see what other doors you can open.”
While he acknowledges the path to success may be a challenging one for some of his students, Álvarez centers his approach in an awareness of just what that hard work brings, whether it’s graduating from school, going to college, landing your dream job, or earning your first paycheck. “[Then you can tell] your parents, your family, ‘Hey, I got it.’”
Today, Álvarez says that his vision as a leader is to work with his team to help students open as many doors as it takes to see them achieve their goals, and this vision has been vital to his path in education.
His advice to aspiring leaders is that they too have a clear vision—but first, he advises them to be willing to embrace what others have to say. “Go confidently with what you bring to the table,” he says, “but also take the time to process and learn what’s being shared with you … and then together, devise what the vision [is going to be].”
In Álvarez’s experience, this is how new leaders can collaborate, form their own dream teams, and, above all, come together to help their students achieve their goals, now and in the long term.
In other words, “success by design.”