"I didn't mean to become a turnaround principal, but that's what happened," Ray Chavez says over the phone. "I came to this school because I saw it was in real bad trouble."
"This school" is Tucson's Apollo Middle School, where Chavez has been principal for the past four years.
During his tenure at Apollo, the school's test scores have increased so much the state lists the school as "performing plus," a far improvement from the failing label it had just a few years ago. The school now offers courses for the community and parenting help, and it recently opened a community fitness center, all ways to engage everyone in education and improve students' chances for success.
Chavez wants to take the lessons he learned at Apollo to another school in big trouble.
In July, he'll take over at Mesa's Carson Junior High, a school targeted for restructuring after failing to improve students' academic progress several years running.
Like the students at Apollo, a large majority of Carson's students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. English is the primary language in 58 percent of the families, according to the Mesa district's website.
When Chavez heard about the job opening in Mesa, he was "intrigued." Before even applying, he visited the campus. Once there, his interest was sparked.
"What I saw when I toured Carson were some places where instruction could be tightened up and made more engaging and efficient ... In others (classrooms), I saw students totally absorbed in learning with the teacher facilitating the instruction rather than conducting ‘sit and get' sessions," Chavez says. "My first visit left me with the impression that the school has tons of potential with lots of room for growth. It also made me feel that with the terrific kids I met in random encounters, I will thoroughly enjoy the hard work ahead."
Chavez next called random businesses around Mesa to collect opinions about the schools. What got his attention, he said, was the perception that for Mesa Unified School District leadership, "good isn't good enough."
"In today's economic challenges for our kids - when they go into the job market or compete for university seats - that's a positive to have an education system where it's about going to the next level."
Chavez has education master's degrees from both Harvard University and the University of Arizona. But he also has nearly two decades of teaching experience, having spent many years as a social studies instructor.
"I'm well grounded in theory, but it's the practice of it that separates you," he said. "I spent 17 years in the classroom. I don't know too many principals that do that ...
"I've learned how to put many of the theories into action of how to engage kids, how to create learning communities, how to answer those needs in a school that's really performing less than it ought to be."
He's also prepared to answer to, not just the district, state and federal demands for the school, but the community demands as well.
"When we sound an alarm, it needs to be all hands on deck."