Alumni Profile • Arelis Diaz '95
Great expectations

Arelis DiazArelis Diaz '95 admits it: "I have huge expectations." And she wants every teacher she supervises to have expectations equally huge.

Diaz is the new director of instruction for the Godwin Heights school district, just south of Grand Rapids' central city. Seventy-one percent of the district's students are at-risk students, and many of those are immigrants.

"I want every single teacher employed here to believe our students are capable of the best work," she said. "Some of our teachers come as if they're here to do missionary work. They want to help, but not challenge students, so they don't have high standards for them. We've got to get past that and expect the best of these kids. When you believe it, you're going to start seeing it, but you won't see it until you believe it."

Diaz practices what she preaches. Prior to her new position, in which she's responsible for the district's K-12 curriculum decisions, she was principal of North Godwin Elementary School for four years. When she took over, the school had the lowest achievement scores in the district. When she left, it had the highest.

"I introduced my staff to the 'Fish Philosophy,'" she said, when asked about the turnaround. An approach to leadership and teamwork, the Fish Philosophy fosters friendship, playfulness and unity within a group. "Because staff members were happier with themselves and each other, they gave a lot more. We saw positive changes ripple through the whole school," Diaz explained.

She believes in and practices huge expectations because they have been practiced on her. Freshly graduated from Calvin, she was given the job of creating from scratch an English as a Second Language (ESL) program for North Godwin Elementary. Her superintendent and principal encouraged her to pursue a master's degree in educational leadership, then, in 2002, promoted Diaz to ESL/foreign language director for the whole district. By the next year she was North Godwin's principal, and four years later the district's instruction director.

"I have to credit other people who have seen talent in me that I haven't seen in myself," she said.

Diaz has been nominated for the Hispanic Educator of the Year Award and the Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award. She has received the Herman W. Coleman Human Relations Award and been recommended to the Michigan Department of Education's administrator talent pool.

If she has lived up to huge expectations others had of her, Diaz says, it's because from the beginning, hard work was modeled for her. The child of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, she saw her parents "overcome all the challenges of moves and jobs and the language barrier. Nothing stops them."

That kind of hard work in hard circumstances became second nature to Diaz. She enrolled at Calvin in 1986, already a wife and mother to a baby girl. It would take nearly a decade for her to finish her degree, a decade of "eating rice and beans, beans and rice," birthing two more children and helping her mother through breast cancer.

"Would I do it the same way again?" she asks. "I'm not sure. But I did it, and it's made me the person I am."