Texas Border Business
By Roberto Hugo Gonzalez
Dr. Jorge L. Arredondo became superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School (PSJA ISD) in October 2019. With more than 32,000 students, the school district is among the largest in the Rio Grande Valley.
The district has distinguished itself as one of the most active. Students excel in numerous activities, and often the district announces that students are being accepted to prestigious universities in the nation. That is the best payoff for the parents, faculty, and for Dr. Arredondo, as well.
Dr. Arredondo’s upbringing is like that of most our demographics in the Valley. He was born in Monterrey Nuevo Leónin México and brought to the United States to live in Houston, Texas.
“My parents were migrant workers, and they worked in the fields in California and throughout the United States.” He said, “My father thought that it was best for us to settle down somewhere where we could have some stability, so we were raised in Houston.”
Down here in the Valley, Dr. Arredondo has Tíos, Tías, and cousins that live in the area from Alamo to Mission Texas. Growing up in Houston, they visited the Valley to connect and stay with family, sometimes even crossing to go to Monterrey or Cerralvo, Nuevo León and other places in México.
“So, yes, I am very familiar with the Valley that I consider very attractive. I grew up in a large city with much traffic congestion; it was full of the hustle and bustle.” He said, “My family and I are happy to be part of the Valley. My son attends school here and my daughter does as well.”
He is a passionate educator who believes that students deserve all the attention. “In many cases, I’ve seen people say that they care about all students. But they don’t, their actions fall short of that.”
He said, “Here in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School, you hear in unison, from the board on down, that our students matter. Ours is not a soundbite,” he said categorically.
Dr. Arredondo says they make sure that all students can participate when they have ideas to present. “We don’t want to exclude anyone. We want to make sure that they’re socially developing with extracurricular activities and that we’re providing the right resources to all our schools.”
As the superintendent of schools for the tri-city district, he feels pleased and honored to serve this great community of the Rio Grande Valley.
Before coming to South Texas, he worked for the largest school district in the state of Texas and invested more than two decades in Houston. “I supervised 45 schools and several departments and worked collaboratively with the superintendent and the school board to achieve success for the district,” he said.
It is the teamwork mindset that characterizes Dr. Arredondo. He recognizes that collective participation is the best way to achieve objectives.
Dr. Arredondo is fully bilingual in English and Spanish. When he attended elementary school in Monterrey, Mexico, and was about to participate in a competition in Spanish, his father moved the family to Houston. He started elementary school again in a different language. By the time he got to middle school, he had done very well.
In high school, he always had excellent attendance and good grades. He played baseball and was the captain of the baseball team. “My dad, my grandfather, and all my brothers played baseball.”
He was very active and participated in the stage band and played the guitar. From there, he attended the University of Houston, which had 40,000 students. “It was a different world for me. However, I did well.”
He returned to the University of Houston and earned his master’s degree in education and curriculum instruction, emphasizing secondary education. “My idea at the time was to become a certified teacher.” He said, “I also wanted to know what it took to be a great teacher because I saw the power of education. I always saw myself as an average student, but those great teachers knew their craft; they engaged and motivated students. Because of those teachers, I was able to do much better.”
Once he had become a teacher, a superintendent visited Arredondo while he was in class teaching his students. The superintendent had brought a school principal with him, and they both liked what he was doing.
Dr. Arredondo told Texas Border Business that his class was engaging. Students were writing, publishing, and telling stories about themselves. “This was something that I had incorporated, along with reading some of the great books in Mexican-American literature, like Tomás Rivera’s book, “Y No Se Lo Tragó La Tierra” (And the Earth Did Not Devour Him). He also used Rudolfo Anaya’s book, “Bless Me, Ultima”, among others.”
Because of the work that he was doing, a group from New York came to videotape his class as part of a national series that included other teachers. “I got a lot of attention for the work I was doing in the classroom, and the superintendent said, ‘you probably ought to go back to school. You might consider being an administrator or a principal one day’.”
Those were not his plans, then he ran into a friend who told him about a program at the University of Houston and that he could get paid if he was selected for a competitive fellowship. He applied for it and went through many interviews and different processes. “I was blessed to have been one of seven selected to receive that fellowship.”
He immediately started taking classes in the C.T. Bauer College of Business at University of Houston. The final goal was to learn organizational and business background skills. To fulfill the fellowship, he did different activities, including interviewing other principals to learn about the urban experience and transforming schools to achieve greatness among students who historically had not done well in Latino and African American households.
While still in the fellowship program, he was offered the opportunity to become assistant principal of a high school, and then principal of one of forty middle schools in the Houston ISD. The school that he got ranked low (at the bottom). “The superintendent told me that if in two or three years this school doesn’t do well, they would probably have to close it.” The task was monumental; fortunately for him and his team, the community was very motivated for them to do well.
The work began by hiring the right teachers and they kept those that had best practices in teaching. They also partnered with the University of Houston. They were all anxious to start turning the culture around by motivating students and gearing up for success.
“We had celebrations every six weeks, not a pep rally-style celebration, not for sports, but academics.” He said, “We turned that school around to one of the top seven middle schools in Houston.”
Next step, he became a high school principal and motivated and included everyone in an education plan. All this hard work and dedication landed him another opportunity to become an assistant superintendent.
Dr. Arredondo completed his doctorate at the University of Houston in Education, with an emphasis on Executive Leadership.
His journey has been unique and phenomenal. Imagine growing up in Monterrey; they lived in a rural area with no drainage and no paved streets. To move around, his mother and siblings used to ride a taxi that didn’t enter their Colonia, so they had to walk from the main road to their two-room home (not a two-bedroom) through the mud and rain. They divided one of the rooms with a curtain to designate a space for the kitchen.
When they moved to Houston, they lived in a two-bedroom bungalow with running water, a kitchen, and a toilet room. “I thought that was progress,” he said.
His father gave them advice as often as he could. One bit of wisdom, that was repeated many times, still resonates in his mind. His father would say, “listen to your teachers; get a good education, because I only had a third-grade education.”
“I knew that I had to learn the language, educate myself, and be ready for the opportunities that my father wanted us to have.” Dr. Arredondo said, “I was fortunate to have him for 75 years. He passed away this past May. His name was Eventino Arredondo.”
As a child, Eventino worked on a ranch in México, helping his parents by taking care of about 300 goats. In the fields of the United States, he worked as a sweeper, and as a welder. He was born in Martinitos, a small community outside Cerralvo Nuevo León, México.
“It has been tough on us. This has been a tough year for a lot of people and my family.” He said, “My mom is still with us; her name is Orfelinda Salinas, and her sisters live here in the Valley.”
Dr. Arredondo is married to Veronica. She was also an educator in Houston and a college advisor. Currently, she is doing the same here. They have three children, there oldest son is at the University of Houston, a sophomore, their second son attends Bears High School; he played baseball this summer. Their daughter, Vivian attends Stephen F. Austin Middle School. “We’re proud of all three of our kids,” he said.
Every time he has a chance, Dr. Arredondo interacts with students and the public at the football games.
“I even get a chance to go hang out with the band sometimes.” In addition, he said, “Spending time with our principals and our teachers, listening to them is something that is part of who I am because I’m also a social being. I believe in being in tune with everyone, so that guides us to make the right decisions.”
Dr. Arredondo says the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District has positioned itself as the leader in compensation. “We pay one hundred percent of our employee’s insurance.” As he told us, the district compared other Valley school districts and found out that they don’t pay one hundred percent of the insurance for their employees.
The message he has for parents is to let them know that the board of directors, through the superintendent and faculty, are doing everything in their power to keep everyone safe.
“I want the parents to know that I love and appreciate how they partnered with us; it helped their child.” He said, “The parents are the child’s first teachers, and they did an excellent job last year.” He continued, “I would say to parents, don’t stop. Continue to be an advocate for your child. Continue to partner with them and continue to ask good questions.”
His message to the school board members is, “I’m thankful and honored to serve the Pharr, San Juan, Alamo community. I love that we work together.” He said that being a board member is a time-consuming position. “At the end of the day, they put in a lot of time and energy, and they don’t get paid.” He said, “they are constantly adding value and making sure that they are moving the needle.”
The teamwork in place in the PSJA school district is known and felt by 32,000 students and 4,000 employees. The superintendent and board listen to the employees very well. They recently authorized a 3% raise, plus $3,000 and $300 for the vaccine, even though the state gave them less money. “We have shown people how much we value them, how much we care about them, and we want nothing but the best,” Dr. Arredondo said.
The Vision and Mission
Since the first day he arrived at PSJA, his work began by visiting all the district schools. He wanted to meet the people helping to educate the students. “One of the things we did in December, January, and February during my first year was to listen to faculty and parents.”
The meetings were essential; they had multiple purposes, one of them was to update the vision and mission of the district. He wanted to know, “How do we want to transform ourselves as a district to compete and do well?” As he says, the superintendent and the seven board members can have one vision, but it’s also vital that everyone gets an opportunity to have input in the vision.
Dr. Arredondo pointed out that they have reestablished the vision so all students can learn, compete, and excel. “We want to bring that global society because the world is changing and also to obtain the multi-generational prosperity that we want,” he finalized.