by Ari Robin McKenna
After six years as an assistant principal at Cleveland STEM High School (Cleveland), Ray Garcia-Morales has returned to the neighborhood he grew up in, West Seattle, to become the principal at Chief Sealth International High School (Sealth). A reluctant student-turned-school-social worker-turned-principal, Garcia-Morales’ academic and professional path has been anything but traditional. Yet in speaking with various Cleveland staff who’ve worked with him, it became clear Garcia-Morales was cherished for what the beaten path doesn’t provide.
Ray Garcia-Morales’ circular journey began, in a sense, before he was born. Son of Anita and Ray — both born into large, migrant farmworker families — Garcia-Morales acknowledges the outsized influence both have had on his life. “I attribute a lot of who I am to my first teachers, who were my parents. They both taught me a lot — whether it was direct or indirect.”
Anita, who worked in the fields starting at age five, had to change schools too many times to count while following crop harvests with her family for a decade and a half. Garcia-Morales thinks the uncertainty she endured caused her to develop a keenly intentional attitude about education, one he and his younger brother, Javier, benefitted from immensely. Anita eventually became an educator herself.
His father Ray is deaf and didn’t have the privilege of learning sign language. Even though he is bilingual, he has always relied heavily on lip-reading. Growing up interpreting for his father, Garcia-Morales developed the listening skills he’s gone on to use as both a social worker and an administrator. He likens his experience to a broader one, saying, “Supporting him and helping him, and advocating for him at times — like a lot of immigrant children do when they’re interpreting and translating for their parents — those are life skills that are gonna benefit [those children] down the road.”
Because his mother commuted from West Seattle to teach at TT Minor Elementary School, Garcia-Morales attended nearby Garfield High School, but his academic record was tepid. He didn’t believe formal education was for him. A few years after graduating, he enrolled at Seattle Central Community College and began to make good on a promise to his mom to get a college degree. “That was the first time in my life that I actually ever enjoyed my classes,” he said. “A lot of it was because that was the first time I had ever had a teacher with a Spanish surname: Quintero, born in Ecuador, raised in Queens [New York City].” Garcia-Morales also had Filipino, Black, Queer, and Latino/Latina professors.
After a break, Garcia-Morales went to the University of Washington (UW) but says he was not quite ready for a four-year institution. Taking time to travel and working a series of odd jobs that ranged from Starbucks barista to crawfisherman on Lake Washington, he landed work with the now-defunct Seattle Youth Involvement Network. His boss suggested he work toward a degree from the UW School of Social Work. Garcia-Morales applied.
The second time at the UW “was like night and day,” he says. “I really loved my classes and I excelled.” Seeking to explain his reorientation toward formal education, he adds, “You know, I really owe a lot to being invigorated at Seattle Central, because I met professors I could relate to. And then, when I was at the Udub [UW] with purpose, I was like, ‘This is dope!’ And I kind of rode that wave … I’ve never really stopped.”
With a degree in social welfare, Garcia-Morales was accepted into a masters program at Columbia University in New York City. He promised family and friends he’d be back in ten months but, he says, “I got over there for a few months and I was like, ‘Nah … that’s not gonna happen. That’s definitely not gonna happen. I loved it. It was amazing.”
He finished a social work internship at Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the South Bronx and was hired as a social worker at Evander Childs Campus High School, in East Bronx. Though Evander Childs didn’t have a good reputation at the time, Garcia-Morales enjoyed the work immediately and soon got to know fellow school counselor, and the first of his three key mentors, Theresa Wyre. A Bronx Native whose family was from the Carribean island of St. Kitts, Wyre and Garcia-Morales both built strong rapport with the student body and, after a couple of years, Wyre became an assistant principal. Garcia-Morales says, “That’s when I begin to see the impact that an administrator that has empathy, that has passion, that has a connection to the community can have … Theresa planted the seed for me to be an administrator, and so I wanted to come back home.”
Five years later Garcia-Morales headed back to Seattle to attend Seattle University’s principal certification program. He took a position as social worker at Cleveland and, during that two-year stretch, got to know assistant principal Catherine Brown — his “next great mentor.”
When he began a principal internship on the Tyee High School campus in SeaTac, he met his third mentor, Rick Harwood — a principal at the time. Two years later Garcia-Morales became a dean, but was hesitant to take on the responsibilities of an administrator. Disapproval he’d heard about administrators without a teacher certification made him question his own worthiness. Yet Garcia-Morales was able to resolve those doubts and became the assistant principal of the Tyee campus before Catherine Brown encouraged him to return to Cleveland in 2015.
Assistant principals Garcia-Morales, Brown, and longtime principal George Breland formed a formidable partnership at Cleveland, with some in the district office (and at Cleveland) referring to them as “the dream team.” They scored well on SPS’ school climate survey and had some of the highest FAFSA completion rates in the state. Their proactive approach to racial equity work has led to a week of paid training for staff and teachers before the start of each school year. Breland is now moving on to become a coach for principals in the district, with Brown taking over as principal of Cleveland. Asked why he thought they were effective as an administrative team, Garcia-Morales said succinctly, “We brought our truths. We brought our true selves. When we don’t have the answer or we have more questions, we bring somebody in who can help us with that question and that answer.”
While educators who worked with Garcia-Morales at Cleveland uniformly described him in glowing superlatives as he was leaving their midst, they also seemed intent on describing why they felt so strongly about working with him.
Jon Hughes, a former civil litigator, and currently a health teacher and Cleveland’s athletic director, says, “It’s hard to pin down, “It’s almost too simple to say he’s just got this common sense about him. He does. He just kind of gets it. You feel better after you talk to Ray about something; you walk away always feeling better.” Teresa Scribner, Cleveland’s award-winning journalism teacher and previously a visual journalist for 17 years, offered, “I’m a journalist; I like to watch people. I’d be out working with students at ballgames, and I’d just be on the sidelines watching how he interacts with people and students and staff, and I was always just so impressed … the way Ray puts himself out there … He’s just putting his authentic self out there, and I think people recognize that.”
Rachel Evans, a former 10th grade Humanities teacher at Cleveland who became an academic intervention specialist at Sealth during this pandemic school year, had this to say about what made her once and future boss unique: “There’s room for your experience in Ray’s world. He listens to understand, and he thinks deeply about decisions that he makes. He considers all the different points of view. The complexity of leading people is not lost on Ray.”
Natalie Lopez, Cleveland’s special education department head, spoke about coming to him full of zeal with “out there” ideas about how to better support her students. She said, “Ray has never once been like ‘nah.’ He’s always like, ‘Word. Okay, let’s try it.’ Or he would add to it. I can’t even tell you what that means as a Brown educator taking a leadership stance.”
When Garcia Morales reflected on which aspects of his philosophy are transferable to Sealth, he spoke of setting a tone of inclusivity, non-negotiable teacher expectations, and the importance of listening to staff. “I really truly believe when we’re in the school building we’re all educators. I try my hardest to show the classified folks the same respect and the same love that everybody shows teachers. Cleveland is no different than any other school in [Seattle’s] southeast, or even the southwest or the Central [District]: the majority of our classified staff, the majority of our special education instructional assistants are folks of color. They’re folks of color who have strong, deep, rich, genuine connections to the communities that they work in. How would you — why would you— not want to tap into that? Why would you not want to cash in on that?”
Garcia-Morales is also refreshingly candid about something he expects from all his teachers: regard for students’ mental health. His response to teachers who don’t think that’s part of their job: “Wait, you’re not considering the social/emotional well being, the mental health, of our students? So what you’re saying is you have no empathy. So why are you teaching?”
In speaking about how important listening is to leadership, Garcia-Morales leans into an inherent critique of run-of-the-mill administrators, who seem hesitant to listen to the perspectives of their students or educators. “Maybe folks get into a position of power and they don’t really gotta listen anymore, and that’s bullshit. They might hear you but they’re not listening to you. To me that doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make any sense as a parent … and that’s not any different than a community leader or a building leader listening to somebody who’s sitting across the table from them. Listen to them. Hear what they have to say, and then take that information, take their input, and do something with it.”
As Garcia-Morales returns to the neighborhood he grew up in to take over as principal of Chief Sealth International School, Natalie Lopez and Teresa Scribner had a few words for educators there. Scribner said, “Ray knows how to deal with people. He knows the value of people’s time. I think having that background as a social worker really solidified his understanding of what teachers need. He understands what students need … he’s gonna be an amazing principal.” Lopez admitted she was “very jealous of Sealth,” and said, “Ray does really empower educators to push themselves, but not in a way where they’re breaking down or overextending themselves … in a way that really challenges education in general: ‘Let’s do something else. This system isn’t working for our families, because it wasn’t set up for our families.’ And Ray sees that.”
Ari Robin McKenna worked as an educator and curriculum developer in Brooklyn, New York; Douala, Cameroon; Busan, South Korea; Quito, Ecuador; and Seattle, Washington, before settling in South Seattle. He writes about education for the Emerald. Contact him through his website.
📸 Featured Image: Ray Garcia-Morales (photo: Cleveland Publications)
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