TYLER, Texas – In college, they called Michael McFarland "country boy."
He grew up in Jasper, Texas, near the Louisiana border, but his teachers helped him think outside the boundaries of his small hometown.
McFarland recalls his high school business teacher brainstorming with him about goals.
"I realized I wanted to do what she was doing because of the impact she had on my life," he said. "(Teachers) were able to show me a totally different world. I thought that would be a great job, to have that positive impact on kids and let kids see there's more to life than what they currently see."
He's now principal of John Tyler High School, with 2,200 students, in Tyler, Texas. He'll soon be in Champaign as assistant superintendent for pupil services.
Education is something of a family tradition for McFarland. His mother taught special education in an elementary school for 29 years. His older sister is an elementary school teacher, and his younger brother is a special-education teacher.
McFarland started as a high school math teacher and also coached football. After an administrative internship, he began thinking about how he could influence students in other ways besides being at the front of a classroom.
"I was starting to realize as a teacher, and even as a coach, I could have a deep impact on a small group of kids, but I kept seeing things that could be corrected," he said. "In the classroom, I had control over things that happened within that classroom."
But he saw students who couldn't get into advanced classes because they hadn't had access to the prerequisite classes. He saw students who were classified as special education but were capable of doing the same work as other students if they received proper instruction. He saw students doing well in one class and struggling in others.
"I saw adjustments that could be made in how we perform our responsibilities that directly (affected) whether kids were successful or not," he said.
McFarland also saw students who were not going on to college because they weren't getting the help they needed to complete their applications and financial aid forms on time.
"I would see these kids and know they were really intelligent kids and had great potential, but for whatever reason, they were graduating from high school and not doing much after that," he said.
He's in his third year as principal at John Tyler. More than 90 percent of the students are minorities, split almost evenly between black and Hispanic. The majority are also from low-income families.
McFarland created a college and career center at the high school with counselors dedicated to helping juniors and seniors with the college application process. Nearly 95 percent of the graduating class of 2006 was accepted to a university, college or technical school.
The school was one of three high schools in the nation to win the 2006 National College Board Inspirational High School Award, which recognizes high schools with high levels of student enrollment in advanced classes and a high percentage of students accepted to colleges and universities.
"He's taken a school that was pretty much floundering and given it direction," said Karen Raney, director of secondary education for the Tyler Independent School District.
She said the school had a culture of low expectations and "we're comfortable with who we are and where we are." McFarland turned that around, and students have shown "tremendous" achievement gains – particularly in writing.
"To have a huge high school, with 15 or 16 different teachers in a department, and move them all in the same direction – that's pretty significant," Raney said.
Raney said McFarland likes to see how successful programs in other schools operate and then adopt what will work in his school. She said he structured the campus into "professional learning communities," so teachers have time to work in research-oriented groups to develop lesson plans, talk about expectations and share what's working in their classrooms.
Raney described him as a good teammate, a leader who allows his staff to make decisions, and an eager learner who is willing to listen to others.
McFarland worked with Champaign Superintendent Arthur Culver in Longview, Texas, and was impressed with the changes Culver made there. McFarland said he and Culver shared philosophies about education.
In fact, McFarland's description of how he would increase the academic performance of students mirrors Culver's theme for the Champaign school district.
McFarland said high school students need to have a rigorous curriculum, and school districts need to ensure students are prepared to do well by helping them develop good academic skills before they reach high school.
Students also need to know how their coursework is relevant to college or the workplace.
"High school students, more than any, need to see how what they're learning is going to impact them in the future," he said. "We have to be very clear on the relationship between what students are learning and their future."
Teachers also need to build relationships with their students, he said.
McFarland has also worked with Champaign Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris, whom he described as "the most intelligent and most knowledgeable administrator that I've been around."
McFarland said he never planned to leave Texas, but working with Norris and Culver again drew him to Champaign.
"The issues facing Unit 4 schools and the challenges they are facing are challenges that are being faced across the nation," he said. "The results they are having right now in Champaign are phenomenal, and I want to be part of that."