Noted teacher leaving West

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By Don Pace

West Las Vegas music director Arnell David Arellanes was recently among a group of 15 teachers nationwide who were recognized at the national level in their respective fields.

Now he’s leaving the school district.

With a steady stream of recognition at the local, state and national levels, Arellanes has become a well-known and sought-after music director, He has announced that he has signed a contract with the private school, Sandia Prep, in Albuquerque.

Arellanes was recently recognized as National Music Educator of the Year by the National Association of High Schools.

Arellanes comes from a family of politicians. His father, George Arellanes, was a former Republican mayor of Las Vegas in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Arellanes said his decision to leave Las Vegas for Albuquerque was partly due to recent actions of the school board. Among other things, the board voted down a new contract with Superintendent Jim Abreu.

“I was born and raised in this town, and I love Las Vegas. But I remember even when my dad was mayor, and the problems people had. It was always put into this political context, in that you’re either with us or against us, that kind of thing,” Arellanes said.

“That’s been a huge frustration, and as I put in my note, or open letter to the community, there are a few people who are so power-hungry that they want to make decisions based on how much it can benefit them or people they want to see benefit, rather than our kids,” Arellanes said.

“Our kids have enough problems to deal with, without any of that being part of the picture. But once you put that into part of the mix, it makes it almost impossible for our kids. In this community, there’s a real problem with hyper politics — everyone wants to micromanage everything,” he said.

“So they’re not letting people who really know education make the decisions about what our young people should be learning. Instead they’re hiring their friends, their relatives — it’s a buddy-buddy thing. It used to be called the good ‘ol buddy’s network many years ago that basically destroyed West Las Vegas schools. It looks like we’re going back to that, and that’s scary to me,” Arellanes said.

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Arellanes said it’s much harder to make the federal standard of adequate yearly progress when the staff is being micro-managed all the time.

“It goes back to power. They’re (board members) making changes so that a certain person or certain people be more powerful. Everyone has their good and their bad, but when people don’t explain why they’re making the changes, if they don’t put down their reasoning, then I think it’s just chicken. It’s just saying, trust us, trust us,” Arellanes said.

When the board majority voted against Abreu, it declined to state its reasons, citing the privacy of personnel.

Arellanes said his dad taught him to help the disenfranchised. He credits his mother, Helen Valencia-Arellanes, with everything musical.

“She’s the one I credit for giving me a value system, my moral center, she was the highlight of my life. One of the neatest things I remember growing up (was) we would go Christmas caroling, and with my parents and brothers and sisters, we had two tenors, two basses, two altos and two sopranos. It was wonderful; most of my brothers and sisters played instruments and all of them sang,” Arellanes said.

Arellanes said during his career, he has lived in many places — from Denver to Australia — and worked with well-known musicians.

“But in Las Vegas, there’s a friendliness about people here that you don’t find everywhere.”

Arellanes said about the school itself, he will miss everything, but especially the kids.

“To see them change because of music is incredible. I had this little boy in middle school choir who was a troublemaker. He was kicked out of all the classes, and comes in here and loves it so much he’s on the straight and narrow now,” Arellanes said.

Arellanes said his approach to teaching is making learning fun.

“We’re not about competition, we’re about education. I can’t imagine any of my kids not having fun, I want them to have a blast, and at the same time, learn all things associated with the New Mexico state standards and benchmarks,” Arellanes said.   

As for receiving personal awards, Arellanes said over the years he has gained a new perspective on their meaning. While teaching in Los Alamos in the 1990s, he was named New Mexico Teacher of the Year and now holds the national title.

In an earlier interview, Arellanes said, “Back then, I thought it was more about letting my family know I was doing what my passion was, and that’s how I was being rewarded. Now, it’s more about the kids and that they see there’s something very, very powerful about music education.”

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A project waiting in the wings for Arellanes and former student Michael Rascon is a possible appearance on “The Oprah Show.” Arellanes has been in conversations with Oprah’s production people, but said that might have to wait until summer’s end.

Arellanes said Rascon credits his many successes in high school and college with music. He made all-state his sophomore, junior and senior years, and was selected as one of the top three singers in the state his senior year. He is also the choreographer, and one of the guest artists at this year’s end-of-year concert.      

Superintendent Jim Abreu said he has tried to talk Arellanes out of leaving the district.

“I’m pretty good at that. I’ve talked a number of people out of retiring or resigning several times. But he’s good at what he does and was offered a deal he couldn’t refuse. Sandia Prep has amazing stage and production facilities that are hard to beat,” Abreu said. “He’s done an amazing job the last eight years here, and I’ve worked with very few people who are as professional as he is.” 

Arellanes will direct his final performances at West Las Vegas Schools on May 11 and 12 in the high school cafetorium beginning at 7 p.m. each day. On May 11, the West Middle School Choir and the Honors Choir will perform. On May 12, the Symphonic Choir and Honors Choir will be on stage.