An 18-year-old who just started his second year at a community college after graduating from high school in three years attributes his success to the late principal of a Montgomery County high school.
The young man was expelled from one high school and almost did not graduate due to skipping class. He began his junior year by getting arrested and completed high school a year before his classmates.
Upneet Atwall, who graduated from high school the summer of 2014, said he would be in a different place in his life if late Wootton High School principal Michael Doran had not offered him his support.
Atwal said Doran helped him feel like part of the school and inspired him to put work into his studies.
“He made me feel welcomed,” Atwal shared. “He made me feel like I should want to learn, he made me want to learn.”
Atwal said that when he started junior year at Wootton, he was taken aback by how involved his grade administrator and principal were in addressing his misbehavior.
Each time he exercised academic misconduct, Brown, Atwal’s grade administrator, would have to tell him that what he did was wrong.
“It was just Mr. Brown calling me into his office, Atwal said. “And then from there it was like phone calls home, and then detention and suspensions, and I was just like, “Why are you guys doing this?””
Brown explained that it is common for students to dislike their grade administrators.
“When students struggle or they perform some infraction that gets them in a struggle, unfortunately part of our positions is that we have to tell them they screwed up,” Brown said. “If that’s our first interaction, it’s usually a not a good interaction.”
Atwal at first could not understand why he was being reprimanded so often. When Brown told him he needed to change to graduate on time, it did not affect him.
“I was just cocky, I had a big ego, that’s the only way I could put it,” Atwal said. “I was ignoring everything they were saying. It took me about two to four months for me to realize what they were actually trying to say.”
Brown explained the way to encourage students to listen is to show them he took an interest in them.
According to Brown, Doran’s approach to changing students’ behavior was to first make a connection with the student.
Brown said Atwal was an intelligent student but that his abilities did not show in his schoolwork until the principal and administrative staff formed relationships with him.
“He’s one of the smartest kids we had at Wootton; he just didn’t care,” Brown said. “He didn’t want to live up to his potential. So it was difficult in getting to the place where he had some self-value where he acknowledged how bright he was.”
Doran worked with Atwal and Brown, as well as Atwal’s counselor, his mentor and later Grade Administrator Kimberly Boldon and some of his teachers, to form a plan to help Atwal in academics.
Atwal said he had difficulty with anger management but Doran had a behavioral counselor brought to the school to teach him and six others how to handle anger.
The ease with which Doran could converse with any student was one of the characteristics that made Atwal start to listen to him. Atwal explained that he felt comfortable talking to Doran.
“At first I didn’t really want to talk to him, because I didn’t want to talk to anyone when I first got there,” Atwal prefaced. “But over time, maybe a month or two, it was very – it was like a chill feeling. You weren’t intimidated in any type of way… you weren’t thinking anything other than he was trying to have a genuine conversation with you.”
Atwal explained he admired Doran because he was a strong leader. A leader must be involved in the community, he stated. Many at Wootton’s memorial to Doran attested to Doran’s presence in the school, including Atwal.
“You would see Dr. Doran every day, whether it was for something you did to get in trouble or he was just walking around, you would see him every day unless he was out for a meeting,” Atwal expressed.
Boldon said Doran helped her and other administrators to see each student as having his or her own story. Boldon said Atwal, like many students, simply needed people to support him in order to flourish.
“I think the beauty of Dr. Doran and his leadership was really helping us see the potential in all of our students , and helping us form those relationships, so no matter what the trouble was, what the focus was, we had to remained focused on, this is a kid, you know, he has potential. Let’s see him through,” Boldon said.
Atwal shared that by his second semester, he was impacted by the fact that Doran, Boldon and Brown cared about him.
“It was a lot of what they said to me, but at the same time, (it was) the words that they installed into my head and pushed me to work harder,” Atwal said. “They made me realize to have goals instead to get somewhere instead of just not doing anything.”
Under Doran’s leadership, Brown, Boldon and some of Atwal’s teachers interacted with Atwal on a personal level. Brown noted that he observed Atwal starting to change once he started talking to the student outside of telling him he messed up.
“When we would pull him to check in on him, when we would have real conversation with him, when we would give him our cell phone numbers and say that, if you need anything, call us, he started to see that this was bigger than – that we cared about him as a person, and that he was not just one of five hundred kids that Mr. Brown had to manage,” Brown said.
Atwal said most Wootton students in his class graduated. Students with disciplinary problems similar to his did, too, with were some exceptions, Atwal stated.
“Out of the years that I’ve known Dr. Doran, there’s only… maybe like three students that didn’t listen to Dr. Doran or didn’t accept the fact that he was trying to help out and just quit school altogether, just continued the life that they wanted to live,” Atwal shared. “But a majority of kids that went through the stuff I went through, they all graduated, whether it be a little late, a little early, or on time they all were affected for the better by Dr. Doran, especially if they had the same issues.”
Atwal took classes the summer after his junior year so he could graduate in the summer.
When he accepted the help and support from Boldon, Brown, Doran and some of his teachers, their impact took a couple of months to settle in, Atwal divulged.
“It took me until after I graduated actually, like my first month of college, to look back at everything to realize that those meetings that they had with me, Dr. Doran going out of his way, pulling me away on the side of the hallway and talking to me, that made me realize that they were just trying to help,” Atwal said.