Students leave teacher with lasting message

Joshua Murray sits on a desk inside his classroom at Agua Fria High School in Avondale, Ariz. (Photo by: Sergio Calderon / Arizona Sonora News)

Walking into the administration offices of Agua Fria High School in Avondale, Arizona, Joshua Murray, 25, had no idea he would become known as the crazy teacher.

What Murray has accomplished in his three-years at Agua Fria is as eclectic as the man himself. He covered the walls with photos of sloths. He believes it is his spirit animal. Each class begins with a Justin Timberlake song playing.

Murray is the teacher of the Agua Fria High School AVID Program which is set towards preparing students for college. The Advancement Via Individual Determination Program is a nation wide program catered to steer students through high school entering higher education. Agua Fria started the program four years ago and the students graduating May, will be the first to complete the program.

Students in the Agua Fria AVID Program have raised over $700,00 toward college education. (Photo by: Sergio Calderon / Arizona Sonora News)

The AVID program trains educators the necessary skills to better prepare the traditionally underrepresented students for success throughout high school and college. Over 60,000 educators are trained annually with techniques and methods to better develop students in the areas of the math and sciences, literacy and critical thinking. Murray began teaching students through AVID in 2012 because he wanted to expand his horizons beyond the English classes.

“What makes it so great is it isn’t just about the low kids or the high kids, it’s those middle kids which are often forgotten about,” Murray said. “From it their cumulative grade point averages have increased exponentially, one kid by a GPA of almost two full points.”

At the beginning of his sophomore year, Vincent Gaitan, 18 entered the AVID program. He was forced to sit out his final three games of the football season as his grades were below average. With motivation from Murray, Gaitan made a dramatic change, transforming himself into a college-bound student from the big jock he was once labeled. Gaitan will attend Glendale Community College in the fall to study history.

“When I first met him (Murray) I thought he was mean, he actually made me switch seats because I was talking too much,” Gaitan said. “I came in not really caring about school and he showed me the importance of it and showed me my true potential.”

(Photo by: Sergio Calderon / Arizona Sonora News Service)

Joksana Ramirez, 18, is awaiting the news concerning her acceptance to Stanford University. She has been accepted and received scholarships to all four universities in the state of Arizona with the hopes of becoming an anesthesiologist.

With a 4.0 grade point average throughout high school, she still wakes up every morning to attend classes at Agua Fria before attending nursing courses in Deer Valley. Through the WestMec Program she takes medical assistant courses before returning home to complete her nightly studies.

“He (Murray) is definitely a big motivator because he told us that he doesn’t care about our background, if we put in the work we could achieve anything,” Ramirez said. “I think it is something huge because he believes in us.”

The 28 students in the program, entered in 2014 when Murray first became teaching at Agua Fria. Since then the students have excelled in the classroom and have been accepted to either community colleges of four-year universities earning scholarships. Murray who graduated from Agua Fria admits to not being fully prepared for college out of high school.

Agua Fria has nearly 1,700 students with a graduation rate of 81 percent. The school is predominantly hispanic with 62.2 percent enrolled with socioeconomic rates below the state’s standards. About 54 percent of students qualify for free lunch by having a household income less than $15,171.

“I find the process exceptional because it creates this awareness of these students who are typically not considered to be college bound students,” Murray said. “They could achieve something greater with motivation. That’s why I stay hours after school because it is less about me and all about them.”  

Cody Nelson, 18, reads Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. Nelson will attend Estrella Mountain Community College in the fall. (Photo by: Sergio Calderon / Arizona Sonora News Service)

While all 28 students are from middle to low economic families, nearly all of the students in the program are minorities. College acceptance rates amongst minorities are actually on the rise according to the Journal of Public Economy. The study suggests universities are targeting those groups to build diversity on campus.

The Pew Research Center analyzed diversity in education, revealing while college enrollment for minorities continues to climb, the likelihood of them obtaining a degree is declining. Minorities make up 42 percent of the overall enrolled college students. According to 2015 U.S. Census data, 31 percent of african-american and hispanic citizens combined obtain a degree between the ages of 25 to 34 compared to the 36 percent of white students.

“Because I graduated from here I can empathize with these students who are all diverse characters,” Murray said. “I don’t want them to struggle financially, and also I don’t want them to struggle academically because nothing could actively prepare them for college.”

A prevailing reason why minorities do not obtain a college degree is because of the fear of incurring massive debt. According to studies by the Pew Research Center, one in five college graduates will have debt nearly two decades after completing their education.

Research from Jason Houle from Dartmouth College shows 69 percent of minorities drop out of college because of the amount of student loan debt. The study shows the fear of life-long debt is a cause for concern from minorities attending college.

“In class, we went over subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans, grants, scholarships, private loans, and other forms of funding just so they are well informed,” Murray said. “None of their family went to college. Their parents are necessarily not going to know this, and I know I wasn’t taught this in school.”

Murray spent four-hours in a tattoo shop completing his the ad from the book Ishmael and the list of his 28 students. (Photo by: Sergio Calderon / Arizona Sonora News)

A year and a half ago, Murray saw his students in need of motivation. He created a wager to motivate a student to raise $20,000 for college. If completed Murray would face his fears and swim with the dolphins. The entire class became enthused posing a longer lasting incentive, a tattoo. Murray agreed the new wager with one catch, all 28 students must earn $5,000 to pay for college.

On Jan. 27, Murray released the first photo on Facebook displaying his commitment to his students success. The students raised over $700,000. Murray spent four h

ours in the tattoo shop placing every student on the side of his body. Above the names stood a gorilla standing stoic holding a book in hand.

Why the gorrilla?

In Murray’s class, the class read the book Ishamael written by Daniel Quinn. Ishamael is a gorilla and throughout his time as teacher he seeks to find more students who wish to learn lessons of life. The students in the Agua Fria AVID program would agree the earnest desire to save the world includes entering college and graduating. Murray plans on attending the college graduations for all 28 students.

“If we talk about life goals and accomplishments, putting 28 out there in the world that are going to do something productive with their lives, I feel good,” Murray said.

 Click here for high resolution photos.

Sergio Calderon is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism at the University of Arizona. Contact him at

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