Prioritizing Principal Support

By Juan Cabrera

Earning El Pasoan of the Year with Board President Dori Fenenbock certainly was an honor, but it got me thinking about what else we can accomplish and work on. How can I better support the principals and leadership that helped us articulate our vision and goals for EPISD? 

As I reflect on the coming year, I am excited about using “lessons learned” to identify areas of improvement for our school system. I am meeting with my Administration and our Board of Trustees to gain their perspective on what has worked and where we might improve.  After working with the Texas Education Agency through a transition from state control to local elected control, we are excited about the recent stability and consistency we have created.

During my first 3 ½ years as a Superintendent of Schools at EPISD we focused a lot of energy on new governance models, creating organizational frameworks for board oversight and our internal district teams and finally managing many external issues that were unique to our district.

While this work was unavoidable and necessary for our particular district, I am excited about the prospect of spending more time thinking about and impacting our classrooms. I am proud of our work rebuilding an infrastructure and foundation for our district, but I know that it is time to make an active shift to an increased focus on our teachers and classrooms. As I often like to tell anyone who will listen, ‘‘none of this work [central office] matters if there is not magic in the classroom.” With +/- 4000 teachers in EPISD, we have to make a lot of magic!

As with any leadership role, especially in a larger organization, it is important to distinguish between changes in areas we would like to impact and making changes which have a greater possibility of actually making an impact.  In other words, it is being honest about the distance that often exists between policy changes at the board and superintendent level and what actually translates into positive impact in the classroom.  

Much to my dismay, when I visit with teachers and principals, changes are not often received as positively as they were made at a board meeting.  This too is a focus area for 2017–improved communication regarding initiatives and their impact. I want to ensure that we are all on the same page about EPISD in 2020 and the positive changes that will come in our journey to reaching this vision.

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Given my appreciation for the distance between Superintendent and Board decision-making and classroom impact, my first priority for classroom impact in 2017 is evaluating and analyzing our support and supervision of Principals.

I know that if we want to every student to graduate and meet the following 5 learning goals, we have to have strong leadership in place to support the schools and staff that are facilitating learning for those students.Screen Shot 2017-02-20 at 12.51.17 PM.png

As a principal in EPISD, active learning, dual language education and SEL are necessary focuses. I believe principals deserve proper training and support from central offices in order to provide learning environments rich with these elements. This means they also deserve flexibility, autonomy and choice — just as we promote for our students.


Competitive, Coherent, Creative: The 21st Century School District

This blog also appeared on Getting Smart.

By Tom Vander Ark and Juan Cabrera

The United States has, compared to other developed countries, a thick middle management layer. Between the federal government and schools sits three layers of bureaucracy: state education authorities, intermediate units (e.g., BOCES, ESD, RSD, county), and local education authorities usually called school districts.

There are about 13,500 school districts serving over 47 million students–with 10% of them clustered in a dozen mega districts. The top 100 districts serve at least 40,000 students. But they are the exception–more than 11,500 districts serve less than 5,000 students.

There are at least four reasons to ask about the existence and value contribution of these middle managers of education:

  • The feds will be less involved going forward–in policy and investment–and in most states, there is no new money for education. With more state and local control, there is a new opportunity to consider how we spend $600 billion a year (an average of $11,600 per student).
  • There are as many non-teaching adults as there are teachers in America. That includes a lot of student support services but it’s also a lot of middle managers. Automation has wiped out much of the middle management in business–do we still need all these layers in education? Is there an opportunity to reinvest in American classrooms?
  • Urban districts face more competition–about 10 million students attend charter, private and homeschools. How does competition change the role of school districts?
  • With the explosion of learning models and tools, what is the role of districts in intermediating innovation?

For all of these reasons, it’s a good time to reexamine why school districts exist, how they work and what value they add.

Superintendents Have Four Full-Time Jobs

If your superintendent seems busy, it’s with good reason. Good K-12 system heads fulfill four key roles and, depending on context and priorities, they can each feel like a full time job:

1. Governance: Facilitating the work of the board. Adopting standards, assessments and accountability in the 90s was a huge policy lift. Reconsidering graduate profiles and adopting personalized and competency-based learning is a similarly big job being taken on by many boards today. Good systems heads lead community conversations that sequence and inform tough board decisions.

  • Outcome: Good governance, sustained leadership.

2. Operations: Fiscal management, constituent services, organizational development and compliance management (and given local policies and agreements and mountains of state and federal policy there’s a lot to comply with).

  • Outcome: Organizational effectiveness and capacity

3. Change Agenda: Organizing and leading improvement and innovation. While the first two categories are largely managerial, this is the work of leadership–facilitating a shared vision, balancing improvement and innovation, and mobilizing and resourcing a change agenda.

  • Outcome: Focused energy, improving results

4. Community Development: Engaging parent, civic, family support, health and business partners in developing infrastructure and support for public education.

  • Outcome: Support for kids and families, economic development

The first three roles benefit from scale. On these dimensions, it would be easy to justify a 50% consolidation in the number of districts. The importance of building strong community connections is a mitigating factor. But it’s worth noting here that American schools operate with an idiosyncratic notion of “local control.” Most OECD countries have a national curriculum, push budgets to school building and don’t rely as heavily on middle managers. (Do we really need 10,000+ curriculum directors?)

Isn’t it Ironic? With the feds out of the accountability business and most states in full reconsideration, there is limited accountability exercised over traditional public schools.

Simultaneously, many districts are adopting broader aims and promoting personalized and deeper learning (check out this list of 30 innovative districts).

On the other hand, the pendulum in the charter space swung from quantity to quality, and restrictive authorizing and accountability based on narrow historic measures (and proficiency over growth) lead to more closures, fewer new schools and less innovative models. The net effect may be that the charter sector–organized to produce innovation—is less innovative than ever, while forward leaning districts are the new place to innovate. (Given limitations to both charters and districts, free or low cost micro schools like One Stone and Acton Academy remain fertile innovation space).

Change Making. Personalized learning models are promising but challenging. What is the role of the district with the shift to digital? McKinsey described the work of building an operating model for the digital world as shifting from “running uncoordinated efforts within siloes to launching an integrated operational-improvement program organized around customer journeys.” For education, that means getting really focused on learner experience (LX)–and not just improving it, but making it dramatically better–and then applying lean process redesign to support it (here are 21 LX questions to get you started).

Innovation usually requires investment–and districts are poorly structured to make capital expenditures (which, broadly speaking, are investments expected to yield multi-year benefits). Districts receive allocations and reimbursements for current year expenditures and may be able to pass a local levy to pay for facilities but the stuff in between–computers, systems and consultants to support implementation–is financially challenging.

A growing number of districts are turning to school and curriculum networks that combine content, a learning model, a platform, and professional learning experiences (illustrated below). These partners reduce the district’s need build a curriculum, invest in platforms and manage an improvement agenda.

How School Districts Work

There are three general operating models for school districts: enterprise, shared and portfolio. They roughly correspond to size–most small districts are enterprise, most medium districts are some version of shared and most large districts are portfolio.

1. Enterprise. Borrowing a business term, an enterprise approach implies common goals, processes and tools. Enterprise districts (like managed school networks) share goals and learning model (curriculum, assessment, teaching practices); school model (structure, schedule, staffing); information systems, learning platform and access devices; and professional learning opportunities.

Enterprise districts (as shown below) define the what students should know and be able to do and how they will learn and demonstrate learning. In systems of managed instruction, this may feel highly directive and come with pacing guides and benchmark assessments. Some districts use distributed leadership developed where teachers have a say and feel supported and where change is top down, bottom up, inside out and outside in. (See feature on Mooresville GSD)

  • Benefits: Everybody on the same page (coherence), using same systems (efficiency).
  • Challenges: Can feel oppressive, may not work for all learners, may lack agility and ability to innovate.

2. Shared. Most districts operate in the middle ground where the central office makes some decisions, schools make others and some are negotiated. Here’s an example:

District-Defined What Shared/Negotiated Decisions School-Defined How
Standards, Grad Requirements

New schools, Accountability

Schedules, Transportation

Employment Contracts


Professional Development

Core Curriculum, Assessments

Learning Platform, Devices


Instructional Strategies

Supplemental Materials

School Climate

The problem is that in many districts, these definitions are fuzzy and poorly documented leading to a lack of role and goal clarity.

Medium and large districts have schools in many performance categories. To rationalize supervision and services, they often create performance categories and provide tiered support–good schools can opt out of services and struggling schools get more directed support (Cincinnati and Boston were early adopters of this tiered support model).

As in Houston, this tiered support system may be augmented by themed and magnet schools to expand student/family options–but with them often comes resentment for schools that receive special treatment.

  • Benefits: School performance defines the relationship with the district; there is a potential for earned autonomy which may add to unique options.
  • Challenges: Complicated to construct and operate.

3. Portfolio. A district that is more like an authorizer than operator is called a portfolio. Most budget and operating decisions are made at the school or network level. Robin Lake, CRPE, said, “The portfolio strategy tries to harness the best ideas for creating ownership at the school level, parent choice, community engagement and government oversight with one end in mind: quality public education for every student.”

Most big districts are portfolio districts but they vary in the extent to which they embrace or resist charter schools. Denver’s portfolio approach keeps district, innovation and charter schools on a level playing field when it comes to incubation, funding, enrollment, transportation and accountability.

In Santa Ana USD, teams of teachers have the ability and responsibility to create coherent personalized learning models and devices that support their plan. (See and listen to interview with David Haglund.)

Portfolio managers may proactively seek options for underserved geographies and/groups or to pilot school model innovations.

  • Benefits: Best strategy for creating quality options by leveraging the capability of school networks and multiple operators; creates options for families; may be able to use common enrollment, discipline, funding, facilities and accountability.
  • Challenges: Confusing to middle managers if the district is both operator and authorizers; too many options can be overwhelming to families; can be challenging for a district to fund the development of networks.


Coherence. District leaders should be clear about their current strategy. Every school leader should have a clear picture of how things should work and who makes what decision so that they can create role and goal clarity for teachers. As Doug Knecht from Bank Street explains, systems should build “a coherent throughline from the central office and pedagogical supervisors to teacher teams and their students.”

EdLeaders should understand the pros/cons of district architecture and should discuss options with employee groups and civic leaders to make the best decision for the community.

Competition. Given the growing number of learning options (and opportunities), school districts should study ways they can radically improve learner experience and support it with increased investment–funded, in part, by transitioning to a smaller central office (perhaps a third non-teaching rather than a half). Opportunities include:

  • Taking advantage of school and curriculum networks, learning platforms and open content.
  • Pushing larger budgets and more decision-making to schools and networks (after creating clarity and capacity).
  • Small districts should consider combining forces and consolidating to maximize investment in schools. States could offer small incentives to encourage this direction over time. Incentives could be offered to employees to return to work in schools.

Creativity. In Smart Cities, we identified the need for every city/region to develop the capacity to take advantage of innovations in learning. That doesn’t mean that every district needs an innovation officer, but it does mean every district needs a point of view on how it supports rather than inhibits innovation.

Smart districts find a way to say “yes”; they inspire, incubate and intermediate innovation, or work with partners that do. Most Rhode Island districts rely on Highlander Institute as their innovation office.

Capacity. Whether enterprise, portfolio or shared decision making, managing a change agenda can feel overwhelming. Our new paper, Preparing to Lead in a Project-Based World, suggests a mashup of change management and talent development: turn the strategic plan into a series of projects, distribute them across the organization by asking every leader and aspiring leader to manage a project relevant to their personal development plan. By serving as an organization-wide project manager, leaders help carry out the change agenda and gain valuable work experience.

With a proliferation of learning models, generic educator preparation is less relevant than ever. It is increasingly important to create tailored preparation partnerships that are specific to a district or network learning model.

It’s time for district leaders to create clarity and coherence by making crystal clear how things are supposed to work. It’s time for district leaders to get more competitive by pushing bigger budgets to schools and building the capacity to effectively handle the added responsibility. It’s time for district leaders to have a clear innovation agenda with the internal and external capacity to support it.

Partnering with Parents on Social and Emotional Learning

If you spend time thinking about improving school systems, you know there are many levers we can pull to make an impact. Our challenge is finding the most important and critical levers for our particular communities and making sure we excel in those areas. As the Superintendent of a large, urban district near the border in Texas, finding the right levers is always on my mind.

When I visit with our El Paso ISD trustees and educators, we often brainstorm about making a deeper impact on our district. To this end, I am reflecting on what we can do to improve our partnerships with parents as a lever to improve student outcomes.

From my lens as a public school parent and a district administrator, I am frustrated by the many flaws in the area of parent communication and service (aka, customer service). Based on many informal visits with parents, I know there are many ways to improve communication and the ways in which we partner with parents.  At a minimum, improved communication should help increase parental engagement in our schools, which will likely improve student engagement, but I am interested in exploring how parental engagement can have a more direct connection to improving student outcomes. More specifically, how can we work together to be sure our students are happy, well-rounded, and socially emotionally healthy human beings? How can we all work together to on social and emotional learning?


In El Paso, like other districts, there is a focus on state accountability. However, we also place a huge importance on social and emotional learning (SEL), and have joined a handful of districts across the country in aggressively focusing on these skills (see Initiative #2 in the EPISD 2020 Strategic Plan). We believe SEL is critical to the growth and development of our students and that there is the added benefit of helping our community focus on other measures of success–not just on state test scores.


I am proud of El Paso ISD educators for making this commitment to add SEL to their ever-increasing burden of meeting state academic standards. Despite the fact that SEL is not currently recognized by our state as a measure of success, we are committed to focusing on SEL programming in our schools.

We are proud to partner with CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning) and other districts in the Council of the Great City Schools that recognize the importance of SEL.


Certainly, we care deeply about and are serious about meeting academic readiness standards, but we also want to help our students become better learners, team members and civic-minded citizens. Clearly teaching students the ability to manage themselves, to collaborate with others and make good decisions will not only make them better students and classmates, but also will make them better family members.

Because SEL is grounded in the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships, partnering with parents and helping them understand the importance of SEL should have a dramatic impact on the growth and development of our students in EPISD. We also need to hear from parents what strategies they use at home. They, too, have great insights and ideas about how to develop these skills within students.

Undoubtedly, schools benefit greatly from parental involvement in academics, but while some parents may not be able or have the time to offer academic support, I am certain that most parents can support schools in developing SEL skills in students. Hopefully, many of our parents are focused on SEL at home, but we should make sure they are aware of our work in schools and what role they can play as parents to support this work.

In 2017, our district will work harder to improve parent engagement–specifically efforts to educate parents about the importance of social-emotional learning and the important role they can play at home.

To Homework? Or Not to Homework?

By Juan Cabrera

Recently, in a conversation with a parent, I got asked about my opinion on homework. I immediately thought back to the teacher from Texas last year who shared a note informing parents that she was not going to give any homework (see Down With Homework: Teacher’s Viral Note Tells Of Growing Attitude). The note went viral and I recall feeling surprised that this was such a contented topic.

Personally, as a parent, former classroom educator and now Superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, I can think of several reasons homework doesn’t always make sense. Let me explain.

The research. A Stanford researcher found that students in high-achieving communities who spend too much time on homework experience more stress, physical health problems, a lack of balance and even alienation from society. More than two hours of homework a night may be counterproductive, according to the study. Stanford research shows pitfalls of homework. There have been very few studies to show any benefit or correlation that it helps with achievement.

The NEA indicates that 10-20 minutes in first grade and 10 more minutes each year is appropriate. They also share that usually homework is given for practice, preparation or extension. If you are interested in reading more, check out this summary of research on homework from Edutopia or an article from the Time’s about both sides of the issue.

The time. Let’s be real – educators have a lot on their plates. Creating, assigning and grading homework is an added task. I’d much rather educators spend their time creating engaging lessons, taking time to have conversations with students or finding ways to take a break themselves. As a parent, I have seen my kids work for hours on homework and feel stressed out or anxious about assignments.

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The alternatives. While you may still call this homework, what if students were asked to explore something they are interested in at home instead of regurgitating facts? In a small study at the Orchard School in Vermont, educators and parents found that by asking students to just read or go play that there were positive outcomes. “Students have not fallen back academically and may be doing better, and now they have “time to be creative thinkers at home and follow their passions.”

Am I saying we should ban all homework? No, there are certainly times it makes sense and students may benefit from learning independent study skills, how to collaborate with peers while at home or be able to give parents more insight into what they are doing during daily instruction. I also realize that at the higher grade-levels, there may be a greater need to provide students with work to complete outside of the regular classroom hours.

With that said, I do think we ought to consider the purpose and meaning behind what we are asking students – at all ages and grade-levels – to do for homework. I encourage you to rethink homework assignments to be reflective of the active, engaged learning that goes on in the classroom. Or better yet, give it a try and go a week without homework and see what happens.

Board Goals Affect School Culture

By Dori Fenenbock

Revisiting a school district’s mission, vision and board goals is an annual practice. Generally, boards look back on the past year and determine which goals to carry forward and, if goals are aligned, evaluate the superintendent.

Our board at the El Paso Independent School District took a new approach to goal setting this year.  This may not seem extraordinary at first glance. However, when you understand the research behind this new approach and the opportunity for boards to dramatically affect the school culture, it is an exciting break that sets our district apart and ahead of longstanding practices.

Not only did we help to rebuild infrastructure, balance the budget and work to change district culture, but we also help set some important student learning goals.

Last month, board members participated in Texas Education Agency’s Lonestar Governance training that is based on one important principle: “Student outcomes don’t change until adult behavior changes.” Participants were challenged to self-assess what “I” (compared to the board as a whole) am doing that has negatively affected student outcomes. Examples were abuse of authority, contention on the board, and failure to improve education. The model then prescribes a method of that intensely focuses board goals, time, and district resources on improving student achievement. All other matters then fall under 3-5 board-identified student outcome goals.

The lightbulb went off for our board members and what we are charged by our community to do. We then created 4 Student Outcome Goals that are aligned with the EPISD 2020 Strategic Plan:

  1. Y% of students will enroll in community college, university, military or an industry certification program by 2021 increased from X% from each high school.
  2. The achievement gap by feeder pattern, disability, SPED, and ELL will decline by X% on all academic measures by 2021.
  3. Y% of students will graduate proficient in EPISD 2020 student learning goals by 2021, increasing from x%.
  4. Y% of EPISD students will be literate in 2 or more languages increasing from X% by 2021.

We are eager to identify target percentages and work alongside EPISD in achieving these student outcome goals. We also are working hard to share our ideas, connect with others doing similar work and learn from how their school boards are collaborating with district leaders and families.

At the SXSWedu conference this year, I had the opportunity to share some these insights along with Kendall Pace (Austin Independent School District), Dr. Richard Carranza (Houston Independent School District) and AJ Crabill (Texas Education Agency Program Specialist). We all believe that a school board, while not always seen as a primary driving force, truly has the power to help shape and grow teaching and learning in a district.



Dori is the current President of the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees. Follow Dori at @doriforepisd and check back on EDU Transformed to read more about what she is working on in EPISD.

The Dual Language Imperative

By Juan Cabrera

Beyond the notable benefits, such as brain development, increased cognition and higher academic performance — being bilingual has enhanced my life and relationships.

In EPISD, we believe being bilingual will help our students find future employment in an increasingly global economy, but we also believe it will help them be better people now and in relationships (be they work or just as a member of society).

Four years ago EPISD had a traditional exit program (i.e., exit to English only) and have since shifted to primarily two-way dual language instructional models. While the goal of a transitional program is to create a bridge to eventually move students from their native language to English, the dual language model seeks to maintain academic and linguistic fluency in two or more languages.

Dual language programs will not only improve academic outcomes for both ELLs and monolingual English speakers in a two-way model, but multilingualism is an economic driver and important shift that all districts should consider.

Unfortunately, there are not nearly enough highly qualified dual language teachers. So what are we doing about it? We are directly working to create a dual language teacher pipeline.

Dual Language Teacher Pipeline

University partnerships and collaboration. “Dual language is definitely World Class Education,” said Dr. Elena Izquierdo, the UTEP prof who was the inspiration for the EPISD program. “It opens minds to new ways of thinking. With changing demographics, dual language provides bilingualism/biliteracy/multiculturalism and an advantageous role in the global economy,”

She added, “Genuine leadership inspires a profound understanding of diversity as children, teachers, parents and the wider education community learn, work, and play together. It embraces the value of knowing more than one language and expects nothing less than a rigorous curriculum delivered and learned through two languages.”

Fifth grade Mesita teacher Mayra Perez said, “I always try to emphasize to all my parents the benefits that their bilingual and bi-literate child will have…I think that for some reason the United States has always had a very closed-minded view on bilingualism. We always expect everyone to speak English, but we can’t be bothered to learn some else’s language.

Model school and UTEP partnership. The teacher education partnership goes beyond just learning from each other, we work with UTEP directly in EPISD schools. Mesita Elementary is a dual language P-5 program on two campuses. It is the successful combination of a high performing dual language elementary with a struggling school with dwindling enrollment.

The Connecting Worlds/Mundos Unidos curriculum is delivered through the integration of dual language immersion methodology and gifted and talented instructional strategies. The program uses a 50/50 design in which students receive half of their instruction in Spanish and half in English across all subject areas. Instruction in both languages is delivered by the same classroom teacher. Noted UTEP linguist Dr. Elena Izquierdo inspired the Connecting Worlds approach.

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The Vilas campus (above) serves as an Early Childhood Development Center (serving grades P-1) and shares instructional strategies and the unique Mesita culture where teachers collaborate and compete to improve.

Laila Ferris has been principal at Mesita for 20 years. “We believe it’s the only program that should be implemented to support EL,” said Ferris. “Why not allow for growth of two languages instead of English only? We use the gift of the first language and help them grow into a second language.”

Sustained professional development and support.“Multilingualism should be seen as an asset the way is seen internationally – and we need that mindset in the U.S. if we are going to stay globally competitive.” It is an economic imperative that bilingual education is a part of current and future students education.  It also is essential that teachers are receiving the proper support and training to facilitate these classrooms. We are working to strengthen the dual language teacher pipeline, but also to support the existing dual language teachers to be the best they can be.

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Juan with Dori Fenenbock, President of the El Paso Independent School District Board of Trustees. 

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We continue to be optimistic that dual language programs will become the norm and will do all we can in EPISD to highlight and share how these programs have benefited our students and community.

EPISD on the Move

Originally posted 1/14/2017 in the El Paso Times.

By Juan Cabrera and Dori Fenenbock

The bell has rung in the new year for EPISD and there have never been more opportunities available to our students, teachers, and families. Looking back, we can be proud of the many accomplishments. Looking ahead, you can continue to expect bold, courageous leadership that has characterized this board and this administration.

With the guidance of the Trustees, EPISD focused on rebuilding infrastructure, balancing the budget and changing the culture. This is challenging, ongoing work necessary for laying the foundation for programmatic improvements in teaching and learning.

New governance policies were implemented to ensure absolute transparency with the public. District transformation has brought many new faces to EPISD and we have made it a priority to have an outstanding leader at every school. Regular internal audits are revealing improved systems and processes and fewer reports of previous concerns. We simply will not tolerate fraud, waste or abuse anywhere by anyone.

In the face of declining enrollment, we have demonstrated sound fiscal management by consistently balancing our budget and redirecting funds from district operations to classroom needs, while adding to our general reserves. As a result, before the issuance of our first tranche of bonds, our credit rating was recently improved saving millions in projected interest costs.

We are grateful to our community for the trust you have placed in us with the approval of a historic bond that will help us build new schools and produce better student outcomes. The bond projects will begin this year with the purchase of sorely needed busses, laptops for our middle schoolers, and athletic turf improvements. We will complete the design phase of our school rebuilds and consolidations. Construction will begin next year and be completed within the following 4 years.

Technology, so prevalent in our society, has not been adequately available in our schools.  Classrooms need to better reflect modern career skills and workspaces. Every 6-12th grader will be provided a personal computer.  Internet connectivity is being expanded throughout our schools and neighborhoods. Students and their families will have access beyond school hours to online global learning. Ongoing training is being provided to staff as the art of teaching and learning with technology continues to evolve. We also became the first district in Texas to implement teacher created digital textbooks, allowing us to eliminate costly, static textbooks.

As one of the first “Districts of Innovation” in Texas, regular investments in innovative programming are appearing across the district offering families more choices in new and improved learning options. Dual language programs have been implemented at all elementary schools. New Tech project-based learning is offered across the district and we have increased dual credit options as well as vocational certification courses We are committed to expanding more pathways to college and careers. Our teachers are encouraged and supported in creating active learning spaces while developing whole child, social and emotional growth.

This month, our district will take another bold step setting out specific, measurable student outcome goals we intend to achieve by 2021. We will be laser-focused on our graduates’ enrollment in university, community college, military or industry certification programs. We will be carefully monitoring and reduce our achievement gaps by feeder pattern, disability, special education and English language learners. We will increase literacy in 2 or more languages. We will develop and measure necessary life skills of critical thinking, problem solving, social and emotional intelligence, and responsible leadership and productive citizenship.

Education is changing and we must have the courage to change along with it. We will deliver on these promises. Our students will succeed. El Paso Independent School District is thriving.

Partnering Helps Create Quality Options

By Juan Cabrera

In El Paso, we focus on engaged and active learning. We serve our diverse bilingual population with hands-on project-based and technology-rich classrooms.

For the past four years, the leadership team in the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) has been learning from the best schools in the country including the 200 New Tech Network schools.

Active learning requires a shift from traditional, teacher-centered classrooms. Here are a few lessons learned as we shifted towards more engaged learning for all students:

1. Partners are important. We made the biggest and most transformative changes by partnering with the nonprofit New Tech Network. This nonprofit supports big blocks of integrated project-based learning as well as the creation of a positive student-centered school culture.

We started with two New Tech schools in 2015:

Each of the new schools will be academies located on the campus of a comprehensive high school. They are schools of choice with lottery-based enrollment.

This year we opened four more New Tech schools:

We are excited to announce that in the fall of 2017, the list of New Tech schools in EPISD will grow even more. The EPISD Young Women’s Academy will be the first New Tech single gender STEAM focused school in the country. We also will have a New Tech campus at Guillen Middle School.

2. The learning space really matters. Active learning requires students have an engaging and innovative space to learn in. Students should be excited about where they go to school. Some of the existing EPISD structures are now remodeled and we are rethinking our learning spaces. At Cobra New Tech at Canyon Hills Middle School, one of the newest New Tech Network additions in EPISD, the wing includes two large classrooms and one work conference room for targeted lessons. Upgrades include a double broadband network, whiteboards and media stations for group work. “Students will be able to use this media stations to work in groups within the classroom,” said Jayne Pynes, a social studies and ELA teacher at Cobra Tech Academy. “They can hook their laptops up to the station and work on anything from podcasts to project presentations.” Students also will have access to digital cameras and printers, among other technology, in addition to their own individual laptop computers.

3. Teachers are ready for change. Teachers want more innovative methods and models. They want to be excited about where they work. At Cougar New Tech in Franklin High School, teachers like Dan Leeser are able to design their own projects for students but also learn from and adapt projects from other New Tech Network teachers. He admits that the shift required him to take some risks, but that EPISD has approved of his lesson experimentation and supports this change.

As a staff, we are going to continue to learn and expand how we implement active learning across the district. Active learning is what our students want and need to be ready for whatever path they choose in their futures.


Active Learning Requires Innovative Spaces

By Juan Cabrera

A few years ago, there were a lot of traditional classrooms in El Paso with low level test prep activities in a low-tech environment.

When you visit El Paso classrooms today, you are much more likely to see active learning–engaged students doing challenging work, often in two languages and using the latest technology.

With the recent passage of a $668.7 construction bond, El Paso students will have the opportunity to learn in modern facilities that reflect our active learning vision. We are thankful for El Paso voters and for their confidence in our vision and ability to provide all students innovative spaces to learn in. 

Here are a few ways active learning spaces differ from traditional classrooms:

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All students deserve modern facilities that are more reflective of what you see on the right-hand side. Active learning requires that students have space to work, build, iterate, communicate and ultimately have learning experiences that are not pre-planned.

Active learning is already alive and well in El Paso classrooms. Teachers like Jill McGee, 2016 El Paso Elementary Teacher of the Year, support that active learning is really helping with student engagement and performance. In the video below, she shares how she has worked to implement these ideas in her classroom.


Watch my interview with Jill McGee, 2nd Grade Dual Language teacher at Mesita Elementary

Teachers are receiving support from coaches and our district partner engage2learn, who is working to help us implement active learning. One of the first examples of new learning spaces in El Paso are the six New Tech Network schools. We took down walls in existing school buildings to create big classrooms for integrated project work. Students and teachers express how much they like teaching & learning in these spaces.

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Another example of how EPISD is providing students space for active learning is through Project Lead the Way. Students at Chapin High School were asked to create a winter wonderland village resembling the Victorian age. The students said scratch that, let’s use what we have been learning in our six Principles of Engineering classes and make modern, innovative and sustainable winter wonderland villages.  

Students created the villages entirely out of recyclable materials. Daniels-Sherman, magnet coordinator, said that students had to incorporate engineering principles that they were learning about such as, “circuitry, architecture, creativity and design.”

I’d argue if they weren’t in a classroom space that encouraged them to see endless possibilities and where they felt they had the tools to do so, they might not have felt so compelled to create such innovative projects.

The spaces where we ask students to be active learners is almost (if not equally) as important as the ideas behind active learning itself.

Embracing the Border Economy

By Juan Cabrera

El Paso is 300 miles west of what east Texans call “west Texas.” El Paso and Juarez Mexico straddle the Rio Grande (or Rio Bravo, depending on what side of the river you are on) wrapping around the 7,000 foot peaks of the Franklin Mountains, the southernmost point of the Rockies. With Las Cruces New Mexico, the combined international metropolitan area is home to almost three million people and is the largest bilingual-binational workforce in the Americas, perhaps the world.

The El Paso Independent School District (EPISD) embraces our geographic location as an asset and a benefit to students as future employees in our increasingly global and connected economy. The fact El Paso has a border economy where people and goods move freely back and forth has strengthened the EPISD commitment to help students develop global connections and communication skills.

We want students to understand and be prepared for life and work in a global economy. Like Nogales in southern Arizona (highlighted by the US Chamber of Commerce), we’ve embraced dual language, students supports and improved college and career readiness.

Dual language and career readiness isn’t just a border town issue. We all live in a border economy. Multilingualism should be seen as an asset the way it is seen internationally – and we need that mindset in the U.S. if we are going to stay globally competitive. As Parag Khanna notes in his new book Connectography, “Mega-cities compete over connectivity more than borders.” Communication, trade and connections in most jobs traverse borders and define our personal and professional relationships.

Powering Up to Connect Students

Three years ago, we set four new priorities for the district: active learning, great community schools community partnerships and leading with character and ethics.

We held community conversations to update our graduate profile including five learning goals, most notably including bilingual communicators and socially and emotionally intelligent individuals.  


After visiting Houston ISD and other leading districts, our leadership team shaped Power Up, a multiyear effort to improve student access to technology in support of a vision of Active Learning.

Leveraging the Border Economy

Beginning last year, we provided every high school student with a laptop for use at school and at home, as well as collaborative tools for teaching and learning. Using open content helped pay for our digital conversion. We partnered with CK-12 Foundation to replace high school science textbooks with free, electronic texts. Working with a team of teachers, the district created textbooks for high school science and math classes.

Many of our students speak Spanish at home. Many of our schools offer two-way dual language programs that help English speakers learn Spanish and Spanish speakers learn English. Dual language programs are not just an equity issue, they’re an economic development issue.

We also believe that being able to communicate in another language is far more powerful if students are also able to use language to get along with others and establish positive relationships with each other. Social emotional learning is at the crux of our communication skills development with students. Employers want bilingual employees that also have relationship skills.

We will continue to embrace El Paso as a great place to live and learn, especially due to the fact we have a border economy.