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.