Cynthia Ontiveros, Principal, Young Women’s STEAM Research & Preparatory Academy

June 19, 2018
El Paso Inc.

By Aaron Montes

Cynthia Ontiveros remembers attending computer science classes at the University of Texas at El Paso and being the only woman in the room.

When she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology in 1999, she had a change of heart and decided to become an educator. Her goal was to ensure more women became professionals in science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM, careers.

Now, she is the principal of the El Paso Independent School District’s only all-girls school, which just completed its first year.

The school is in a building on the Armendariz Middle School campus, which overlooks El Paso and Juárez.

Inside, it looks a bit like the offices of a tech company in Silicon Valley. The classrooms are furnished with round tables for students to work together, and each classroom can be seen from the hallway because of tall, glass windows that replaced the walls and lockers.

Students are encouraged to write on the walls or windows and be open about their interests and what they want to learn.

“We look at empowering women – especially in these non-traditional STEAM careers,” Ontiveros said. “We encourage them and give them that early exposure.”

The school started its first year without colors or a mascot but adopted pink and black. And now their mascot is a warrior who looks much like the mythic Greek goddess Athena.

It was Ontiveros’ first year as a principal, but she is no stranger to educating children in El Paso. Ontiveros, who has a doctorate in teaching, has served in leadership roles with the Texas Science Education Leadership Association and is the director of EPISD’s PowerUp program.

PowerUp is EPISD’s effort to modernize education by providing students with the latest technology and helping schools develop innovative teaching methods.

The academy is partnered with the New Tech Network, a California-based nonprofit that provides coaching to schools and helps them integrate technology into the classroom.

Ontiveros said the school has 170 students and about 12 teachers and facilitators. It just had an induction ceremony for about 150 new students.

By fall 2021, the academy is expected to occupy the entire Armendariz Middle School campus, with grades sixth through 12th.

Ontiveros sat down with El Paso Inc. and talked about their first year, turning the classroom upside down and school safety.

Q: This was the school’s first year. How did it go?

We had a wonderful year. All of this is very new – not only for myself and my staff but also for my students and parents. The way I describe it is we take the regular classroom and we flip it upside down – shake it around a little bit. What you have is this structured chaos where students are the center of their instruction.

They are working in groups. They’re working outside – in the hallways. Learning happens anywhere, but the students mostly work in groups. Getting used to that concept and pulling away from the idea that students need to be sitting in rows and raise their hand when they want to speak and as the teacher, I own all the knowledge and deposit it into your brain.

Q: Do you know the state testing results for this year?

Not yet.

Q: What do you expect to see?

Our students, even in local benchmarks, have done well – really well. I have a good variety of students; I have every walk of life. We have students who have learning disabilities, who are challenged in math, science and reading.

Q: What are some challenges you had this year?

As a parent, I am used to the way I went to school – having to take textbooks home, reading 20 novels in some number of days, answering questions at the back of a book, taking notes and listening to lectures. Here, it’s not that. Girls are having fun, and we are making learning meaningful. For some parents, that’s been a challenge: ‘Are they having fun or are they learning?’ It’s a good question.

My response is, trust the process.

You teach how you learned or what feels comfortable for you. Letting go of your classroom and having students direct their learning takes a lot from a teacher or facilitator.

For parents, it’s different. But I know they’ve seen changes in their daughters – in their confidence, in their ability to articulate their feelings and what they’ve learned.

Q:What have you learned about running an all-girls school?

We have never done an all-girls school, so there’s a lot of different things. One thing we hit on this year was our social-emotional learning. Being a middle-schooler, there are a lot of changes in hormones, and they’re trying to understand their identity – trying to put their feet on the ground and say who they are and rebel a bit.

On top of that, we are all girls, and we have the usual bickering you would imagine. But we find healthy ways for them to work through that and negotiate.

If I am bothered by you then I am going to tell you why I am bothered. Let’s get over it or find a solution rather than not being friends anymore and ignoring you and being mean to you. We are not going to be a mean girls society here.

As small as we are, we are able to know any student that walks through the hall. It’s a blessing because we can take care of things instantly.

Q: Is it as scary for them when a teacher says, ‘You’re going to the principal’s office,’ like it always has been?

I explain to students you can come anytime to the principal’s office. It doesn’t mean you are in trouble when you come in. If there’s something that needs to be addressed, we are going to address it.

That’s the environment we have here. I have an open door policy with my staff and students – and the parents, too, when they stop by and want to talk.

Q: What communities do the students come from?

All over the place. We get a good number that come from this community, but they’re from all over the city. So it’s a healthy mix. We don’t screen students to come in. Everybody is 100 percent transfer here. This is a choice to come here.

As long as they pass the 90-percent rule as far as days in attendance and have no discipline, they’re good to go.

Q: How big do you see this school getting?

Right now, we share our facility with Armendariz, and there’s a slow phase-out plan from Armendariz and a phase-in plan for us. We are operating cautiously. I am not accepting everybody who has applied; I can only accept the first 120, and now everybody’s on a waiting list. We want to make sure that we are able to provide what the students need with adequate facilities.

Eventually, we will be able to increase our cohorts to about 150 until we get to high school. It could potentially be about 1,000 or so – maybe 1,100.

Q: Is there time for extracurricular activities and are there any in the academy?

We have all the sports that are close to what regular middle schools have.

For some students, it’s their first time playing the sport. That’s fun to watch and see them grow.

In areas where we didn’t know or didn’t think we would have a team like wrestling, we had five students who joined the wrestling team and we came out with a district champion.

Our teachers also offer extracurricular activities. We have a gardening club, a dance club, robotics club and Namaste club or yoga. We participate in the University Interscholastic League competitions.

Q: Does the academy have the same schedule as Armendariz Middle School?

We run a high school schedule. Our students start the day a little later and end later than the students at Armendariz.

We go from 8:30 in the morning to 4 o’clock. That was done purposely to stagger our schedules and have access to the lunchroom, parking and parents picking up students.

Q: Do the two schools have any events together?

We have done activities where we invite them to come in and participate with us.

We were one of three schools to have F-35 simulators brought to our schools by Lockheed Martin, so we invited our neighbors to come in.

Q: It was a difficult year in terms of safety for schools. How does the academy handle safety?

We talk about it. It is scary. These things can happen anywhere – in church, the mall or walking down the sidewalk. But what we teach our students is the culture we create here. If you make everyone feel like they belong, that they feel safe, then at least internally, that should not be something that happens here.

God forbid that happens anywhere.

We take care of our kids. We teach them what to do in the event of an emergency. We go through the motions. We have our drills. We know the process of what we have to do.

Q: Does it disrupt learning?

We had a gentleman from the police department come in and actually train our teachers. We seek that support. We want to make sure what we are doing is right and safe.

Unfortunately, we have to have these conversations and go through these drills, and it does put the girls in a panic. It stresses them out. So we talk to them and work through that. It’s something we have had to address in light of things.

Q: What kind of role does technology play in your students’ education?

Tech is everything right now. We believe we have to allow our students access and trust them. Sometimes they go in different paths and get off task, but we reel them back in. Sometimes, it is conversations with parents too. The technology is at their fingertips, and they can connect in ways you and I could never have done growing up and being in school.

Q: How do you keep them from getting distracted? I know that’s a problem many teachers say they have.

It’s different. Before, it was a calculator or passing notes. Now, it’s sending each other text messages. We have to learn and figure it out. Have them teach us so we can facilitate and push them further or dig our heels into the ground and say no.

Q: How well do you get paid?

You know, if I was here for the money, I wouldn’t be here. I would be in a STEM career. I know there is a bigger meaning and picture. How well they pay me? I get a paycheck. How well it is, I don’t know.

Q: What do they pay?

(Laughs) That’s a hard question. We’ll leave it at that.

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