Stay the Course: A Superintendent’s Journey

January 16, 2018

Getting Smart
By Juan Cabrera, Superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District

Powerful goals supported over time–it’s a simple formula but it works. The challenging part is sticking to those goals.

Four years ago we set nine goals for the El Paso Independent School District. Trustees and district leaders revisit those goals every month–we look for better ways to support our students, teachers, and our nine goals.

It’s working. With a lot of community support, we’ve made progress on all of our goals (grouped into three categories):

Progress Towards Our Goals

Facilitate stability and calm to ensure positive learning environments — let our teachers teach! From day one, we’ve focused on active learning. We respect the role of classroom teachers as designers of powerful learning experiences. We have improved the tools they use and their professional learning opportunities. Teachers engaged in the delivery of active learning are seeing impressive student outcomes and increased engagement.

In defense of Active Learning, engaging students, asking them to apply what they learn, and developing social and emotional learning is the new priority given the world students are living in.

“The literature is crystal clear in showing that students learn best when they have to use the material, not simply sit passively and hear it described,” said Stephen Kosslyn, one of the most respected learning scientists in the world.

Keep it simple and drive resources to the classrooms. We have analyzed systems to better serve students and eliminate redundancies and waste. We’ve made more effective use of district resources and human capital and operated with transparency and efficiency. We’ve trimmed central office expenses and reinvested in El Paso classrooms. We’ve worked hard to to make roles and goals simple, clear and consistent.

Rebuild trust in the district. We continually work to establish and maintain critical oversight of systems to assure students come first. We have realized you must change the culture to create innovation and better serve students. Our community supported the biggest construction bond in our history. It guarantees that all El Paso students will learn in pleasant, safe, modern environments.

partnership with New Tech Network resulted in 8 (soon to be 10) great new academies that create quality options through the emphasis of high-quality Project Based Learning for El Paso students and collaborative team teaching opportunities for our teachers. The New Tech academies showcase our vision for active learning and many of them seve neighborhoods that have struggled for years.

School and traffic safety.

We have dramatically reduced suspensions and made schools safer. This past year the city passed a social host ordinance to help us reduce the number of our students that are engaging in underaged drinking. We created a School Safety Division and hired the former El Paso Fire Chief to lead it. We have done evaluations and assessments on every campus to analyze safety of the learning environments.

A Leadership Lesson

I write about our progress to highlight that it has been staying the course in sticking to our goals that has made all the difference. I also write to encourage you and your peers to evaluate why you wanted to make a change in the first place and consider how you can stay the course.

Lessons in leadership often focus on how to draft goals but not always on how to stick with them. It is important we stick to our goals and are intentional about assessing, reflecting, and measuring outcomes from abstract to reality. It takes time in a big district to truly build capacity to implement these ideas and make a complete systemic change. Staying the course is really important. In addition to the EPISD leadership team focusing on these goals, we have been asking teachers to think hard about student learning experiences and how to better develop their social and emotional skills. To set their own goals and work to improve the educational experiences we are providing El Pasoans.

Over the last 4 years I have learned a lot about EPISD and the Superintendency and continue to learn every day. I have used my past experiences and relationships to inform my daily work in EPISD. I am more committed than ever to our 9 specific goals established at the onset of the journey that remain at the core to what we are doing to transform the district.

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