Setting a Foundation with Reading and Writing

Setting a Foundation with Reading and Writing

Joseph Lopez has brought the Texas Literacy Initiative to El Paso.
Joseph Lopez, El Paso ISD’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, talks with the district’s Texas Literacy Initiative administrators. The program has been implemented in 39 of El Paso’s 94 schools to promote better reading and writing skills.

With more than 30 years of education experience, Joseph Lopez brought grant money and state funding to help grow student achievement.

As the El Paso (Texas) ISD’s associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction since 2009, Lopez has secured more federal funding and grants to the district’s 64,000 students, bringing about $36 million in federal funding annually. “Throughout my career, I’ve learned that school administrators and principals generally value the same goals for our students and their families; we all want safe schools, greater academic achievement, and economic growth,” says Lopez. “I’ve worked with a lot of districts, but I’ve seen so much promise in El Paso.”

One of the biggest projects Lopez has undertaken in his four-year tenure at El Paso is the Texas Literacy Initiative (TLI), a grant aimed to improve school readiness and success in language and literacy for disadvantaged students, to 39 of El Paso’s 94 schools, which started just a year ago.

Inspired by Diversity

Born and raised in Dallas to parents with Hispanic roots, Lopez says he “never questioned” his aspirations to extend his academic career beyond high school, as his parents frequently exposed him to many interests, such as music, museums, and sports. He later went on to receive his doctorate in philosophy from the University of North Texas.

He says witnessing the civil rights movement and seeing diversity evolve throughout the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s also impacted his decision to go into education. “I remember never seeing a Hispanic teacher in school, but I started to see changes as a young adult, when I first started teaching in Dallas,” says Lopez, who currently sits on the board of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), and its Texas state affiliate, TALAS, or the Texas Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents.

After teaching biology in Dallas, Lopez went on to serve in many more districts, working his way through large districts in Texas, including: Corpus Christi ISD, San Felipe Del Rio School District, where he was superintendent, and Garland ISD, before eventually landing in El Paso.

Getting the Grant

TLI is funded through the federal Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program. It provided nearly $200 million for comprehensive literacy development and education programs in six states to advance literacy skills for children from birth through grade 12, including limited-English-proficient students and students with disabilities. In El Paso, 70 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and 30 percent are limited English proficient.

Lopez says the El Paso ISD applied for TLI because it is structured as a four-level program that would cover all academic levels: from birth to school age, and in the elementary, middle, and high schools, creating a reading and writing skills foundation for students that would help them succeed in all classes.

“That was exciting to me because it also promotes a professional model for continuous improvement, strictly focusing on reading and writing for socioeconomic disadvantaged students,” he says. “Students drop out of school for a number of reasons, not just for the social reasons, but academic ones as well. There’s often a turning point where they’re struggling to keep up and start to see failure so often.”

Out of Texas’ more than 1,000 public districts, only 300 were eligible for TLI and only 30 were selected, including El Paso, which is the largest district, receiving a grant of $9.8 million. “This was a huge opportunity for us,” says Lopez. “In our district, 24 elementary schools, 11 middle schools, and four high schools were chosen based on need for improving reading and writing. That doesn’t cover all of our schools, but the training and best practices learned through TLI can be applied in the other schools.”

Implementing TLI

After receiving the TLI funding in March 2012, El Paso used part of the funding, about $3.8 million, to hire more staff, such as a TLI director and assistant director, three program assistants at the central office, and several teacher leaders assigned to work directly with each TLI school.

Created by the Texas Education Agency (TEA), one of the professional development components of TLI that teachers and administrators follow are the elements of LASERS, or Leadership, Assessment, Standards-Based Instruction, Effective Instructional Framework, Reporting and Accountability, and Sustainability, which are used as a self assessment framework for educators and are meant to encourage continuous improvement.

Sandra Garza, El Paso’s director of early childhood education/TLI, and Monica Franco, the district’s assistant director for the TLI, say TLI educators learn skills based on the elements of LASERS through the TEA’s online portal, Project Share, where they can take lessons and share, discuss, create ideas and solve problems in the classroom, concerning lesson plans and teaching strategies. “There is really no cookie cutter method to the training, as each campus works on what it needs the most,” Garza says. “We also make sure that at least one TLI leader is attending every campus team meeting, to learn about their biggest successes, ways to improve, and to promote self evaluation. These are insightful discussions that were not happening before TLI.”

Lopez also regularly meets with the TLI administrative staff and TLI school principals to stay abreast of how the program is being implemented. “We often discuss best practices, like class assessments, organization, and practices relating to ELL,” says Lopez. “I always ask principals, ‘what are the three or five things I should make sure is happening in my school to support this initiative?’ ”

The grant also covered 7,200 in-school iPads to be shared among students in the TLI schools, and teacher training to learn how to use iPads as an effective tool and to select applications and e-books.

Lopez says TLI will likely be funded for another four years, at $6 to 9 million each year. He wants to add more middle schools and another high school to the program next year. “I want to see positive changes in the way we teach reading and writing,” he says. “Since the beginning, I said we have to make sure we use it wisely and effectively to build a solid teaching structure to make sure the initiatives don’t die just because of money.”

Lauren Williams is products editor. 

Joseph G. Lopez

  • Associate Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction
  • Tenure: Four years (since 2009)
  • Students: 9,000
  • Staff and faculty: 64,214
  • Schools: 94
  • Per-child expenditure: $8,368
  • Dropout rate: 2.6% (2011)
  • Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 71%
  • Website: www.episd.org

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