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District Profile

El Paso's Big STEPS Forward

The turnaround in El Paso (Texas) Independent School District has been striking.
Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia (left) and Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Joseph Lopez (right) have presided over a significant academic turnaround of EPISD during the past five years.

El Paso Independent School District (EPISD ) is the tenth-largest district in Texas and one of two in the city of El Paso, along with Ysleta ISD . At the start of the 21st century, the urban district was struggling. Scores on the 2003-2004 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) were disappointing, with 72 percent of students meeting the state standards for reading, 56 percent for math, and 53 percent for science, while just 50 percent of students passed all TAKS tests, some of the lowest scores of any urban district in the state. Eight schools were deemed "Academically Unacceptable" by the Texas Education Agency, while none were labeled "Exemplary."

"El Paso didn't have a good reputation then," says Joseph Lopez, associate superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the past two years, who was working in other districts at the time. In 2005, the school board decided it was time for new leadership and direction; and in 2006, it hired Texas native Lorenzo Garcia as superintendent, who had previously served as an administrator in Dallas ISD and Spring Branch ISD in Houston.

The body seeking a solution had been part of the problem, however: Difficult relationships between the board and past superintendents had prevented reform. Circumstances changed quickly as Garcia took office, when an FBI corruption investigation that began in 2004 targeted the president and other members of the EPISD school board. Two members pleaded guilty to fraud and taking bribes in exchange for awarding multimillion-dollar district contracts, and a third resigned while under investigation but was never charged. The scandal didn't help the district's reputation, but ironically ironically, the resignations opened positions on the board to new and more cooperative members, giving Garcia a chance to institute sweeping reforms. "There were a lot of great people in El Paso," says Garcia. "But past leadership styles had resulted in a failure to implement effective plans or allocate instructional resources evenly in each school across the district."

STEPS to Success

Garcia instituted a new set of "key drivers" for the district, known by the acronym ST EPS: standards-based curriculum, time on task, El Paso data mining, professional learning communities, and special populations. Lopez says the STEPS initiative provided a common road map as administrators, teachers and other staff worked together to overhaul curriculum, professional development and more. A new emphasis on communication and teamwork resulted in regular districtwide principal and administrator meetings, new intervention teams, and a program called CILT (Campus Instructional Leadership Team), in which teams of administrators and teachers from each school use data to develop unique instructional plans, with all the teams in the district meeting together four times a year.

Seeing Results

The turnaround in El Paso has been striking. TAKS scores from 2010 showed 82 percent of students meeting standards in science (up from just 53 percent in 2003- 2004), 84 percent in math (up from 56 percent), 89 percent in reading (up from 72 percent), 94 percent in social studies (up from 79 percent) and 94 percent in writing (up from 82 percent), and the district went from being the second-worst to becoming the top-performing large urban district in Texas in math. The number of schools rated "Exemplary" by the state went from zero to 38, while the number rated "Unacceptable" went from eight to zero. Garcia's contract was extended an additional three years in 2010 by the board, citing the successful turnaround. "Our scores are on the rise," says school board president Patricia Hughes. "We've had amazing success."

Kurt Eisele-Dyrli is products editor.