Teacher of the Year Finalists showcase the spirit of EPISD

Facebook_TOY_TOPTENEarlier this week, the District announced the Top 10 finalists for the El Paso Independent School District Teacher of the Year Award. This group of teachers — five elementary school teachers and five middle or high school teachers — was selected by a panel of independent judges from among 80 other talented and dedicated EPISD educators. Reading their profiles and philosophies on teaching makes me proud to be a part of this amazing school district.

I want to share with you the list of finalists because they represent the EPISD Teacher Corps that in the last couple of years has reaffirmed their commitment to innovative, out-of-the-box instruction that will help us prepare students for the challenges of the 21st century.

As a District, we have moved forward with our implementation of the Active Learning Framework — a teaching and learning approach we know will help students tackle life after high school with the type of preparation parents expect us to provide. Teachers have embraced this framework because they recognize that it works and that it benefits students. This transition has been arduous, and teachers like our Top 10 Finalists are clear examples of the selflessness educators practice when they go above and beyond in their effort to impact the lives of their students.

With that sacrifice and dedication in mind, please help me celebrate our Top 10 Finalists.

The finalists for EPISD Elementary Teacher of the Year are:

  • Rebecca Morales from Herrera Elementary
  • Kathy Morin from Cielo Vista Elementary
  • Felisha Escarsega from Newman Elementary
  • Claudia C. Diaz from Schuster Elementary
  • Michelle Williams from Travis Elementary

The finalists for EPISD Secondary Teacher of the Year are:

  • Josey Mitchell from Coronado High
  • Andrea Alvarado from Lincoln Middle
  • Saul Ramirez from Henderson Middle School
  • Michelle Cervantes from Canyon Hills Middle
  • Dawn Zumar from El Paso High

As you can see, these outstanding educators come from schools spanning the District: from the West Side to East Central and from Northeast to the South Side. This is a testament to my belief that students in EPISD will have access to high-quality education and high-quality teachers no matter the ZIP code in which they reside.

Again, congratulations to these top-notch teachers. And good luck on May 12 when the EPISD Teachers of the Year are announced.

Active Learning Requires Innovative Spaces

A few years ago, there were a lot of traditional classrooms in El Paso with low level test prep activities in a low-tech environment.

When you visit El Paso classrooms today, you are much more likely to see active learning–engaged students doing challenging work, often in two languages and using the latest technology.

With the recent passage of a $668.7 construction bond, El Paso students will have the opportunity to learn in modern facilities that reflect our active learning vision. We are thankful for El Paso voters and for their confidence in our vision and ability to provide all students innovative spaces to learn in.

Here are a few ways active learning spaces differ from traditional classrooms:screen-shot-2017-02-12-at-7-06-56-pmAll students deserve modern facilities that are more reflective of what you see on the right-hand side. Active learning requires that students have space to work, build, iterate, communicate and ultimately have learning experiences that are not pre-planned.

Active learning is already alive and well in El Paso classrooms. Teachers like Jill McGee, 2016 El Paso Elementary Teacher of the Year, support that active learning is really helping with student engagement and performance. In the video below, she shares how she has worked to implement these ideas in her classroom.

Teachers are receiving support from coaches and our district partner engage2learn, who is working to help us implement active learning. One of the first examples of new learning spaces in El Paso are the six New Tech Network schools. We took down walls in existing school buildings to create big classrooms for integrated project work. Students and teachers express how much they like teaching & learning in these spaces.121316_chapin-villages_067_copy

Another example of how EPISD is providing students space for active learning is through Project Lead the Way. Students at Chapin High School were asked to create a winter wonderland village resembling the Victorian age. The students said scratch that, let’s use what we have been learning in our six Principles of Engineering classes and make modern, innovative and sustainable winter wonderland villages.

Students created the villages entirely out of recyclable materials. Daniels-Sherman, magnet coordinator, said that students had to incorporate engineering principles that they were learning about such as, “circuitry, architecture, creativity and design.”

I’d argue if they weren’t in a classroom space that encouraged them to see endless possibilities and where they felt they had the tools to do so, they might not have felt so compelled to create such innovative projects.

The spaces where we ask students to be active learners is almost (if not equally) as important as the ideas behind active learning itself.

This blog was published on the Getting Smart website. You can read it by clicking on this link.  Follow Mr. Cabrera on Twitter @jecabrera12

Students, employees and community have helped EPISD improve

Recently, a story ran in the El Paso Times regarding EPISD’s acceptance into Digital Promise’s League of Innovative Schools. The League is a coalition of innovative schools and school districts united in their efforts to impact students through forward-thinking instruction. You can read the article here.

As I read the article, I realized that the story was not just about this great accomplishment. It was also about the path the District has taken to shed its image of a school system in crisis to one where innovation, creativity, quality instruction, transparency and child-centric behavior are the norm.

I consider it a blessing and one of the highlights of my professional career to be a part of the new “I am EPISD” movement and to have the opportunity to work with such dedicated educators and staff as we rebuild EPISD into a 21st century district. A district focused on #kids1st and a district seeking creative strategies to innovate and better support all students. We passionately seek growth opportunities and higher standards for ourselves.

As mentioned in the article, it’s amazing to think how far we’ve come in such a short time. It’s heartening to see that when EPISD is mentioned in the news, it is because we are changing and working on innovation and groundbreaking initiatives to benefit our students. I am sure you, as employees and community members of the District, feel the same way.

Our hard-working employees who come to work every day seeking excellence in their daily activities and keeping our students’ best interests in mind have earned all of our recent success.

From the bus driver that picks up our students in the morning and the cafeteria staff that prepare healthy breakfasts and lunches to the teacher who is using future-ready lesson plans and the central office administrator who is working to support schools — we all have had a hand in making sure EPISD thrives and moves forward toward success.

I am proud of the team we have in the District. Every day the level of passion, professionalism and dedication our employees display at all levels inspires me. There is a commitment among those who come to work in EPISD that is truly encouraging. We would not be here today without the dedication our educators and other employees have shown the District and we will not move forward unless we continue to try to get better every day.

I understand the last two years have been busy and, at times, tiresome. We have implemented many new initiatives and have asked a lot out of our employees and students. Change is not always easy, but in the case of EPISD it was certainly necessary. Those who stuck around and came into the new EPISD family have shown a devoted commitment to help the District become a district of choice along the U.S.-Mexico border.

My first two years as superintendent have been difficult, challenging, but very rewarding. It’s been a time of hard work and a lot of celebrations. I know that our work is not near done. We cannot rest until every student can make it through our system fully prepared for college or career. I know many see this as impossible, but it has to be our goal.

As Vince Lombardi once said: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we will catch excellence along the way.”

In the K-12 education context, perfection means we all collectively believe and work toward supporting and improving the lives of every child. Each of you must share this belief for us to be successful. We must understand that this road will be difficult and at times inconvenient and stressful. But if we are seeking to support all students, we must put their interest and wellbeing first.

Our children deserve this effort from us and moreover, our community deserves a world-class school district, and I am confident we have the will and desire to give it to them.

Thanks to each of you for all your hard work through these difficult times. Now, let’s get to work on making the upcoming years the best in EPISD’s history.

El Paso ISD is building on momentum

It is amazing what a difference two years can make.

As we head into the end of the first six weeks of the 2015-16 school year, I am heartened by how much our teachers, students and staff at El Paso Independent School District have accomplished in the last two years:

  • The Irvin and Franklin New Tech High programs are off to a wonderful start, giving our students another option to find unique and innovative learning opportunities that better prepare them for life after graduation.
  • We partnered with UTEP to open the Mesita Early Childhood Development Center at Vilas, where students from two neighborhoods came together to receive age-appropriate, research-based instruction that will kick off their educational career in the right way.
  • One of our very own, Jefferson High School’s John Gable, is busy preparing for the Texas Teacher of the Year interviews taking place in October. He is one of three state finalists in the secondary schools category.
  • And perhaps one of the largest achievements we have undertaken as a district – the distribution of nearly 17,000 laptops to every high-school student at EPISD – just wrapped up, giving our teachers and students a critical tool in our efforts to create active learners.

Our focus as a district today is centered on the education of our children and not the many distractions that plagued us in the past. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to mark the end of my second year at this amazing district. Better yet, we have seven new important partners in our efforts to strengthen our efforts to create even more student-centered programming.

The elected Board of Trustees is an asset to the district and an additional layer of support for our students, employees and neighbors. Their insight, expertise and foresight have helped us improve the priorities and initiatives that have made the start of this school year so successful. Their support and trust on projects like EPISD PowerUp will have long-lasting effects in our community.

EPISD PowerUp seeks to transform teaching and learning to create students who are active learners so that that become engaged participants in our community.

Soon, because of PowerUp, parents will visit schools where learning is happening in different and unconventional settings. Instruction could happen outside the four walls of a classroom, or in a virtual setting where ideas and assignments are shared among students and teachers at any time of the day — even outside of school.

PowerUp is not just a technology initiative, although technology is part of it.

What PowerUp does is give teachers the tools to be creative with their lessons … to go beyond memorization and into critical thought. We think this will help develop students who can solve problems in creative and innovative ways, which will make them better at handling life after high school.

As you can see, EPISD educators are working in concert to bring what we hope is a top-level education.

I’m thrilled to be talking about these initiatives to our school board, our parents and the civic leaders who take an interest in what is happening in our schools.

Certainly, talking about what our teachers and students are doing in the classroom is a more enjoyable conversation to have with the public than the type of conversations I was having two years ago when I first arrived in the district.

We are changing the culture of EPISD into one that values open dialogue, transparency, ethics and – above everything else – doing what is best for our students. In the last two years we have learned from past mistakes, and we have vowed to use those lessons to make EPISD a district in which we all can take pride.

EPISD is ready to PowerUp!

Visitors to any of our schools this year will notice that things are different.

Sure, they will continue to see the region’s best teachers and employees working to give our students the best education possible. But they will notice that instruction is very different.

From simple things like student desk arrangements to major initiatives like EPISD Flex-books and the distribution of laptops for all of our high-school students, education at EPISD is changing in a very positive way.

This is all part of our strategic priority “Active Learning” and EPISD PowerUp, the District’s new initiative to transform teaching and learning to help create future-ready students. The transformation will include technology, active learning and other initiatives that will impact every student in every campus of the District.

Our teachers and campus administrators already are focusing on new and innovative ways they can incorporate PowerUp in their classrooms and curricula.

Teachers are now seeking opportunities to engage in critical thinking scenarios that align to traditional lessons. Students then will be given the tools and access to use traditional and digital instructional materials to complete assignments.

To help us facilitate PowerUp, EPISD is distributing laptops to every high-school student who does not want to bring their own device. This laptop distribution, which has begun and continues through mid-September, is a huge undertaking on behalf of our Blended Learning and Technology departments.

These laptops (and there are about 18,000 of them) will give our high school students the opportunity to fully engage in PowerUp and everything it has to offer. Through these machines, they will follow lesson plans, do research for projects, engage with other students and teachers for class assignments and access their textbooks either in school or at home.

Speaking of textbooks, our high school teachers have been critical partners in launching PowerUp. Teachers in all four core areas (English language arts, social studies, science and math) have come together over the last year to create digital Flexbooks that meet all state curriculum requirements, but also incorporate some of the EPISD-specific lessons we know will help make our students ready for their future plans. This means that high school textbooks were not only created by some of their teachers, they are also designed to meet their specific needs.

Better yet, these books are digital and available to every student via the internet or their district-issued laptop.

As you can see, Active Learning and PowerUp are ambitious initiatives that will have transformative effects on teaching and learning. We know this is a lot to ask from our teachers and administrators, but we also know that this is the right thing to do for our students.

We invite the EPISD community to join us as we PowerUp the 2015-16 school year and beyond. This is not a fad, this is the core of the new EPISD!

This will be our year!

A little-known song from the 1960s has been playing in my head since Saturday. “This Will Be Our Year” (which was recently covered by the Foo Fighters) is the perfect song for us in the El Paso Independent School Year as we kick off the 2015-16 academic year.

We welcomed about 60,000 students to school on Monday, and the start of classes went off without a hitch. Now it’s on to high quality teaching and learning for the rest of the year to make sure that every student in every grade has access to the best possible education. To help us there is our corps of teachers, many of whom gave up some of their well-deserved time off during the summer to receive the type of training that will help them be even more effective in the classroom.

New this year is the opening of the Mesita Early Childhood Development Center at Vilas. Mesita ECDC is the result of a merger between Mesita Elementary in the Kern Place area and the former Vilas Elementary in Sunset Heights. Mesita ECDC is now an innovative center for the education of some of the youngest students we have in the District. The partnership the District has with the University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education will guarantee that the most innovative and up-to-date trends in early childhood education are being used.

The opening of Mesita ECDC was an exciting event for the students, parents and teachers who call the campus home now. And while some small construction is still happening, Principal Laila Ferris and her staff should be commended for pulling off the merger with a very quick turnaround timeframe and without incidents.

This year we also are celebrating the launch of New Tech High Schools at both Franklin and Irvin. The school-within-a-school concept will allow students to use project-based instruction to tackle every subject. These methods will help us further prepare students for modern college and work settings that require higher-level thinking. Irvin will have a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) focus, which will make the students at this campus particularly ready for college and the workforce.

Of course, a huge focus this school year will be EPISD Power Up, the new District initiative focusing on 21st century teaching and learning at all grade levels. Starting this week, we will begin issuing laptops to every high-school student in EPISD so that they can use them during school and even take them home in an effort to complete their assignments and further their learning experiences. Gone are the traditional textbooks students used in core subjects. They are now being replaced with EPISD teacher-created flexbooks that blend the state curriculum with EPISD-specific lessons aimed at providing better teaching and learning.

Power Up is much more than a technology initiative or a laptop giveaway. Teachers have been learning (and in many cases teaching other teachers) new strategies and approaches to lessons and assignments. Even classrooms will look different in an attempt to ready students for education in the 21st century.

Speaking of quality teaching and learning, I am ecstatic to know that Jefferson High School teacher and softball coach John Gable was not only named Region 19 Secondary Teacher of the year, he is also one of six finalists for Texas Teacher of the Year. We were able to surprise Mr. Gable on Monday at a first day of class assembly at Jeff. His passion and dedication to our students are obvious when you talk to him. His media interviews, too, are so full of life and sincere love for his profession. We wish Mr. Gable the best of luck as he moves forward. We’re looking forward to hearing the announcement of the winner in Austin on October 16.

Lastly, I would be remiss in not mentioning the EPISD community that came out to support the District and its students and employees this Saturday during the Penny Swap Election. The District owes you a heartfelt ‘thank you’ for overwhelmingly supporting the measure. More than 81 percent of the votes cast were in favor of the Penny Swap, and because of it our schools will be better off.

We see the support on the Penny Swap as a vote of confidence in the work our staff has been doing to implement honest and ethical practices in our day-to-day operations. We know we have some work to do to fully regain your trust, but we feel that we have made headway in getting there. Again, on behalf of the 60,000 students and nearly 9,000 employees in the District, I want to say: Thank You!

As you can see, this week has been an eventful one. If the rest of the school year is as wonderful as this first week, there is no doubt in my mind that 2015-16 will be our year!

If you’re curious about the song, here it is:

Graduations give way to new academic initiatives

Nearly 5,000 El Paso Independent School District seniors received their high-school diplomas last week and I was moved by the positive energy that ruled over each of the 12 ceremonies our administration presided. EPISD graduates showed they are optimistic about their future and ready to tackle the challenges that come after high school.

We can’t sit back and boast about successes, however, without thinking that more work is still left to be done. Certainly, the students who remain with us, as well as those who are yet to enroll in our schools, will have newer and more complex challenges than the ones we’ve sent out into the real world. As educators, we must face those complex challenges and come up with tools to help students succeed.

To that end, EPISD this fall is launching three initiatives that will help us better prepare students for life after high school. These three new programs – EPISD Power Up, New Tech at Irvin and Franklin high schools, and the Mesita Early Childhood Center at Vilas – will help our students become more globally aware; and the strategies that will be used will equip them with the tools to become competitive in workforce that becomes more highly-competitive by the minute.

EPISD Power Up will give our high school students a glimpse into a new way of learning by using digital materials and online strategies — all available via their District-issued laptop. Teachers will now incorporate computer-assisted learning to their lesson plans to guarantee that our students are not just familiar with these new strategies, but that instead they are experts at them.

New Tech is an exciting program we are launching at Irvin and Franklin high schools this fall as schools-within-a-school concepts aimed at giving interested students an opportunity to tackle high school coursework using college level techniques. Students will complete their work using project-based learning, technology, collaboration and critical thinking. In the case of Irvin, the coursework will have a specific focus on science, technology, engineering and math thanks to the schools emphasis on T-STEM.

One of the most innovative collaborations EPISD will launch in the fall is the Mesita Early Childhood Center at Vilas. Thanks to a partnership between the District and the University of Texas at El Paso’s College of Education, the site of the former Vilas Elementary School in Sunset Heights will open as an expansion site of Mesita Elementary School. All pre-kindergarten through first-grade students will be at the Mesita Early Childhood Center, where teachers will have the advantage of being mentored and trained by UTEP professors on the latest early-childhood education pedagogy techniques. This approach should help our students become better learners earlier in their public-school career, which should translate in higher academic performance throughout their lifetime.

As you can see, we will have a busy summer getting ready for new and exciting things coming up in the 2015-16 school year. We know that these and other great initiatives will help make EPISD the District of Choice in El Paso County. I hope we can count on you as partners.