Comeback Stories: Here’s a Real-Life One to Celebrate – Meet EPISD

Few movies are as enjoyable as those that portray a “comeback.”  Whether it’s Rocky or Rudy or even Ron Burgundy, we all love an ending where the protagonist triumphs—in defeat or victory.

We all have our favorite cinema “come-from-behinds” but to me they all finish second to the real-life versions.  My personal nomination for “Educational Comeback of the Year” goes to the teachers, principals, superintendent, leadership and school board of the El Paso Independent School District.

Consider that less than five years ago the community was rocked by a cheating scandal that resulted in numerous arrests and the former superintendent sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison.

From those conditions of little to no confidence, mistrust, embarrassment and more the district, which has 95 schools and serves more than 60,000 students, has been a comeback story marked by commitment, engagement and a place where students come first.

This comeback started when the Texas Education Agency appointed a Board of Managers to govern the district in May 2013.  In October of the same year, the Board, under the leadership of Board Chair Dee Margo, appointed Juan Cabrera as the new superintendent.

A year later, a new School Board was elected by the citizens with Dori Fenenbock selected as the Board President. Cabrera and Fenenbock have served as concrete symbols for the districts commitment to the community and the youth of El Paso.  They lead with energy, optimism and transparency and the community has responded.

A few weeks ago, the community showed their support by passing a $668 million school bond – the largest in the history of the county.

Like all of you, every time I channel surf and find “Hoosiers” I still cheer for Hickory Indiana, fictitious coach Norman Dale, Joey Chitwood, and his fellow hoopsters.  But that cheering is muted for the applause I provide to El Paso.

Why do I cheer EPISD?  Because their story is real and so are the hopes and dreams of the 60,000 students and their families.  Chances are, most of those dreams can become realities if the leadership continues.  Consider the OpEd I recently read from Supt. Cabrera and Board President Fenenbock, below.   At this time of Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for their courageous and unwavering commitment with the hope that more and more school systems will act the same.

Happy Holidays,


By Dori Fenenbock and Juan Cabrera

In a state and nation overly concerned about test scores, schools in El Paso are focused on engaging students in their own learning.  Initially, at least, their engagement in active learning is paying dividends in a mix of better attendance, better behavior and even higher test scores.

We want all of our students to graduate with the common knowledge and skills they’ll need to succeed in a world where thinking matters.  But we know they are all different and we need an approach that is personalized.

Such a whole child approach may seem audacious although it shouldn’t.  It is what we want for our own children, and it is what we want for all of El Paso’s children.

A disclaimer: If our dream is to have every student engaged and learning, you have to understand we are dealing with the hangover of an educational nightmare in El Paso.  Five years ago, federal agents arrested our former superintendent and led him from his office in handcuffs.  He is in prison for an orchestrated cheating system designed to benefit adults at the expense of children.  Other educators are still awaiting trial.  Our school board was taken over by the state for two years.

As ashamed as we were as a community, we were equally determined to produce the excellent system of schools our 58,000 students deserve.  I – Juan – have been the district’s superintendent for three years, and I – Dori – have been the president of the again-elected board for 18 months.

We’ve increased our investments in music and art and athletics and STEM and project-based learning and after-school clubs.  Every elementary school now has dual immersion language programs.  We’ve expanded International Baccalaureate programs and magnets and early college and dual credit courses.  We’re doing what we can to make sure our students are fed and healthy.

In education policy talk, we are investing in teachers and teaching, in technology to make personalized student learning possible and in programs such as those described above as well as a world-class online curriculum and materials to replace traditional textbooks.

But in plain language what we are most trying to change is our culture, and although that is harder, it seems to be happening.

We are offering students and their families far more choices of the kind of school they can attend and what they can choose to learn.  We are asking teachers to do less delivery of instruction and more facilitating of learning (we talk about getting teachers to move from talking 90 percent of the time in their classrooms to 10 percent).  Our students are more engaged and taking more agency of their own learning.  Attendance is up and disciplinary actions are down.

Increasingly, our teachers are making the shift to non-traditional instruction and those that have say they never want to go back.  Those teachers are the ones convincing their colleagues to make the transition.

And our community is rallying around its changing schools.  El Paso voters will vote November 9 on the largest bond issue in our history knowing that the dollars will be used to consolidate schools – we have too many – and allow us to expand offerings and personalization.

We’ve tried in to find, import and then customize for El Paso the best educational practices and innovations.  We believe deeply in teachers and we are also harnessing technology to expand their capacity and open more windows for students.  We see the value of high-performing charter schools from whom we can learn and can offer students compelling choices.  We believe in both rigorous academics and the joy of hands-on learning.  We know our students need to master English literacy and, particularly in our community, are seeing the benefits of dual immersion in Spanish.

Texas, like most states, has high academic standards. But we see those as a floor for our students, not a ceiling.  We expect them to leave our schools with the mix of knowledge and personal skills that will allow them to succeed in today’s economy, whether they stay in El Paso – which our students traditionally do – or go anywhere in the world.

Increasingly, we are drawing attention from other districts in Texas and across the country as well as from the business community, which wants to support our emphasis on hands on learning, on science and medicine.  We are also getting philanthropic interest from groups such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which sent multiple teams into our schools.

But they – and you – should be skeptical as we expand implementation of the El Paso approach.  Take a look at our results periodically. Hold us accountable for our promises and our actions.  We are aware of our checkered past and will be totally transparent as we deepen our culture of educational attainment.