Hiring top-notch administrators is one reason that Ysleta ISD Superintendent Xavier De La Torre says he is not experiencing the same levels of stress that he hears about from other district leaders. What makes the administration of the El Paso, Texas district unique is that De La Torre allows his cabinet members to communicate directly with Ysleta ISD’s school board members—rather than having all interactions filtered, less efficiently, through him.
“The information the board receives can come directly from people out in the field, doing the work,” says De La Torre, who was recently his region’s Superintendent of the Year. “It creates an inclusive leadership model where we as a team rely on a culture of trust and accountability, transparency and respect for one another—there are no secrets.”
It’s this model of collaboration and communication that helped the district craft successful $400M-plus bond measures in 2016 and 2019. Not surprisingly, De La Torre does expect his administrators to let him know if a board member contacts them to discuss a school construction project, for example, or other matters, he notes.
“That is the secret sauce—I have surrounded myself with people who I believe are the absolute best in the business at what they do in their specializations,” he adds. “It’s a team that does a great job of communicating internally and externally with stakeholders, and that’s why the district has earned the reputation in the community as being the gold standard.”
Ysleta ISD’s ‘A’ rating
Over the last 10 years of De La Torre’s leadership, Ysleta ISD has used nearly $1 billion in bond funds to rebuild and modernize schools by, among other improvements, installing a much more powerful air-conditioning system on all of its 50 campuses. This came in handy during El Paso’s recent historic heatwave of more than a month straight of 100-degree-plus temperatures.
Also this summer, the district opened a new career tech center with equity in mind—particularly the portion of its students who live in severe poverty south of Interstate 10. Some of these families earn only about $11,000 to $14,000 a year and are crowded onto a single lot that contains a home, a mobile home and a trailer. “We recognize that not all students have an interest in going to college or university,” De La Torre explains. “Some want to go directly into the workforce to help their families and help themselves.”
The career tech center offers programs in auto body and automotive repair, hospitality, real estate, cosmetology, welding, solar energy, and a culinary academy, among other fields. Students will be transported from all of Ysleta ISD’s eight high schools for the opportunity to graduate high school with an associate’s degree.
Ysleta ISD is also rolling out a new math program, K through 12, that uses virtual reality and other edtech to present students with real-world challenges that should make the learning more relevant to their lives today and in their future careers, De La Torre explains. To help teachers maximize the new curriculum, the district has assigned instructional coaches in math and science to all of its elementary and middle schools. It’s all part of the district’s efforts to remain the only A-rated school system in El Paso even as state assessments become more rigorous in requiring students to demonstrate deeper levels of mastery.
‘A catastrophic shortage’
Ysleta ISD is grappling with a decades-long enrollment problem that is uniquely its own. The district is geographically landlocked by the Fort Bliss Army base, the sprawling El Paso and Socorro independent school districts and the Mexico-U.S. border. One side effect is that a limited housing supply is preventing Ysleta ISD graduates from settling in the district.
Enrollment has declined from about 56,000 in the late 1980s to 36,000—about 5,000 of whom come to Ysleta ISD from outside the district. At the same time, and like many other K12 administrators, De La Torre and his leadership team are grappling with both the increasingly heated political environment consuming K12 as well as the new expectations that are being placed on school districts. The state of Texas, for instance, has required all districts to fund armed guards on every campus.
“The responsibilities that we once embraced—let’s teach our young to read, write and do arithmetic—have now been increased significantly,” he says. “What the pandemic did to some of these students relative to their behavior has been startling—some of the things we’ve had to deal with; some of the things that our teachers have had to deal with.”
Those “things” include threats, physical assaults, profanity and a lack of motivation by students, who are now hugely dependent on personal technology and distracted by “sentiments on social media.” Many educators are neither equipped nor trained to handle the sharp rise in misbehavior, which is likely leading to a decline in the number of college students who are planning to become teachers.
“[Teacher] pay has gotten much better but it still does not reflect what we’re asking of them,” he concludes. “Many of them have decided to leave the profession and I think, in the very near future, the crisis we will face as a nation is a catastrophic shortage of teachers in our schools.”