El Paso ISD interim leader says he’s up to daunting challenges
Vince Sheffield’s focus since taking the helm of the county’s largest school district late last year has been how to get students and staff back into the classroom safely. Most El Paso Independent School District students have been learning from home since last March, but come Feb. 1, the state is requiring the district to open campuses to any student who wants to receive in-person instruction.
Also on his mind is figuring out how much ground students have lost during remote learning and devising ways to get them back on track academically.
It’s a daunting time to be an educator, but Sheffield, 57, didn’t hesitate when approached about serving as interim superintendent in the wake of Juan Cabrera’s sudden resignation.
“I believe that El Paso ISD, no matter what scandal or tribulations we’ve gone through, we’ve always had excellent people. Right now, the leadership team in El Paso is excellent, it’s top notch,” Sheffield said. “So I didn’t hesitate because I think that our district needs to move forward.
“… I know I have the skills to keep us moving forward and the skills to take our team and keep us focused and not revert back to the past, because when we do that we’re not helping our students, and that’s what we’re here for.”
Sheffield joined EPISD in 1993 as a fifth-grade teacher at the now closed Alamo Elementary School in South El Paso. At that time, few teachers wanted to teach in the Segundo Barrio, he said, but it was his first choice school.
“I selected that school because I thought I could make a difference there,” he said. “The kids were overlooked, if you will.”
More than two decades later, Sheffield said the five years he spent at Alamo were the highlight of his career.
Having grown up in a large family where resources were scarce, the Michigan native was able to relate to the Mexican-American students he taught. When he suggested during a staff planning meeting that students visit the El Paso Zoo for their next field trip, the idea of going somewhere “right down the street” was met with laughter, he remembers.
But he insisted and surveyed the students. As he expected, 90% of them had never been to the neighborhood zoo because they didn’t have 50 cents to pay for the entry fee. Ultimately, his idea won and the students went to the zoo.
Today, at age 33, Arlene Baeza stills remembers the 1996-97 school year when Sheffield was her fifth-grade teacher.
“He was just an amazing teacher,” Baeza said. “We had a big class and he was just making sure all of us would get educated. He just had great charisma and he was very enthusiastic about his job.”
“When you have teachers like that who are rooting for you, who want the best outcome for you, it makes you want to be better,” she said. “You see that there’s a future for you.”
Sheffield went on to work as an assistant principal at Newman Elementary School and then principal of Hillside Elementary School before leaving the school setting in 2004 for the district’s central office, where he spent most of his career in human resources. He was named deputy superintendent of administration and academics in 2016, a role he continues to hold as interim superintendent.
That varied experience is useful in his new role, he said, because leading a district requires an understanding of “how all the different departments and roles fit together” to form one system.
El Paso Teachers Association President Norma De La Rosa got to know Sheffield while serving together on district committees and during consultation, when the union representatives meet with administrators to discuss employee salaries and working conditions. She liked that he was receptive to others’ opinions and concerns and urged the school board to appoint him to the interim role.
“The fact that he takes the time to listen, to ask questions, to have that kind of dialogue, nowadays you don’t find a lot of that, unfortunately, in education anymore,” De La Rosa said.
Sheffield described his leadership style as one that is transparent, transformative and involves others.
“It’s my firm belief that teachers are part of the team, and so are all employees, and those people should have a say in how we approach day-to-day activities,” he said. “I’m a team person. I’m not here to give out edicts, if you will. That’s not anywhere in the way that I lead.”
Sheffield has lived in El Paso for the last three decades since retiring from the U.S. Army as a commissioned officer. It was the military that brought him to El Paso for training and while stationed at Fort Bliss he volunteered in schools and met his wife Michelle, the daughter of the late Texas Western basketball star Tyrone “Bobby Joe” Hill.
“I just fell in love with the culture and the environment,” he said of his first visit to El Paso, adding, “El Paso is home. This is where I’ll be until I’m no longer on this Earth.”
He has a bachelor’s degree in education from Virginia’s George Mason University and a master’s in educational administration from the University of Texas at El Paso.
He is the first Black superintendent in EPISD’s more than 130-year history, and one of nearly three dozen Black superintendents in the state, according to the Texas Alliance of Black School Educators.
Sheffield said the history-making nature of his appointment didn’t initially cross his mind, but that it’s exciting and meaningful, particularly for El Paso’s African-American community, who he said is “really stoked about it.”
“I am a first, and I hope I’m not the last,” he said.
Sheffield has expressed interest in the permanent position and the school board has said they will consider him for the role. It is unclear how long he may serve in the interim capacity, as the search process is still in its infancy, but it’s unlikely a hire will be made until at least the summer.
Cover photo: Vince Sheffield, an educator who has been with El Paso Independent School District for 28 years, is currently serving as the interim superintendent. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)