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Community ready to welcome new EPISD superintendent, though not a native El Pasoan

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Teachers, parents, alumni and taxpayers won’t see an El Pasoan lead the county’s largest school district, though that was a top ask from the public at community input sessions held at high schools across El Paso last month.

El Paso Independent School District trustees voted Monday to name native Laredoan Diana Sayavedra the sole superintendent finalist.

Although Sayavedra is new to the region, members of the education community expressed relief that trustees selected a career educator with classroom and curriculum experience. She is currently deputy superintendent of Fort Bend ISD, near Houston, and before that was the district’s chief academic officer. She was also director of curriculum and instruction at Pflugerville ISD outside Austin.

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Trustees must wait 21 days by law to hire her. She said Monday she expects to be in El Paso by January.

For the El Paso Teachers Association, Sayavedra’s experience placed her at the top of the list of the four semifinalists, whose names were leaked to the press days before the final vote. EPTA is EPISD’s second largest employee union with close to 1,000 members.

“She’s very familiar with the curriculum that our teachers have to teach at all levels — elementary, middle school and high school — and we feel that to be an effective superintendent, you have to have that background,” said EPTA President Norma De La Rosa. 

The fact Sayavedra has been a top administrator at a district of similar size was key for Ross Moore, president of the American Federation of Teachers’ El Paso chapter, EPISD’s largest union with 2,700 members. Fort Bend has 77,600 students and EPISD has just under 51,000.

Two of the semi finalists had never been top administrators at large urban districts.

“This is not going to be a massive learning curve for her,” Moore said.

Though it called for the search to be scrapped, partly because the finalists were “inconsistent with public input,” the El Paso Alliance for Just Schools is ready to welcome Sayavedra and work with her, said steering committee member Calvin Zielsdorf.

“We wanted somebody that has connections to El Paso so we know that we’re not just another stepping stone or a meal ticket,” he said.

Familias Unidas del Chamizal Founder Hilda Villegas asks EPISD to hire a Latina superintendent during a public meeting at Bowie High School on Oct. 26. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Despite that, alliance members were pleased trustees selected a Mexican American woman and a Spanish speaker — two characteristics the community asked for. Close to 85% of the district’s students are Hispanic and about a third are English-language learners, according to state data.

Those qualities were particularly important for members of Familias Unidas del Chamizal, a community group that advocates for families in the South El Paso neighborhood and wants to see greater investment in its schools. EPISD has never had a permanent woman superintendent in its 138-year history.

“We’re looking forward to being able to work with her because of the fact that we have a large number of women-led households of Mexican descent (in the Chamizal),” said Familias Unidas del Chamiza founder Hilda Villegas.

Eddie Rodriguez, the executive director of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, said he hopes Sayavedra will take EPISD into a “successful new chapter after years of complacency and controversy.” That will require “immediate action” to address pandemic learning loss and a plan to accelerate learning, he said. CREEED aims to increase higher education levels to boost the region’s economy.

Because Sayavedra is not from El Paso, many said it will be critical for her to meet with community members. A frequent criticism of former Superintendent Juan Cabrera was that he was inaccessible to the public.

“I know that’s going to be something she’s going to have to overcome: the fact that she’s not from El Paso,” De La Rosa said. “If she wants to be successful in any of the changes that she wants to make within the district, she’s going to have to make sure she has the community behind her.”

The leaders of EPISD’s teachers’ unions also want her to focus on earning employee trust by spending time listening to and learning from teachers and staff.

Moore’s message to her was simple: “Good luck, we’re counting on you, listen to your employees — they are great and they know what this district needs.”

This story was updated with EPISD’s current enrollment, which is 50,865 students.

Cover photo: Diana Sayavedra speaks with media inside the EPISD boardroom after being named lone superintendent finalist Nov. 15. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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