El Paso’s largest school district, which has long struggled with academic achievement gaps between its wealthiest and poorest students, has hired its first equity officer.

The El Paso Independent School District board on May 17 approved the hiring of Marivel Macias as chief organizational transformation and equity officer, a new executive cabinet-level position created by Superintendent Diana Sayavedra.

Macias will be tasked with ensuring “that the concept of equity is at the forefront of all systems, planning and policy,” according to the position description, which also charges her with promoting “a climate of equity and inclusion.”

“In every school district across the nation, there are inequities,” Sayavedra told El Paso Matters. “And our constant goal is to bridge the gap between those inequities, close the gap, and make sure that we meet our students where they are and take them to where they want to be so they can become the best versions of themselves.”

Inequities in El Paso schools have long manifested themselves in student performance on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, the annual state exams that measure whether students meet grade level standards.

In a ranking of the region’s top and bottom schools in terms of the percentage of students meeting standards on last year’s exams, which the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development compiled, “bottom” campuses across the elementary, middle and high school levels had higher percentages of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

Contrasting the state elementary school average of 26%, just 4% of Douglas Elementary students in South-Central El Paso who sat for the test met math and reading standards, according to CREEED data, whereas 48% of Westside Polk Elementary students met standards. About 46% of Polk students are eligible for the federal meal program, compared to 98% of Douglas students. About three-quarters of EPISD students qualify for subsidized meals.

Sayavedra, who took the helm in January, said STAAR scores will not be the only indicator EPISD will use to measure whether it’s bridging gaps in academic performance.

Both she and Macias, during a joint interview, spoke about the need to work with families to ensure they understand their student’s academic needs and know how to access a school that’s the best fit, such as one with smaller class sizes or specific programming. EPISD has an open enrollment policy in which students can request to transfer to a school that is not their assigned neighborhood campus.

EPISD Superintendent Diana Sayavedra visits Bowie High School on Jan. 4, her first campus visit in her new role. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“Equity means giving the opportunity to everybody to get and have access to what they need,” Macias said.

Macias comes to EPISD from the Socorro Independent School District, where over a span of 20 years, she worked her way from a high school science teacher to assistant superintendent for administrative services. Many of the aspects of her current job — strategic planning, data analysis and listening to and identifying the vision and goals of the superintendent and school board — will carry over into her new position, she said.

Macias will be paid $174,395, according to district spokesperson Gustavo Reveles. Her position is on the highest administrator pay grade, reserved for deputy superintendents and general counsel.

She will be the first equity officer working at an El Paso area district, a position gaining in popularity at urban districts nationwide. In 2019, the Austin Independent School District hired its first equity officer.

Trustee Leah Hanany, who represents campuses in the Bowie and El Paso High School feeder patterns, campaigned in part in 2021 on a platform of addressing deep-seated inequities in the district, including the creation of what she termed an equity action plan.

“We need to ask ourselves the broad question, ‘Are we giving each child the best education that we can?’ And I would say that right now the answer is no,” Hanany said. “That’s part of why this position is so important because this person can really analyze the data and look at how groups are affected by every decision or action that we make as a system.”

Hanany emphasized the need to look at what she called “holistic datasets.” That could be whether children have access to food after they go home for the day or whether they have the resources to apply for college.

“When I say holistic, it really can be anything that allows us to see whether we’re preparing our students to really thrive in our school district” no matter which school they attend, she said.

Macias will start June 6.

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.