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Diana Sayavedra took the reigns of El Paso Independent School District just over a year ago. In doing so, she made history, becoming not just the first permanent female superintendent in EPISD’s nearly 140 years, but also a relative rarity in Texas education, where less than one in five superintendents are women.

El Paso Matters met with Sayavedra to discuss her first year. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

El Paso Matters: What are you most proud of from your first year?

Sayavedra: I feel like the very first thing, and I think what most superintendents focus on when they enter into a school district as a new leader, is building that team of eight: working with the board very closely to develop protocols for communication and team building structures so that we can work as a cohesive unit – not always agreeing, but being able to work together to continue to move the district forward and make progress as an organization. In December, the school board also adopted the strategic blueprint for the next three years.

El Paso Matters: What can you tell us about the feeling of breaking that glass ceiling, and what came next?

Sayavedra: It’s been a responsibility that I take very seriously. Because that level of notoriety brings additional scrutiny. And sometimes it’s a more focused scrutiny than maybe my male counterparts would get. It’s been a great honor for me to step into the role and be the first, but there’s a lot of responsibility that comes with being the first.

When I go to visit with students, especially at the high school campuses, the young women ask me a lot of questions. They’re very curious. They want to know what it’s like and they’ll share with me that it’s refreshing to see a female in a leadership position. I would say that they’re very keenly aware (of how rare it is), especially at the high school level.

El Paso Matters: One issue that’s received a lot of scrutiny is your base salary ($277,000). Your predecessor was offered a higher base salary ($285,000 in 2013) even though he came into the superintendent position with less administrative experience than you. How did you process that fact?

Sayavedra: So because the school district has somewhat of a tainted past – I mean, there’s been a number of scattered scandals that the school district has had to overcome – I knew that for me an even greater priority was being able to come in and cultivate a sense of trust and restore the faith of the community in the school district. I knew that had I come in with a hefty salary, it may have been more difficult for the community to look past that and really see me as a leader.

Diana Sayavedra, superintendent of El Paso Independent School District, reflects on her successes and challenges as she reaches her first anniversary at EPISD. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

It was important for me to say this allows me to get my foot in the door, because this is a leadership position that I know that I can do and it’s going to give me the opportunity to build some traction.

I read a book called “The Obstacle is the Way” where there’s a vignette about Amelia Earhart, the female pilot to do the transatlantic flight. When she was called by the people who were funding that flight, they told her, ‘You weren’t our first choice. We’re not going to pay you. You could die while you’re doing this. Are you still willing to do it?’ And her answer was yes. Because she knew … the rest would come.

When I read that, it resonated with me because it was like, I could choose to dwell on the fact that I’m not making as much as my male counterparts or even my predecessor. But I’m passionate about education. I have a strong connection to this community. And this leadership opportunity is going to give me the opportunity to make headway there, and the rest will come.

El Paso Matters: Your father is the former president of Laredo State University (now called Texas A&M International University). What role has he played in encouraging you to reach for leadership positions?

Sayavedra: My dad always pushed all three of us. I’m the youngest of three and he had high expectations for us – both my mom and dad did. But my dad has always just wanted us to be happy and he’s always wanted us to have choices. He knew that with education comes choice and opportunity. And so he always pushed us to be the best that we could be and to secure our education – but in pursuit of happiness, not position.

El Paso Matters: The Texas Legislative session just began. What will you be paying attention to in this session, in terms of developments that could impact EPISD?

Sayavedra: We’re part of the Texas Urban Council, which is a group of school districts from across the states, We’re also part of the Texas School Alliance which (represents) superintendents from across the state. The legislative priorities from the Texas School Alliance and the Texas Urban Council are very similar. We don’t support vouchers. Although we are open to choice and understand that charters are a reality, the way in which the state currently makes decisions about charter expansions are something that we don’t necessarily support.

This legislative session they’re going in with, I think it’s a $29 billion surplus (The surplus projection is now $33 billion). And so we’re looking to see that the basic allotment for education is raised and more closely aligned to the rate of inflation, because it costs more to educate children today than it did way back when but the basic allotment hasn’t necessarily changed.

We’re also advocating that the state possibly consider funding school systems based on enrollment, rather than average daily attendance. Most states in the United States choose to fund based on enrollment.

Diana Sayavedra, superintendent of El Paso Independent School District, reflects on her successes and challenges as she reaches her first anniversary at EPISD. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso Matters: What are some of the main learning moments you’ve experienced over your last year? 

Sayavedra: If I could sum up my year one in a nutshell, it’s really been to create the conditions, the systems and the structures for us to be able to launch and execute our blueprint going forward. You don’t build a house with a frame; you have to lay the foundation to put the frame on. And so I think that while we were building the frame, in the background, we were really working on creating the conditions, the systems and the structures, so that when the board adopted the frame, now we’re prepared to launch.

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Victoria Rossi is a women and gender issues reporter with El Paso Matters and a Report for America corps member. She has worked as a health and education journalist, an immigration paralegal, and a criminal...