By Cruz A. Ochoa Jr.
Recently, Leadership TASB (Texas Association of School Boards) selected Ysleta Independent School District to learn more about the realities, challenges, and opportunities confronting our schools and students in the Borderland.
Leadership TASB is a comprehensive program designed to take experienced board members to a new level of service and leadership by exposing them to a variety of issues, people, activities, and locations during a yearlong program. The 2023 TASB team visited Dallas, Killeen, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and El Paso. The latter, in my opinion, was an opportunity to expose participants to the most unique region in Texas.
I felt it was important to share that the regional isolation and our subsequent interdependency has shaped El Paso, Fort Bliss, Mexico, and New Mexico for centuries, creating a beautiful and rich tapestry of shared customs, collaboration, and a culture of assimilation. Family-oriented with a fierce work ethic is an undeniable value; our lives are about access and opportunity.
These realities and conditions give context to our work at YISD, where 80 percent of our 37,000 students are living in poverty, and 30 percent are limited in their English proficiency. Fifteen percent of our students have special needs.
Couple that with declining enrollment for the past 35 years, and our charge as trustees can be overwhelming.
The past three years, we suffered through a global pandemic that disproportionately affected our most vulnerable students: poor minorities. Overnight, school districts became the cornerstone of our community with families looking for leadership. We immediately initiated the preparation and delivery of thousands of meals, twice daily throughout the district.
In 2014, Ysleta ISD made a 1-to-1 device investment, allowing us to seamlessly transition to remote learning and mitigate some learning loss during the pandemic; we were the first school district to implement the Abbott COVID-19 rapid test and limited exposure to students and staff; and we led our community by being one of the first districts in Texas to administer COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to members of our community. These were unprecedented challenges that helped forge a bond among YISD trustees.
For almost a decade, the board has worked with Superintendent Xavier De La Torre and his leadership team to execute two five-year strategic action plans that have significantly improved academic achievement for all students, especially special-needs and emerging bilingual students.
In 2022, YISD earned an “A” rating from the Texas Education Agency. Of the 50 schools in Ysleta ISD, 27 earned an “A” rating and 23 earned a “B” rating. Coupled with 2022 state figures that showed 81% of our students were college- and/or career-ready upon graduation – the highest percentage in the El Paso area – we have much reason to celebrate.
Facilities and learning environments have a great impact on our students, allowing them to be creative and problem-solve in preparation for the future. Working closely with district leadership, the YISD Board of Trustees secured the support of our community – not just once but twice – to pass two bonds, totaling nearly $1 billion to complete our renaissance of excellence.
What’s most remarkable about this achievement is that the support came from people who no longer have children or even grandchildren in our school district; these individuals assumed a tax burden on behalf of children and future generations they will never know. It is perhaps the greatest testament to the importance our YISD community places on education and our future.
However, the magic happens in the four corners of the classroom – and credit belongs to the people engaged day-in and day-out in our schools. Working closely with the Ysleta Teachers Association, district leadership and the Board of Trustees approved 10 percent to 15 percent aggregate increases in compensation over an eight-year period while maintaining low out-of-pocket health premium costs for employees.
During the Leadership TASB visit, I was asked to explain the extraordinary successes the district has achieved. As a former engineer, schoolteacher, and now school trustee with two consecutive terms as board president, I believe that clarity, commitment, communication, and continuity are indispensable elements when leading.
Since my arrival, our school board and superintendent have never questioned our mission; we’ve remained committed to our plan. The school board and superintendent have always communicated the compelling possibilities for our students and our district.
Trustees are afforded direct access to all senior-level administrators and cabinet, instilling a level of trust and transparency by the superintendent that’s rarely seen in school district governance and leadership models. Finally, continuity and consistency are vital to leading our district.
We’ve been together for nearly a decade and have weathered adversity and horrible events affecting our community. During my tenure, we have experienced the Walmart terrorist attack, an unprecedented global pandemic, the fentanyl crisis, and, most recently, the senseless and horrific Uvalde massacre.
Throughout these highly stressful and polarizing incidents and events, YISD trustees have worked collaboratively, treating one another with respect, dignity, and empathy. We have learned and endured much, allowing us to grow into a high-performing, cohesive, and model governing body because of the scars, not the years.
Cruz A. Ochoa Jr. is president of the Ysleta ISD Board of Trustees.