Teachers and staff at Canyon Hills Middle School are having to reapply and interview for their positions if they want to stay there, as the El Paso Independent School District begins “redesigning” one of its lowest performing campuses.

EPISD assistant superintendent Mark Paz said administrators took the drastic measure to ensure the school stays under the district’s control after the Texas Education Agency took over Houston ISD in response to poor academic outcomes from one of its schools.

“We are definitely trying to be proactive and show we’re taking practical measures to avoid that,” Paz told El Paso Matters.

“That school is in crisis mode, (the TEA) could come in and take over,” added Isabel Hernandez, the District 4 board member who represents the Canyon Hills Middle School area.

Now the district hopes to turn the school around by implementing a new academic model and recruiting a new set of teachers and staff with a $7,000 annual stipend.

For the past five years, Canyon Hills Middle School has been designated a comprehensive campus, meaning it was rated a D or F under the state’s accountability system. This excludes 2020 and 2021 when ratings were paused during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The school is also among the 5% lowest performing middle schools in Texas, EPISD Superintendent Diana Sayavedra said during a May 16 school board meeting.

Paz said the district had already attempted to improve the school, to no avail.

“Regardless of whatever administrative changes have come in or designed programs which come in, it’s consistently stayed at that underperforming level,” Paz said.

Some of these changes include the introduction of the school’s new principal, Bertha Martinez, in January.

Martinez was previously the principal of Lamar Elementary School, where she earned the once struggling campus two National Blue Ribbon School designations in 2015 and 2021. 

Canyon Hills Middle School is among the 5% lowest performing middle schools in Texas, which is why EPISD officials have asked its teachers to reapply. (Ramon Bracamontes/El Paso Matters)

Both new and previously hired teachers will get a three-year, annual $7,000 stipend, which was approved by the EPISD Board of Trustees on May 16. Teachers that chose not to reapply will be moved to another position within the district and keep their current pay rate, Paz said.

Teachers and staff had until May 23 to submit a letter of interest for the coming school year, according to a letter from the district dated May 17.

Paz said the district put priority on placing teachers that wanted to return to the school and has also received applications from outside the district. He noted that as of June, about 75% of the school’s positions had been filled.

Still, some teachers from Canyon Hills Middle School were unhappy with the drastic change.

“It felt like the rug was pulled out from under us,” a former Canyon Hills Middle School teacher told El Paso Matters.

The teacher, who El Paso Matters is not naming, said the school’s employees were told during a meeting that only three of them were rehired automatically

“It’s like they only offered us the opportunity to reapply because they were required to, but they had already made up their minds to displace most of us,” he said.

The teacher told El Paso Matters that the district had changed leadership multiple times in recent years, and feels that the changes have prevented the school from succeeding.

“The school has been in dire need of a strong, consistent leader for many years. Principals at the school only last one to two years and get replaced before they have a chance to follow through on their initiatives to make real changes,” he said.

During the May 16 school board meeting, Martinez discussed some of the issues she has seen at the school, including having a high population of at-risk and economically disadvantaged students. 

“Our (special education) population is suffering the most. We have a culture where the expectation for students to succeed is minimal,” Martinez said. “The students need discipline there.”

Martinez also noted that a survey sent to parents found that many felt the school was unsafe, and had reports of “teachers not having empathy with students.”

The El Paso Independent School District is “redesigning” Canyon Hills Middle School. (Ramon Bracamontes/El Paso Matters)

While the district made efforts to consult with parents about the future of the school, the decision to change the school’s staff was largely made behind closed doors, some former teachers said.

Though a public meeting needed to be held to approve the $7,000 stipend to recruit teachers, that was not the case for the plan to have its staff reapply.

“We didn’t need to have the board’s approval on the teachers reapplying. That was a district decision, but we did meet with the teachers ahead of time to let them know that there were different options being discussed. One of them could be a redesign plan, another was potentially closing the school altogether and moving the students,” Paz said.

Paz also noted the district got feedback from parents on ways to improve Canyon Hills before deciding how they would redesign the school, but they were not informed of the possibility that the school’s teachers would need to reapply.

“When we met with the community, we didn’t know what that would look like,” Paz added.

Claudia Silva was born and raised in El Paso and studied journalism at New Mexico State University. She's covered a number of topics, from education to arts and culture, in both Texas and New Mexico.