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Numero Uno

Tuesday, September 1, 1998

El Paso superintendent Anthony Trujillo sets the standard for urban schools

One of America’s finest public-school superintendents is probably about to lose his job.

In his six years at the helm of the Ysleta School District in El Paso, Texas, Anthony Trujillo has built Ysleta into the highest-performing urban school district in the state, as measured by standardized tests. He has reversed years of declining enrollment, as families living outside the district now choose to send 2,000 children to Ysleta’s 57 schools. And he has electrified teachers, principals, and parents in the district with his mission statement: "All students who enroll in our schools will graduate fluently bilingual and prepared to enter a four-year college or university."

Praise for Ysleta’s turnaround has come from diverse sources, to say the least. Conservative House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said that Trujillo "may be the wisest education reformer I have met in my 55 years." Last year, the district won an annual award from the National Association for Bilingual Education for its "commitment to academic excellence through bilingual education." In December, the left-leaning Sacramento Bee editorialized, "[I]t would be hard for anybody in Sacramento, or any other struggling urban district, to argue against the principles that make the Ysleta example so compelling—standards, accountability and a demonstrated belief that school systems are run for the benefit of children, not the people who work in them."

And what is Trujillo’s reward for his performance? The Ysleta school board is so eager to replace him that it is considering whether to offer him a lucrative buyout from his five-year contract, which ends in 2001. "The attempt to get rid of the superintendent, I believe, is nothing other than a personal vendetta," says Carlos Sandoval, a current member and past school board president. "I don’t believe it’s based on his performance." Board members have rightly criticized Trujillo for his lack of progress in boosting high-school performance. The district’s Scholastic Achievement Test (SAT) scores continue to lag more than 100 points behind the state average. But they have ignored his extraordinary progress in boosting elementary-school and middle-school achievement.

Indeed, Ysleta has set the pace for test-score improvements in Texas, which in turn has set the pace for the nation. (See "The Gold Star State," Policy Review, March-April 1998, for an explanation of Texas’s surging scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.) Under a rigorous accountability system introduced in 1993, all Texas students in grades three through eight and grade 10 take Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) tests in reading, math, and writing. The state then assigns each school and district one of four rankings—"low performing," "acceptable," "recognized," or "exemplary"—based on the proportion of students passing the TAAS, as well as dropout and attendance rates. To ensure equity, a school’s rating will only be as high as warranted by the scores of its worst-performing demographic subgroup. For instance, a school where 90 percent of the students passed the TAAS would merit an "exemplary" rating. But if, say, only 70 percent of its Hispanic students passed the TAAS, the school’s rating would drop to "acceptable."

In 1994, two years after Trujillo took over, Ysleta had one "recognized" school and no "exemplary" schools. This year, 11 were rated "exemplary" and 33 "recognized." In 1993, there were seven "low-performing" schools; now there are none. The underlying improvement in students’ test scores was dramatic: From 1993 to 1998, the percentage of Ysleta students who passed the state reading tests rose from 63 to 89 percent. In math, the percentage jumped from 41 to 86. Moreover, the achievement gap between Ysleta’s whites and Hispanics has been slashed by two-thirds.

And this year, Ysleta became the first of Texas’s eight largest school districts to achieve "recognized" status. That means at least 80 percent of Ysleta students overall and 80 percent or more of the students in each of five subgroups—black, Hispanic, white, Asian, and economically disadvantaged—passed the TAAS. This is even more impressive when one considers that Ysleta uses the "special education" label to exempt only 2 percent of its students (usually low performers) from the TAAS, versus 6 percent statewide, 8 percent in Dallas, 10 percent in Houston, and 11 percent in Fort Worth.

What is more, Ysleta serves the poorer, eastern half of El Paso, in one of the nation’s poorest congressional districts. It faces all of the challenges that plague an urban district—dense concentrations of poverty, the lure of drugs and gang life, high rates of crime and teenage pregnancy—plus the consequences of its geography. Nestled in the dusty, westernmost corner of Texas, the district sits just across the Rio Grande from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, guaranteeing a steady inflow of immigrant children and parents who hardly speak English.

Forty percent of Ysleta’s students enter school with "limited English proficiency" (LEP), and its student population of 47,000 is nearly 90 percent Hispanic in a state where only 62 percent of Hispanics recently passed all three TAAS tests (versus 85 percent of whites).

Ysleta could use this gap as well as its overwhelming immigrant population as excuses for poor performance. But the district needs no excuses: The same percentage of Ysleta’s Hispanic children passed all three TAAS tests as did Texas children overall. And Ysleta exempts a mere 2 percent of its students due to limited English skills (in addition to the 2 percent labeled "special ed"). Meanwhile, Trujillo has achieved this performance while cutting average spending per student by $200. The district now spends $4,900 per student, $400 below the state average of $5,300 per pupil.

It takes the talents and hard work of some 4,000 teachers and administrators to create a district like Ysleta. But what separates Ysleta from other districts full of talented staff is the environment within which Ysleta’s educators toil. They enjoy leadership that gives schools the resources and freedom they need; incentives that encourage healthy competition among schools; a concrete, commonly understood mission and set of goals; the ability to customize a child’s education using test data and computers; a bilingual-education program that actually succeeds in teaching students English; and a districtwide conviction that the schools are responsible for the well-being of every child and the entire community.

Despite high poverty and a
constant inflow of immigrants
with limited English skills,
Ysleta has the best test scores
of any urban district in Texas.

"This place is going to change the world," says Lawrence Lezotte, an education professor at Michigan State University and the head of Effective Schools, an educational consulting firm.

The Overhaul

It was not always so in Ysleta. When Trujillo was hired in February 1992, school buildings were crumbling from neglect, morale was low, and the district was still run much the same as it was during the record 50-year tenure of a former superintendent who had retired in 1980. Conditions were so alarming that the state education agency had assigned a monitor to watch over the district and had even considered a state takeover.

Desperate to retain local control, the Ysleta school board lured Trujillo out of retirement on the strength of the national reputation he had earned during a successful but turbulent 35-year career in California schools. His most recent employer, the Sweetwater Union High School District, near San Diego, California, paid him a hefty severance to leave early despite the district’s widely acknowledged improvement during his time as superintendent. (In 1989, a teacher and former union official had leveled charges of corruption against Trujillo’s administration. Although a grand jury and a state auditor found no evidence of wrongdoing, the accusations tarnished Trujillo’s image.)

Trujillo’s leadership style has been no less controversial in El Paso. During his six years in the district, Ysleta has been racked by bitter public infighting among board members, much of it waged between those who support Trujillo and those who would prefer to see him go. Several board members have criticized him for focusing too much on TAAS scores to the exclusion of other skills, but the main disagreement seems to be over whether Trujillo or the board ought to manage the district. His critics on the board have proposed to establish personnel and finance committees that would approve job candidates and control the bidding process for district contracts, thus limiting Trujillo’s ability to determine spending priorities and form his own team of administrators and school leaders. "He doesn’t want to have anybody tell him what to do," says Charles Peartree, the school board’s secretary. "If he would mind his p’s and q’s and work with the board, then I would have no problem with him staying on."

It is not hard to see why the current board feels impotent. The board that hired Trujillo gave him wide latitude to run the district as he saw fit, even amending his contract to hand the board’s authority to hire and fire over to him (a power the current board sued unsuccessfully to take back).

It was this latitude, though, that would prove crucial in establishing firm and enforceable expectations for Ysleta’s principals and teachers. In his first meeting with the district’s principals, he noted they had all received satisfactory evaluations while the students continued to fail, and said, "This is the strangest district I’ve ever been in. It has the dumbest students and the brightest adults." His solution to this apparent contradiction did not go over well: They all received one-year contracts, not the three-year renewals they had expected. He soon placed all new teachers on one-year contracts, as well.

In the five years since then, 32 of 51 principals have left the district or retired, as have 2,000 of 3,000 teachers (twice the previous turnover rate of 200 teachers a year). Trujillo also shuffled the remaining principals around the district to find good fits among the school leadership, the staff, and the surrounding community; within two years, only two of the district’s seven high-school principals remained at their original schools. (In most states, union rules block superintendents from making such sweeping moves; Texas education unions have no collective-bargaining rights.) The one-year contracts gave Trujillo added flexibility in laying off principals who failed to meet his expectations, but in the end the threat was more important than any action—no principals have actually been fired. Now principals whose schools are "recognized" or "exemplary" for two years are awarded multi-year contracts, and those principals may recommend members of their staffs for similar pacts.

More drastic steps were taken at Bel Air High. Though its test scores were good enough for an "acceptable" rating, Ysleta officials concluded that the culture of low expectations ran so deep at the school that fresh blood was needed. So they "reconstituted" Bel Air, meaning the entire staff was asked to reapply. Fewer than 50 percent were rehired. Trujillo points to the reconstitution as a signal event in Ysleta’s comeback. "That sent a shock wave through the system," he says. "It showed that I was dead serious about getting results."

He next established an "open enrollment" policy under which students were allowed to transfer to any district school that had room. More importantly, the district also changed its budgeting policy so that when a student changes schools, his per-pupil funding follows him: High schools receive $4,200 per student, middle schools $4,400, and elementary schools $3,800, with additional funding for special education and LEP students. Principals must now retain and attract children or else watch the money walk away. The district estimates that 3,000 of Ysleta’s 47,000 students switched schools in the first year of this public-school "choice" plan.

Imposing such vigorous competition on principals who, as in most districts nationwide, did not even wield the power to hire their own staffs would have been unfair. So Trujillo gave principals broad discretion in running their schools. "They pretty much let us operate our campuses," says Frank Burton, the principal of Hillcrest Middle School. "If we need help, they provide it. If we don’t, they leave us alone. [Trujillo] lets you do your job." In turn, the state’s accountability system gave the district the tools to set clear, meaningful goals and to measure performance and progress.

A Magnet for Others

More recently, Ysleta was able to capitalize on a clause in the Texas education code that allows districts to open their doors to students from neighboring districts. In 1993, the state responded to a court order to equalize school funding throughout Texas by raising the state’s subsidies to poor districts. The state now funds 50 percent or more of every school district’s budget (nearly 70 percent in Ysleta’s case), and the amount of state aid is based on a district’s average daily attendance, no matter where the kids come from. Last year, 2,000 nonresident children streamed into Ysleta schools, reversing years of declining enrollment and bringing millions of dollars in state aid (roughly $3,800 per student) with them.

This has enabled Trujillo to spend nearly $20 million a year on school renovation, technology upgrades, and other capital improvements. He has targeted most of this funding into the schools south of Interstate 10, which for years has been the dividing line between the haves and have-nots. Those south of the highway suffered from decades of neglect, mainly because the residents living north of the highway were wealthier and spoke better English.

Trujillo shook up central administration as well, changing its culture from one of oversight to one of customer service. "We flattened the organization," he says. "We said the resources were here to support the schools, the schools are not here to support us." The curriculum supervisors for each grade level and subject were organized into four intervention teams and sent into the field. Initially they focused their skills and experience on low-performing schools, but there are none left. So four teams of 15 each were whittled down to two teams of 10, and they serve as roving curriculum and management consultants to schools that request help. Many of the superfluous administrators were sent back into the schools as principals and assistant principals, trimming the central administration budget from $9.9 million to $8.2 million.

The District of the Future

If the story of Ysleta were solely one of a hard-driving superintendent, market-style reforms, and rising test scores, that would be enough to distinguish it from the vast majority of urban districts. But Ysleta educators, though they draw great pride from test results, recognize that the TAAS is merely a test of minimum skills. "You really shortchange children when you teach to the tests," says Gloria Hoyos, a teacher at Ascarate Elementary. "We pride ourselves on teaching higher-order thinking." And their mission statement—that all students will be fluently bilingual and prepared for college—demands more than minimum skills.

If you talk to Ysleta officials about bilingual education, they will praise bilingualism as an asset. "You used to get paddled for speaking Spanish in school," says Lionel Nava, the principal of Riverside High. "Now Spanish is becoming a business language. I tell my kids, ‘Don’t lose that language.’ " This makes sense when one considers that they live as close to Mexico as Americans can without changing citizenship. In El Paso, and especially in the Ysleta school district, bilingual employees are highly valued.

Ysleta’s academic reputation is
so strong that 2,000 children
from outside the district
attend schools there,
bringing millions of dollars
in state aid with them.

Ysleta’s high pass rates on the TAAS English-language tests indicate that Ysleta’s approach to bilingual education does indeed work. In turn, Ysleta’s success with bilingual education suggests that the problems with bilingual education may not be the pedagogy itself but the absence of accountability and the failure to measure progress.

In Texas, a child labeled "LEP" may take the state tests in Spanish for up to three years before he must switch to the English-language version. If he still isn’t fluent in English, his test scores will then drag down his school’s rating. So Ysleta closely tracks its LEP population, testing their language skills at the beginning of each year. Their level of English proficiency is scored on a scale of one to five (four indicates full fluency, five extreme proficiency). After four years in the program, children are expected to reach level four. Any child that hasn’t will receive one-on-one tutoring. The district also produces a report for principals that identifies kids who have fallen into the "danger zone"; that is, haven’t met certain benchmarks on the way to full fluency. Teachers give them more help.

"It isn’t that hard to get kids to learn two languages," says Irma Trujillo, the director of the district’s bilingual programs (and no relation to the superintendent). "People have just not put in the time and trouble to monitor academic progress and to expect it."

It may disappoint bilingual ed’s critics to learn that Ysleta does not practice immersion. On the contrary, each district school uses one of two bilingual methods, either "Spanish 5" (also known as "late exit") or "two-way dual language." In Spanish 5, 90 percent of a child’s instruction in first grade is in Spanish, and that percentage slides to 50 percent by the fourth grade. In the early grades, academic concepts are introduced in Spanish first. Once a child learns a concept, he is also taught the English vocabulary associated with it. By the time they begin learning to read English in the third grade, they already know how to read and they know many English words.

Most Ysleta schools use Spanish 5, which focuses solely on LEP students, but by the turn of the century all schools will use two-way dual language in order to meet the district’s goal of having every student graduate bilingual. (Within the next decade, Trujillo predicts, Ysleta will make bilingualism a graduation requirement.) In "two-way," a classroom is assembled with an equal number of native Spanish speakers and native English speakers. At first, they receive most of their instruction in Spanish, because English-speaking children can be immersed without losing their English skills. Spanish-speaking kids immersed in English, by contrast, may not otherwise hear enough Spanish to retain their fluency. By the fourth or fifth grade, the teacher is conducting classes half in Spanish, half in English.

In eight "schools-within-a-school" around the district, students choose whether they want to learn in "two-way" classrooms. At Alicia Chacon International School and Hacienda Heights, both elementary schools, the entire school is "two-way" and 10 percent of class time is spent learning a third language, including Mandarin Chinese, German, or Russian. For 130 spots, Alicia Chacon had 300 applicants last year.

A School for Every Child

Alicia Chacon and Hacienda are just two of several district "magnet" schools that cater to the intellectual diversity and various needs of Ysleta’s students. Bel Air High is a health-professions magnet school for students interested in becoming doctors, nurses, or X-ray technicians. Ysleta High, which was in such disrepair that state officials recommended its demolition, has become the district’s performing-arts magnet. The school recently added a new music wing and plans to add two dance studios and a black-box theater. Mission Elementary builds its educational approach around the principles and organization of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Most of the students have become scouts and many of the teachers are scoutmasters; the school pays for uniforms.

Sageland Elementary runs a "microsociety" in which students earn "microbucks" for attendance and "purchase" products from student-run businesses. A separate building houses businesses and government agencies such as the post office, the El Pueblo restaurant, and a courthouse with all the accouterments: a witness stand, an American flag, and a haughty judge. Students learn to revile the taxman early in life. Internal Revenue Service agent and fifth-grader Augustine Valverde says, "What I like about the microsociety is when I go to the classrooms, they all say, ‘Do I have to pay the taxes again?’ " Sageland students graduate to Ranchland Hills Middle School, and the principal there says, "Of my students, [the ones from Sageland] are very confident, the most creative. Our leaders are from the microsociety."

The district funds Sageland’s microsociety through a $3-million grant program it established to encourage innovation at the school and classroom level. Any teacher or principal with a promising idea may write a grant proposal; Sageland won nearly $200,000 to operate the microsociety. Sageland kids who want to continue learning about business can operate a firm at the Student Entrepreneur Center, a 14-acre site that holds quarterly "mercados," or flea markets, where students hawk their wares. In the future, Trujillo hopes to establish a magnet program for entrepreneurialism there.

Perhaps no Ysleta school better represents Trujillo’s commitment to the education of every child than Cesar Chavez Academy. Its wrought-iron gate, stone pillars, manicured lawn, and tree-lined driveway lend the appearance of an old Southern plantation home, but its set of Pepto-Bismol-colored, one-room school buildings suggest you’ve entered Candyland. Nothing about its appearance suggests that it houses Ysleta’s most troubled kids.

Students who are expelled from other schools or who land in the juvenile justice system are sent to Cesar Chavez. Principal Lilia Limon says 67 different street gangs are represented on campus. Yet as you walk the school’s grounds, students clad in red shirts and black pants introduce themselves, deliver firm handshakes, and say, "It’s nice to meet you." You enter a classroom and the students stand, line up, and greet you one at a time. Limon claims the school had only three fights last year.

In most districts, these kids would be the castaways, the incorrigibles. At Cesar Chavez, they have at least 10 computers in each classroom and a staff that treats them like family. "I always felt unwanted everywhere else except here," says one student. The school’s reputation has grown so much that two-thirds of its students are now there by choice. Rosa Aguilar had dropped out of school to support her family; she came to Chavez Academy and recently received a $1,000 scholarship from an educational software firm to attend New Mexico State University.

Threats to Success

As its SAT scores indicate, Ysleta still has a long way to go before all students are prepared to enter a four-year college. Tenth grade, the only high-school grade that takes the TAAS, is also the only grade in which Ysleta students still trail the state average, though that gap has narrowed significantly. Some districts in this situation might discourage low-performing students from taking the SAT to inflate their average scores, but Ysleta has nothing to hide. The district has in fact begun paying the test fees for students taking the SAT or the Preliminary SAT (PSAT), as well as offering SAT mini-camps during the summer free of charge. "We will see a huge jump in scores over the next two years," promises Trujillo. The district has also raised the academic requirements for graduation, including four years of college-preparatory math, science, and English, to align them with typical college requirements.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that a foolish school board bent on self-aggrandizement will push Trujillo out before he can accomplish all that he wants. The school district had pulled him out of retirement, and at his age (65), his farmhouse in Virginia looks more appealing than battles with a school board that will not support him. He has indicated that if the school board meets his buyout demands, he will probably leave sometime this fall.

Unfortunately, it seems likely
that a foolish board bent on
self-aggrandizement will push
Trujillo out before he can
accomplish all he wants.

But if he does go, he will leave behind a group of school principals and teachers who have tasted success. They have matured in a culture that demanded more from them, perhaps more than they thought could be done. What impresses about Ysleta is not the beaming children, nor the beautiful buildings, nor the hyperinvolved parents, nor the ratio of three computers to every child. It’s the attitudes of the educators, who repeatedly say, without prompting, that "no excuses" are accepted in Ysleta, or constantly beg you to visit their schools, to see the innovative things they are doing. This is what happens when people are given both freedom and responsibility. And there’s no reason it couldn’t happen everywhere else.