Success driven by a singular focus; School standardizes its curriculum, becomes exemplary in El Paso

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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EL PASO – One of the perks of becoming a math teacher at Del Valle High School in El Paso: You’ll never have to write a test again.

The math department chairwoman writes them all for you.

Along with your entire curriculum. And what you’ll be teaching every day of the year. Want some leeway to do your own thing?

“You can be one day ahead of the plan or one day behind – that’s it,” said Patty Lucero, the department chairwoman.

“The idea of academic freedom is truly a thing of the past,” said principal J.R. Guinn. “We’ve got a curriculum, and everybody’s going to learn it. That’s how we’re going to be able to set the academic bar every other school will try to reach.”

That sort of academic centralization and a single-minded focus on success have helped Del Valle become one of the state’s rarest stories: an excellent urban high school.

“They don’t let you quit. It’s not an option,” said Daniel “Moose” Chavez, a senior and football captain.

To the degree that urban school districts have had much success in the state’s accountability system, it’s usually been in elementary schools. Their smaller size and less diverse student populations often make test score success easier.

The urban high schools that do find success are typically magnet schools, which often get to keep their size small and choose their students from a pool of the district’s best. Dallas, for instance, has seven high schools rated “exemplary,” but all are magnet schools.

Del Valle has no magnet program. It’s by all appearances a standard, traditional high school, filled with about 1,800 students. Eighty-five percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches.

It’s barely a mile from the Zaragosa Bridge and the Mexican border, and many of its students are recent immigrants.

And like many urban schools, it’s seen its share of instability in leadership. Ysleta, Del Valle’s school district, has had six permanent or interim superintendents since 1998. (It’s searching for one now.)

Del Valle has never had a principal survive all the way from a freshman class’s arrival to its senior graduation. Mr. Guinn, who is white, was the subject of a bruising, racially charged school board battle when he was hired as principal of the almost entirely Hispanic school.

Stable faculty

Just about the only area of stability has been in its faculty. The average teacher at Del Valle has 15 years of experience, three more than the state average. A core of academic leaders has remained in place through multiple principals, and they’ve taken charge of improving student performance. Mr. Guinn calls them the Power Ladies, although he allows there are a few men in their number as well.

Take Ms. Lucero in math, for example. When she became department chairwoman in the mid-1990s, she centralized and standardized, so that every teacher would be teaching and testing the same material at the same time.

“That way you know exactly what kids should know at every point in the year,” she said.

It also made it easier to compare how teachers were doing. After a test, passing rates for each teacher are distributed among the math faculty.

“A teacher who isn’t successful here is sweating bullets,” Mr. Guinn said.

In 1996, Del Valle’s passing rate on the state’s Algebra I exam was 2 percent. This year, it was 73.6 percent – 16 percent ahead of the state as a whole.

“Scores don’t just happen,” Ms. Lucero said. “You have to deliberately go out and get them.”

With the transition to the new Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills – a test expected to be significantly tougher than the TAAS, particularly in high school math – Del Valle could be excused for lowering expectations.

But instead, the goal already emblazoned on the wall of the teacher workroom is lofty: “95% TAKS passing in 2004.”

“You have to have a dream,” she said. “We had a vision that all kids could learn. I don’t know why we wouldn’t be able to reach our goal.”

That sentiment – that success is the default, anything less an aberration – appears to be one of Mr. Guinn’s most significant contributions to the campus.

When he arrived as principal in 2001, the school was already successful, having been rated “recognized” for the previous two years. But it had fallen short of its ultimate goal, the state’s top rating.

He set about determining what obstacles stood in the way of exemplary status. To earn the rating, Del Valle had to have more than 90 percent of its students pass the reading, writing and math TAAS tests, along with having an annual dropout rate below 1 percent.

In 2001, Del Valle had math scores high enough to earn exemplary status and was close in writing. But it was a few points short in reading, and its dropout rate was more than twice the level required.

The school tackled the dropout rate first. The way Texas calculates dropout rates, schools can pursue students who have already dropped out and try to persuade them to re-enroll. If they do, they don’t count against a school’s record.

Eager Beaver Leaver

So enter the Eager Beaver Leaver committee, an ad hoc group led by assistant principal Gilbert Baca. The committee of truancy officers and other community liaisons gathered a list of all the students who had dropped out in the last year and divvied up their names. Then they started knocking on doors.

“Beavers are known for lots of hard work – that’s why we picked the name,” Mr. Baca said.

They learned tricks of the dropout trade, like calling dropouts from cellphones instead of their offices, so Del Valle would not show up on caller ID.

If a male truancy officer couldn’t convince someone, they would try a female community liaison instead.

Within a few months, they had “recovered” 28 dropouts. In some cases, the students had re-enrolled at another school and records simply had to be updated. Some were directed into GED programs or alternative schools. About half a dozen re-enrolled at Del Valle.

“They called at least 10, 15 times,” said Anthony Mendoza, who had dropped out when his family moved to Las Vegas and never re-enrolled when they moved back to El Paso. “They were all calling me telling me to come back. They talked to my dad. They said I was always welcome at Del Valle.”

After eight months out of school, he’s now back at Del Valle, headed to graduation this spring. He hopes to study architectural drafting in college.

Reading targeted

Last Dec. 17, after the Eager Beavers had done their work, Mr. Guinn got on the school intercom and announced the school’s dropout rate would be below 1 percent – enough for exemplary. Now, it was just a matter of test scores.

“I sent the stress level in this school way up,” he said.

Since reading was a relative weakness, the school instituted a special effort to boost reading speed in students with weak skills. About 80 percent of Del Valle’s freshmen arrive on campus reading below grade level, Mr. Guinn said.

When TAAS scores came back this spring, the reading passing rate had jumped 7 points, to 94.5 percent. Math and writing were both up, too. The school had earned its first exemplary rating – the first of any traditional high school in the El Paso area.

“We’ve done what people said was not possible,” Mr. Guinn said.

The push for success isn’t limited to academics.

“His whole philosophy is about building a tradition of success,” said Lea Wilson, the school’s cheerleading coach. “When our girls are at a competition, they’re thinking, ‘We’re gonna win, we’re gonna win – there’s no choice!'”

Last year, Del Valle’s cheerleading team won the national championship. Five years ago, the cheerleaders didn’t even attend local or regional competitions.

“You have to make the expectation of success part of your belief system,” Mr. Guinn said. “Whether its athletics, academic competitions, band – whatever it is – we’re raising the bar. We expect success.”

He’s willing to spend money and make changes to make those expectations reasonable. When Ms. Wilson said a new practice floor would give cheerleaders an edge in national competition, Mr. Guinn found $5,800 in the budget for it.

“It puts us six months ahead” of other schools’ training, she said.

The football team has a new set of coaches, and for the first time, they all have college playing experience.

For the debate team, he hired a former national speech champion as coach. A new band director has pushed a middling program into one of the region’s strongest.

Out with excuses

“The other big urban districts in Texas complain, ‘We’ve got too many minorities, our kids are too poor,'” said B.J. Powell, a career education teacher. “They keep giving excuses. Well, we’re all poor and all minority, and look at us. The excuses don’t work any more.”

Mr. Powell heads the school’s Future Business Leaders of America chapter, one of the state’s most successful in academic competitions.

“Before, the goal for kids was, ‘I hope I qualify for state.’ Then it was ‘I hope I qualify for nationals.’ Now, it’s ‘I want to win nationals.’ It’s an evolutionary thing that has grown each year.”

The master plan is for success to become addictive. Once a school is exemplary, what student wants to be part of the first class to lower its rating?

“We’re very thankful for what we have here, and we’re not going to do anything to mess it up,” said “Moose” Chavez, the football captain and star right guard. “It’s pride and self-discipline.

“I woke up feeling sick this morning. My dad said I didn’t have to go to school. But I wanted to. Before, I’d fake being sick to get out of school. Now I want to go.”