3 Schools You Actually Need to Visit in El Paso

When leaders and educators visit schools they jumpstart their learning. We can gain a lot from the success of others. Here’s what I learned about leadership and deeper learning from visiting 3 transformational schools in El Paso, Texas.


I jumped on an airplane (as soon as I could get together my family) flew out to El Paso, TX with 6 SFUSD educators. We were there to visit schools doing Project Based Learning, all affiliated with the New Tech Network. I heard that El Paso was doing it big, but I was NOT prepared for what I saw. We visited Grizzly New Tech at Guillen Middle School and Bulldog Tech at Brown Middle School. I was also able to make it to the Young Women’s STEM Academy at Armendariz. We were only there for 2 days but I saw so much. They are killing it.


Grizzly New Tech: Passion and Projects

Grizzly sits in the poorest neighborhood of Texas, called El Segundo Barrio. Sin embargo (however) they are doing it. The smiles of the staff and the love teachers had for their students were contagious. There was a strong presence of social justice in the curriculum. One teacher leader homie, named Mr. Galvan showed me the books he draws from to create a social justice framework. (Add a few courses like these!)

Then we walked in his room and students were comparing the black panther party to the zoot suitors in the Chicano Movement. Solidarity, sense of self, and literacy. Boom. PBL in the Hood for sure! Sounds like culturally responsive teaching married with deeper learning. (See why it works here)

Then, There was an epic student panel, where kids broke down what they liked about deeper learning, how Rubrics work, and how they collaborate. There were inspirational message throughout the halls. Seeing kids working on a room filled with whiteboard tables was intriguing to me. I mean, the kids WANT to write on the tables anyway. Tap I to that shit and leverage it.


The Women’s STEAM Academy is wall to wall Dopeness

I heard about this place but I was taken aback. The feel of the space was positive. Kids of color. Female teachers of color. Female leaders of color. A special shout out to Dr. Cynthia Ontiveros, author of the book Copper Stain, who founded the school. Did I mention this was a school focused on girls in STEM?! The dedication to giving girls and women access to STEM fields is all about justice. That’s smashing patriarchy for real!

There was incredible student engagement in the rooms, and the rooms were redesigned to promote innovation. They blew out hallway lockers to create floor-to-ceiling windows in the hallways. And there were double Promethean boards in double sized rooms and LCDs displayed throughout the hallways. Classrooms were redesigned to promote collaboration and innovative thinking. (If you still have individual students desks, it’s time to burn them) Also, there was student art displayed throughout the halls.



Bulldog New Tech Blew Me Away (by Principal Michael Essien)

“If you are not a transparent person and have a hard time being vulnerable with your co-workers, then you might not be the right fit for New Tech.” – Bulldog New Tech Teacher

We were struck with a strong sense of community among the students when visiting classrooms at Bulldog New Tech. How did teachers build such a strong learning environment? An adult panel shared, “Student culture can never surpass the culture set by and among the adults.” Teachers at Bulldog New Tech take ownership over the professional relationships established between the adults in the building.

This began with adults agreeing on the values and beliefs they wanted to establish for the year. These were modeled by the adults in the building. Adults not being on the same page undermined student collaboration and buy-in to a culture that empowers.

Bulldog New Tech teachers modeled the behavior required among the students in lesson planning and teacher meetings. They leaned on each other to answer questions; they used the Critical Friends Protocol to receive feedback on projects; they accepted being vulnerable among their colleagues. The adults at Bulldog New Tech are shaping, defining, and calibrating what is important when it comes to building a culture that empowers both teachers and students.


Keystone Habit : 4-week cycle of Project Tuning

I have written about keystone habits before (here) and I learned about a great one at Grizzly New Tech. There, educators described a supercharged process to prepare for the project launch. They start by designing projects solo or with partners. Then they prepare a poster description.

Later, they conduct a gallery walk and colleagues write questions, comments, and ideas on Post It’s. Then they revise, and then they conduct a Critical Friends Protocol. All of this happens before they even launch. They do this several times per year. Why is this big? Collaboration, revision, clarity of project, and it models the student learning process.


What I heard from El Paso Leaders

Teachers make the magic happen, and leaders clear the hurdles and sometimes clear the jungle vegetation with a machete. I learned lots listening to these amazing leaders talk:

  • “I must continue to share my vision, over and over”
  • “I was inspired by visiting other schools like High Tech High”
  • “You can raise test scores by doing PBL”
  • “It helps to connect with folks in my network”
  • “I give my teachers a lot of autonomy”
  • “There needs to be a foundation of love”
  • “Teachers visit each other’s homestead build relationship”
  • “We need to break down barriers between students.”
  • “We cannot have a school within a school”
  • “Students need to master their home language first
  • “The student culture has a ceiling that is as high as the adult culture goes”


Examples of Amazing Projects

  1. Designing and creating stuffed animals for elementary school
  2. Creating Nike shoes for parkour
  3. Sharing your most prized possession
  4. Lord of the flies, Pacific island research, and 3D printing of coral reef
  5. Career day where high schoolers in career tech education programs present to elementary school students
  6. Comparing Black Panthers and the Chicano movement



I also got to meet one of the twitter homies from #BMEsTalk, Michael Phillips leading equity work in El Paso.


School Districts can Clear Hurdles for Deeper Learning

What did schools or school district do to facilitate deeper learning and transformation?
1. Schools were absolved from some interim assessments
2. Teachers were recruited to join a new school
3. They created a proof point before expanding to other sites and scaling across a school
4. Teachers are released one day each month for planning, facilitated by central office partners
5. Some schools have an additional administrator to focus on Deeper Learning
6. Their District has a supervisor to support 9 schools
7. Supt provides cover and leadership for deeper learning
8. Pay for tech, smart boards, building renovation, PBL supplies
9. Facilitates partnerships between schools
10. Teachers were required to meet during their 2nd prep periods
11. Form a partnership with CASEL for SEL


Visit schools, take a team, and share your learning. Tap into that passion and propel you towards change. It’s possible everywhere, even in the hood. Even with kids of color and English learners. It’s possible. Get out of your building and go anywhere. I hear El Paso has a few things to see.