Texas Schools Reimagine Education Through Collaborative Program

The El Paso School Design Collaborative aims to reimagine how schools can better serve students and communities.

Students in fifth grade at Reyes Elementary work on reading on Nov. 29. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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After conducting a survey, administrators at Carroll T. Welch Elementary School in the Clint Independent School District found that about a quarter of its students felt they did not “fit in” at school.

“There’s some students that feel like they have to be different. Like, ‘I can’t be my true self because of what (other students) might say about me,’” said Daisy Garcia, principal of the school in Horizon City.

Daisy Garcia, principal of Carroll T. Welch Elementary School, has worked to integrate social and emotional skills into her students’ education. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Now she hopes to create a more welcoming and affirming environment for them through the El Paso School Design Collaborative, which aims to reimagine how schools can better serve students and communities.

As part of the 10-month program which started in May, schools were tasked with identifying an issue at their campus and coming up with a plan to address it with the help of experts from Transcend, a nonprofit with the goal of improving education systems in the U.S. Out of the dozens of schools from across El Paso that applied to be part of the program, eight were selected.

“Our vision is to help young people learn in ways that enable them to thrive in and transform the world. And the way that we do that is by supporting communities to create and spread extraordinary equitable learning environments,” said Transcend Managing Partner Dottie Smith.

The program was brought together by the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, a nonprofit that aims to improve academic performance in El Paso, and the El Paso Community Foundation, a nonprofit that funds initiatives in health, education, human services and more throughout the city.

“The broad stroke idealistic goal is for there to be a systemic change in how schools approach school design,” Vice President of Operations for the Community Foundation Stephanie Otero told El Paso Matters. “We hope that each school in our region will have a student centered model where student voice is at the core of decision making.”

A poster in a special education classroom at Carroll T. Welch Elementary encourages students to assess their emotional state. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

With Transcend at their side, each of the participating schools set out to form teams of teachers, administrators and parents tasked with finding out how to improve their campuses. While the teams work directly with students, experts at Transcend help administrators conduct surveys, process data and provide them with examples of other schools that have centered student well-being in their education model.

“(We’re) deepening their understanding of the research and science, and what their young people are saying they want,” Smith said.

Some schools like the East Side’s O’Shea Keleher Whole Child Academy in the Socorro Independent School District included two fifth grade students, counselors and the school nurse in their redesign team to get their input on how to improve their campus.

Others talked to students to get their perspective.

Daisy Garcia said her team at Welch Elementary interviewed 75 of the school’s 700-plus pupils from all walks of life, ranging from Spanish speakers to at-risk students to get their input.

Students walk with a teacher at Reyes Elementary School on Nov. 29. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“We wanted to make sure we had a really big pool of who we interviewed,” Daisy Garcia said. “We didn’t want just high achieving students who we know feel loved and they feel like they have leadership skills.”

Many of the schools in the collaborative program focused on social emotional learning, also known as SEL, which aims to help students understand their emotions and build social skills as a way to improve educational outcomes.

Silvestre and Carolina Reyes Elementary in the Canutillo Independent School District and O’Shea Keleher put an emphasis on the social part of SEL, hoping to improve the way students connect with one another.

Laura Garcia, principal of O’Shea Keleher Whole Child Academy, emphasizes the importance of teaching children social and emotional skills. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“One of the things that we’ve found is that our students feel very well connected to the adults in the building, but many of them are still struggling with having that peer to peer interaction,” said O’Shea Keleher Principal Laura Garcia. “So we’re trying to find the root of that problem and then help give them tools to interact with their peers in a very positive manner.”

While educators say students were already struggling to connect before the pandemic, lockdowns exacerbated the issue and were especially hard on younger students.

“There were a lot of skills that we lost, as far as interaction between our kids. It was problematic at all levels, but I think our babies in pre-K through first (grade) never learned those skills through the pandemic,” said Reyes Elementary Principal Jessica Melendez-Carrillo.

After conducting research and learning about student’s needs the teams can move on to the “envisioning” stage to make plans to address the issues they identified.

Melendez-Carrillo said her team at the Upper Valley school has been looking into implementing “morning circles” where students can have discussions, resolve conflicts and connect at the start of the day. She said the team is currently brainstorming and learning from other schools who have implemented these circles to see what that will look like.

Jessica Carrillo, principal of Congressman Silvestre & Carolina Reyes Elementary School, shares her team’s plans to focus on developing and implementing social and emotional intelligence programs for their students. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“We’re collaborating, we’re thinking, we’re revisiting our protocols that we currently have and seeing how can we improve and make them better?” Melendez-Carrillo said.

The team at Welch Elementary has looked into implementing a similar concept they call “talk circles” that allow teachers and students to have conversations on an equal playing field in the hopes of encouraging children to be themselves at school.

“When they do the circles in the morning the teachers are going to participate just like the students so there’s not any kind of power or authority there. Everyone has the same type of authority and it goes back to that feeling of belonging and having a voice,” Daisy Garcia said.

Laura Garcia said the team at O’Shea Keleher is still gathering data and working with Transcend on creating a parent survey before they plan their next move.

Once the teams have finalized their plans, Smith said Transcend will help implement them, evaluate their success and start the process all over again.

“We take schools through this to help them create a model that will match their vision,” Smith said.

In the end, the school leaders taking part in the collaborative program hope it helps improve their student’s lives and prepares them for the future.

Students in fifth grade at Reyes Elementary help each with math assignments on Nov. 29. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

“I want to ensure that every one of our students who we send to middle school has that strong sense of self and confidence that they can be whoever they want without worrying about being judged,” Laura Garcia said.

CREEED’s Choose to Excel Director Nadia Tellez said the program aims to help students succeed beyond school.

“We’re excited to support an initial group of eight schools to explore new models of student success that ensure students not only can go on and succeed in college, but that they’re prepared to succeed in our workforce and in their local communities,” she said.

Other schools involved in the program include Vista Del Sol Environmental Science Academy, Jose H. Damian Elementary, Gonzalo and Sofia Garcia Elementary, Jose J. Alderete Middle School and the Canutillo Middle School STEAM Academy.

Smith said that once this first cohort has completed the 10-month program, Transcend hopes to continue working with them and expand to other schools throughout El Paso.

Disclosure: The Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development and El Paso Community Foundation are financial supporters of El Paso Matters. Financial supporters play no role in El Paso Matters’ journalism. The news organization’s policy on editorial independence can be found here.

This article first appeared on El Paso Matters and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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