by Elfida Gutierrez • IDRA Newsletter • January 1997

Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from an interview of Mrs. Elfida Gutierrez, principal of Hueco Elementary School in the Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas. The interview was conducted by Liz Lilliott as part of the Successful Texas Schoolwide Programs Research Project conducted by the Charles A. Dana Center through a contract from the Texas Education Agency and with funding support from the STAR Center.

What are the major areas upon which Hueco is focused this year?

Attendance is an important focus. We know it is important that students are coming to school and that they like school. Although it’s hard to measure concretely, we know we want to focus on making the kids feel good about themselves and school in general. Technology is an important focus. Our whole district is pushing technology. We know that’s the wave of the future.

In terms of academics, the learning styles program has been a good avenue for us to reach all of our kids. We have discovered that when we have had so much flexibility with our budget, we can buy a variety of materials, but we need to focus on how to teach, not what we use to teach. Therefore, we adopted a focus on learning styles. Teachers use a variety of approaches. A lot of them use cooperative learning strategies. I believe in whole language and cooperative learning. I profess them and find research that supports them, and I share the research with the staff. To promote good instructional practices, I have teachers go visit other teachers who are very successful. Teaching strategies that involve students with language are very important for our students. I always tell teachers that our students are going to develop good language skills only if they are speaking, interacting and involved with language throughout the school day.

TAAS has several indicators that really lend themselves to saying kids must be actively involved in learning. We’ve gone away from the lecture style of teaching, into a lot of student interaction. Once teachers try a more interactive style, they know that it works for them, and the kids like their education. So we focus on learning styles and finding good ways to teach that are comfortable for the teachers and that keep kids actively involved.

So is all of that new for this year?

No, we moved into it slowly, about two years ago. We worked very closely with our Title I coordinator for the district, who brought in learning styles. We had maybe three or four teachers go, and they just loved it and came back and implemented it. The next year, more teachers went, and this coming training session we have about three more teachers going. We selected some teachers who would come back, sell the program and be good models.

How are things different now from how they were in the past, when you first got here?

When I first got here, one of the things that I noticed was that the campus plan did not have measurable objectives. We have been involved in writing our campus plan for maybe seven years. I was lucky to have a friend, who was the instructional director at the time, who came to our campus and said, “You need to write objectives that you can measure at the end of the year and monitor throughout the year.” Whereas, the campus plan had a bunch of goals (i.e., “We will do this” statements), it never said how or to what extent. So we went back and looked at our plan so that it will, for the most part, have measurable objectives.

We looked at the data and saw that our kids in first grade were all reading at the primary level, and we wanted them to be on the first grade level. We wanted goals that were appropriate for our students. So, we measured language development, writing and mathematics and for the upper grades (3,4,5). It’s really easy because we use the TAAS for the most part to measure our growth. We also have goals for attendance.

Now, our campus plan can be divided into two major goal areas: one deals with student performance and the other is affective. The affective goals focus on establishing a positive environment for students, faculty and the community. Our incentive program and the “sunshine committee” are initiatives that came out of our affective goals.

We believe that the less complex we get about a campus plan, the better off we are, and the more likely it will become like a guide for improving student performance. The plan keeps us organized and aligned with our goals.

So how do you assess what bilingual children take the TAAS or not? Does the teacher decide?

Pretty much so. They go to the LPAC committee. Last year we had a form that said which of the kids were going to take the TAAS where it would not be a negative experience for them. They take it for assessment, to see if they can exit the program. Our program model is the transitional model. There is some good in it and there are things that sometimes are not good, but that’s the most we have. It’s a strongly transitional model. The teacher pretty much decides.

I think we can find other assessments for our students, like the SABE. We’ll test their Spanish reading and Spanish writing. We’ll tease them because they’re reading in Spanish. They’re going to be good readers in English. They can write well in Spanish. Once they acquire that language and comprehension, they’ll be good writers in English.

The teachers do a good job in getting our students ready for the TAAS. It hasn’t been a big problem for us to say we’re going to give them all the TAAS. They do well. But still we need to take every individual student into consideration. And we don’t exempt many students. We didn’t exempt our kids from the TAAS unless they were like level one and then all the children who were in special education, and they were monolingual English instruction for a long time. The purpose of our testing is to find out how we are doing, how the students are doing, how everybody is doing, then to do an assessment appropriate for the student.

Is there any sort of enforcement of the plan? How is follow-through ensured?

We follow through every so often. I bring the plan to the SIT (School Improvement Team), and we pick out a part. For instance, we will look at bilingual education and ask, “Where are we? Do we think we’re going to accomplish this?” We have constant assessment. In December, we did a TAAS pre-test. We got reports on how we did on that pretest, and we know what we have to do in January. It pretty much gave us what we were going to do for intersession school. So, it’s constant evaluation.

As far as monitoring, we said we would touch many parents, through much communication. Letters [are sent] out by teachers. One of our goals was that they do a lot of it. Other people come here and I say I would like to do a parent letter. They say “Oh we don’t send them home, they’re not going to read them.” I say, “You know what? Send them anyway.” Because they do come. And they do read them. No excuses.

A big part of our success is the staff development program that we have come up with. We have evolved, and we have criteria for attending an out-of-town trip and attending other staff development. One is that they would just be participating in three voluntary committees. And that’s tough, but it also makes them eligible for these wonderful staff development activities. To go out of town on a conference is really a reward, and it’s a big investment. You want to invest in people who you know are going to come back and give you so much more. But everybody participates. We have too much to do, we can’t afford to let two people do everything. Everybody gets his or her time to be in the limelight, to do a lot of work, but also to reap the rewards of having completed a good project.

Who came up with the guidelines?

We did – the SIT committee. They were stricter. If I would have come up with them, I probably would not have said three committees. I would have said teachers must serve on a volunteer committee. They said it should be at least three committees because everybody can do two. And then they said, when we go to conferences, two or three people should not go to the same session, because how else are we going to come back and share? They were pretty strict. We have evolved to that. We have learned ways to communicate and be effective. Just like the philosophy that we are going to do a shared decision process, that does not mean that it comes to me – it goes to a team. And then in turn, the team doesn’t make all the decisions without getting input from other people. This has been a very good way to communicate.

You talked about zero-based budgeting. If it were just up to you and you could do the first thing on the priority list, what would it be?

I would secure good personnel. What I have found is that you get good people to support whatever you want to do for students. That’s what you should invest your money in. You don’t need to buy computers, you don’t need to buy programs, you need good people. Our district has a policy that is “last one in, first one out.” So if we lose any teachers, they’re going to be the last ones that our committees recommended to be here. They’re excellent teachers! So I would secure the good personnel and find a way to keep everybody here. I think that those new people who are here do everything to make their classrooms successful.

So what do you do to make sure you get good personnel? How does that happen?

The last couple of years, we’ve been solely responsible for recommending people who come to work in our school. We had a vacancy last year for a third grade monolingual position. We put together teachers from the third grade level that were going to have to be working with this person. I was on the committee, and we had a parent from third grade. We interviewed five people. Oddly enough, all of us recommended this person who came here.

A lot of our teacher interview questions deal with the affective domain: “How would you deal with the situation of your children who couldn’t read? How do you handle children who can’t speak English and they’re in your classroom, whether it’s bilingual or not?” It doesn’t have to do very much with how well you’re prepared. It has to do with how you would deal with the kids.

Give me an example of an interview question.

What do you think causes discipline problems? Some teachers said it’s a lack of responsibility at home, but I think it’s really not. This young man that we hired said, “Well, you know, the kids are bored! If I’m not entertaining them and doing a good job in keeping them involved, I think there’s going to be some trouble.” If someone says, “They’re not interested,” then I know that I have someone who is going to provide instruction to the student.

Another question is, “What is your feeling on parental involvement?” They say, “It’s very important,” and [thus] they say the right answer. Then we say “What would you do to make sure that parents are involved in your classroom?” Many of them are brand new [to teaching], and they say “Well, I would send letters home.” Right away you know that person is headed toward the right direction. It deals with a lot of what we’re wanting to do. The people that work with you are everything, because they’ve got to be good when you’re not there.

So have you had a situation where you have a teacher whose heart is in the right place, but just isn’t good at teaching reading or isn’t good at teaching math? And what do you do in that situation?

We had one that just was not a very good math teacher. Consistently those scores were pretty low. Honesty is the best policy: “You know [so and so], your scores don’t seem to . . .” “I know, I just can’t seem to do this.” “Well, you’re very good in reading. Why don’t you and your neighbor team teach.” And we were able to help her in that way. Teaching a specific content area has not been the problem. A problem I have seen with very good teachers with a good heart and know how to teach has been classroom management. They just are so kindhearted that the kids are just all over the place.

When kids come here because of a discipline problem, they’re embarrassed because they don’t want to come to the office because they’ve lost their temper and they kicked each other and they’re here. But for the most part, we do not have many discipline problems. And on occasions when we have had discipline problems, something not right has been going on in the classroom. I bet you that 90 percent of the time when I’ve had kids here, it’s because they’ve been involved in something physical. The teacher is busy doing something and really not supervising their kids. So I know that discipline problems can be prevented.

Our kids that leave Hueco and go to Sanchez are praised because they have very good behavior. I think it’s important. We’ve got to prepare them to be good members of society. So when the schoolwide program concept came along, we said that’s for us, because [it’s for] the whole school, the whole child, the whole family.

Reprinted with permission. For a copy of the report, Successful Texas Schoolwide Programs, contact the Charles A. Dana Center at 512/471-6190.

[©1997, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the January 1997 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]