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Profile                                                                Page 47

 

Dynamic Style, Real Results

 

BY MARIAN KISCH

 profile_De La Torre
Xavier De La Torre

 

 

When a deep freeze last February enveloped West Texas and caused widespread flooding and broken pipes in schools and homes, the Socorro Independent School District had to shut down for three days. To make up lost time, Superintendent Xavier De La Torre opted to run school during spring break, rather than on scattered federal holidays, to give students concentrated instructional time leading up to state exams.

A strategic solution, for sure, but one he now counts as a significant gaffe.

It represents a rare public misstep for the passionate and personable school leader. Openness and transparency have been hallmarks of De La Torre’s operating style in this growing urban system of 44,000 students in eastern El Paso. The 43 schools have a 90 percent Latino population.

De La Torre, a second-generation Latino whose parents migrated from Mexico in 1962, came to Socorro in 2009 from a series of administrative posts in California. He was greeted by low staff morale and little community support (five superintendents had served in quick succession).

The new superintendent moved quickly to begin a turnaround by opening communication channels with the staff, community and board and by instituting new ways to hire the best employees and establish equity in staff-student ratios.
One of De La Torre’s greatest accomplishments, given the economic climate, was the passage of a state record $297 million bond in May. The money will alleviate overcrowded conditions by constructing new schools and modernizing others to deal with the influx of an additional 1,500 students annually.

In his short time in El Paso, the superintendent has become active in the community, serving on several boards. The chamber of commerce president, Richard Dayoub, says he has come to recognize De La Torre’s penchant for “thoughtful, intelligent, honest and direct opinions.”

This was exhibited in the months leading up to the vote, Dayoub says. “The superintendent told the voters that if they want a quality education and a quality environment, such as the richer districts have with lots of labs and technology, and if they want their children to be competitive, they must vote for the bond issue.”

In his first year, De La Torre cut $2 million out of the district’s payroll, using attrition and reassignment of personnel. “There was gross overstaffing” at the central office, he says.

Glenda Hawthorne, president of the Socorro Education Association, says the bond success could be attributed to the public confidence he built in short order. “He has a way of dealing with sticky situations,” she explains. “If he has to say no, he does it by explaining the reason. He doesn’t destroy anyone’s self-confidence and belittle them.”

De La Torre prefers to surround himself “with people of differing opinions. I want resistance, dialogue and conflict. From that we have a better chance of emerging with something innovative and brilliant.”

Socorro has made great strides. In both 2009 and 2010, the district was named a finalist for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, garnering $500,000 in scholarship money. Last year, 37 of 39 schools were named recognized or exemplary schools by the state of Texas.

The superintendent, a former coach, still enjoys throwing a football around with kids and tries to maximize time in the classrooms, saying, “That’s where the magic happens.”

Marian Kisch is a freelance writer in Chevy Chase, Md. E-mail: mariankisch@verizon.net


BIO STATS: XAVIER DE LA TORRE

Currently: superintendent, Socorro Independent School District, El Paso, Texas

Previously: associate superintendent for human resources, Elk Grove, Calif.

Age: 48

Greatest influence on career: Steven Ladd, superintendent in Elk Grove, Calif. He’s a team builder and a remarkable human being who lives and leads with fidelity.

Best professional day: Learning that 37 of 39 eligible schools received a rating of recognized or exemplary from the Texas Education Agency in my first year as superintendent.

Books at bedside: The Four-Hour Body by Timothy Ferriss and In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Biggest Blooper: Deciding to make up three school days missed in February as a result of inclement weather during the students’ spring break without a lot of input from the parents. I was taken to the woodshed by more than one parent that week.

Why I'm an AASA member: My interest in continuing to grow professionally and networking with others who are “living the dream.”

 

 

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