Back to School Leader Q&A: Superintendent Veronica Vijil on Taking Risks and Leaning Into Partnerships

As the 2021-22 school year begins across the country, we asked a few education leaders to share their insights on where we’ve been, where we’re going, and what their organizations are doing to weather the COVID-19 pandemic and serve students. Join us for a three-part Q&A series exploring the highs and lows of the past 18 months through the lens of dynamic education leaders.

Fabens Independent School District* is a K-12 traditional public school system located in a small but mighty rural community outside of El Paso, Texas. Under the leadership of Dr. Veronica Vijil the district’s first Latina superintendent Fabens ISD has continued to serve as the hub of its community for students, families, teachers, and staff amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

I recently connected with Dr. “V” as she’s known by some in the community, to discuss how Fabens ISD has navigated through the innumerable ups and downs of the pandemic and how she’s poised to lead her district in the 2021-22 school year, now underway.

Nate Geller:
Tell us about Fabens ISD and the professional path in education that led to your current role.

Dr. Veronica Vijil:
I’m the superintendent of Fabens ISD. We’re a diamond in the rough and serve about 2,000 students in a small, rural community. 99% of our students are Hispanic and roughly 91% of families are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, although districtwide, every student gets free breakfast and lunch. 

I was born and raised in El Paso, and began my 30-plus year teaching career in its classrooms. My location meandered but I’ve always been rooted in education. I taught in public and parochial schools in Indiana and Texas. I never thought administration was my path but opening a middle school and serving as an associate superintendent in El Paso set me on my way. There, I began to prepare myself for a superintendent role and joining Fabens ISD has been a dream come true. Leading a district with a rich history in an area where my family has deep roots is special — Fabens ISD neighbors a small district where my parents were born and raised. I feel honored to lead here.

NG:
What’s Fabens’ mission? What are you most proud of accomplishing in pursuit of its mission?

VV:
In rural districts, there’s often a misconception that parents aren’t involved or aren’t interested in their children’s education because we’re surrounded by farms that require hard manual labor. The fact is, we are a rural farming community and our community values education immensely. Fabens ISD is in a small enough area that we don’t have a mayor or city council. So the schools are the hub of our community; everyone counts on us. 

Our mission is to work together to create a positive and lasting impact through multiple learning opportunities. What’s the key ingredient? Leveling the playing field in whatever way we can so that students have choices and the same opportunities as their peers in other Texas schools or across the country.

We leverage what our area has available to promote opportunities for students through support from the Texas Education Agency (TEA) starting with 1) embracing the bilingualism that exists here, and 2) giving high school students opportunities to earn college credit or industrial certification. It’s very uncommon for a district of our size to be able to offer high schoolers:

  • Access to early college credits and college-level courses through our partnership with El Paso Community College that enables students to earn an associate’s degree by the time they graduate.
  • T-STEM-focused coursework in grades six through 12. Under that umbrella, we’re able to offer students different pathways like medical classes, rocket coursework in partnership with the University of Texas at El Paso which offer us access to their college students and professors, and more. One of our students recently became a certified drone pilot. 
  • P-TECH, which is also in partnership with El Paso Community College, enables students to have internships with local businesses. We even offer internships within our own school district and have students take courses for industry certifications in things like operating and working on our diesel school buses.

At the end of these programs, our students are already ahead of the game. That’s what we call leveling the playing field. 

NG:
Contextualize the great work happening in your school district in the past year and a half. As you look back on the 2020-21 school year, what were some of the wins and challenges your team experienced during an immensely difficult time? How have you maintained student engagement? 

VV:
It’s a cliché but teamwork is what’s getting us through COVID-19. It’s truly building capacity in others that enables me to advocate for the various needs of our school district. While members of my team were putting out COVID-19 fires, I participated in a recurring phone call with TEA representatives to report on what we were going through, ask for needed resources, and advocate for our community. My persistence led to Fabens ISD becoming a pilot district for rapid COVID-19 tests for eligible students and staff. We were able to make so many connections and forged partnerships that evolved into open clinics for our community to do drive-through testing, blood drives, flu clinics, and more. 

We also had to overcome an obstacle common in rural communities like ours: technology and broadband access. We don’t have fiber that extends throughout the area, so at the outset of the pandemic we were caught off guard because we were not a 1:1 device district where every student receives a Chromebook. We had to pivot and quickly figure out how to get technology into students’ hands and then issue hotspots to students in need. Our partnerships in this realm will lead to lasting change through greater access to WiFi, internet, and broadband. 

At one point, El Paso was a national hotspot for COVID-19 outbreaks and was on the news for two weeks straight. It forced parents to keep children at home even though our doors were always open for those who couldn’t log kids on and had to send them to school. After the peak in our area passed, there was a lot of residual fear and anxiety. In the spring 2021 semester, we had 30% of students return for in-person instruction and about 70% remain at home for remote learning. Of the 70% who are U.S. citizens, some returned to family in Mexico and haven’t been allowed to cross back over the border. Getting lessons to those students has been a challenge but we do whatever it takes for our students even if it means handing families packets at the international bridge, which we did.

NG:
Given Bellwether’s work with Fabens ISD, there’s a lot to be optimistic about. What’s top of mind for you as you look into the 2021-22 school year? Tell us about any early wins you experienced in the first few weeks as well as continued challenges.

VV:
We didn’t know how many students were going to come back. We can do survey after survey, but we weren’t going to know until the first day of school. We moved our start date up early this year to Aug. 2 to have an extended-year calendar. Lo and behold, more than 95% of our kids have returned! Granted, there’s still a lot of anxiety and we battle misinformation on a daily basis to assure students and families that ours is a safe school district for them to return to.  

We’ve also done a number of COVID-19 vaccine clinics, which have been well attended. In El Paso county, 70% of residents are vaccinated. A few weeks ago, we had a clinic in our middle school and 140 people showed up for shots, 40 of whom were our own students. We’ll continue to promote the vaccine, so that’s a win. We had another vaccine clinic on Aug. 18 and I extended invites to two neighboring school districts in Hudspeth county. They hadn’t yet had vaccine clinics so I told them to load their school buses and come to Fabens ISD. Other districts have reached out and offered opportunities for testing and vaccines. Nothing can happen without partnerships.

We’ve also continued to give students a voice. We had “Senior Sunrise” on Aug. 18. In the midst of all the chaos and receiving notice at 10 p.m. the evening prior that a mask mandate was reactivated for all of El Paso county, on a dime we were able to not allow the politics to be a distraction and focused on safely celebrating our students. We gathered that next morning for the Senior Sunrise and honored our longstanding school traditions as a community. Senior Sunrise is a time where all high school seniors and their sponsors and administrators gather at our football stadium and wait for the sun to rise in celebration of the beginning of their senior year. It’s followed by a senior breakfast to kick the year off with a spirit of collegiality and friendship. At the end of each school year, we host a “Senior Sunset” to honor a successfully completed year and new adventures ahead for graduates. We made these traditions happen last year and this year, and I’m so proud of our community’s perseverance.

NG:
You mentioned the learning loss that happened over the last 18 months, exacerbated by a lack of internet connectivity and students moving back to Mexico. What specifically are you focused on academically this year to help recoup that lost ground?

VV:
That’s a great question. We have an academic acceleration focus for each major grade level band. There’s an emphasis on early childhood pre-K through third grade students to have a curriculum rich in setting and building foundations. Those teachers are charged with identifying skills students didn’t grasp as a basic foundation to catch them up. 

Students in fourth through eighth grade will be focused on internalizing high-quality reading language arts curriculum to ensure that we expose students to rigorous, TEKS-aligned grade level content every day and apply interventions where appropriate. 

For middle school-level math, we received a grant enabling teachers to closely examine lesson cycles to learn where gaps exist and how we can move forward with targeted, just-in-time interventions.

At our high school, our dual focus is on math and ELA. We used a portion of our federal ESSER funds to hire additional tutors and teachers to lower class sizes. It’s a challenge, because other Region 19 districts are looking within the same talent pools in their recruitment efforts. 

NG:
Is there anything else you’d like to share in closing?

VV:
I think it’s important for everyone to know that sometimes as a leader, you have to take calculated risks. For example, when I found out from the local health authority that mask mandates were reinstated, I thought I’d have an emergency board meeting and contacted my two neighboring superintendents (both of whom are female). I asked them if they were calling emergency meetings and they said, “No, it’s done. We already messaged it out, here’s what we sent if you’d like to use any of it.” My relationships, ongoing collaboration, and partnerships create a mutual trust that enables me to replicate best practices and take risks from time to time. Instead of calling the board and asking permission, I decided to move quickly and ask for forgiveness later. How can I send kids back to school when I haven’t reminded parents they need to send them with a mask?

(*Editorial note: Dr. Veronica Vijil and Fabens ISD are Bellwether clients.)