Urban School Systems Can Succeed: ‘Wall-to-Wall, for All Children’

Published February 1, 1999

The remarkable success of El Paso, Texas, Superintendent Anthony Trujillo’s schools and students over a six-year period brings a refreshing message of hope and promise–that urban school systems can be transformed into cost-efficient, high-performing institutions that raise up children from even the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

But Trujillo’s dismissal last fall brings the much more troubling message that the present governance structure of public education is incapable of sustaining reforms that benefit children in public schools.

Born in southern Colorado, Anthony Trujillo was an English major at the University of San Francisco and did graduate work in education at Stanford University. After teaching in Palo Alto, California, he became a vice principal and worked his way through the administrative ranks until in 1976 he was appointed superintendent of Marin County High School District.

After nine years in what was probably the richest suburb in California, Trujillo became superintendent of Sweetwater Union High School District, one of the largest high school districts in the state, south of San Diego on the Mexican border. After retiring from that job in 1992, he was recruited by El Paso’s Ysleta School District, one of the worst-performing urban school districts in the state of Texas.

Today, Ysleta is the highest-performing urban school district in the state, with achievement that surpasses that of rich suburban districts like Plano and Richardson. Remarkably, Ysleta’s spending per student is less than the state average; it assigns very few of its students to special education; and it exempts very few students from participating in statewide achievement tests.

Trujillo recently spoke with School Reform News managing editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What led the Ysleta school board to recruit you in 1992?

Trujillo: There were really serious governance problems for the school board. Their buildings were in a very bad situation and the district was under state supervision by the Texas Education Agency because of abominable test scores. I took the job because I wanted to prove that an urban system could succeed wall-to-wall–for all children and for all schools. That was my motive and that’s what we’ve done. We went from the bottom to a pretty good spot, and we’re still climbing.

Clowes: What was the first thing you did when you took over the district?

Trujillo: We put in a vision statement that said “All students who enroll in our schools will graduate from high school fluently bilingual and prepared to enter a four-year college or university.”

Reactions ran from skepticism to outright hostility. People at the faculty meetings would bring up all the excuses why we couldn’t do it: “These kids are poor, they don’t speak English, they come from single parents. . . .” I suggested that maybe they needed to go somewhere else, and in the next six years we changed 2,000 of the 3,000 teachers.

Clowes: What organizational changes did you make to achieve the mission?

Trujillo: We flattened the central office organization, which was very hierarchical, with a series of layers of supervisors, coordinators, and directors. We put most of them out in the field in four Assessment Support Teams. Their job was to assess what was going on in the schools and to support the schools in making changes.

Next, we changed principals. In the first year, I changed almost every elementary principal. The second year, I replaced almost every middle school principal, and began the process of replacing high school principals. I wanted new principals who believed in the mission statement. Many people who left the districts had great skills, but they didn’t have our mission in their hearts. The hallmark of our principals became enthusiasm, creativity, doggedness, and dedication to excellence.

Clowes: How did the principals achieve the mission?

Trujillo: That involved decentralizing to site-based management. We gave the principals control over their budget and control over their staff, but we determined the results.

We were the first district that’s been able to marry site-based decision-making with accountability. Site-based management without accountability is chaos, and accountability without site-based decision-making is cruel. So, we gave them both. We said “You’re going to run your schools, and you answer only to the superintendent. Everybody in this system is there to support the school.”

Clowes: Were the principals responsible for the teacher turnover you mentioned?

Trujillo: Absolutely. I never talked to teachers. I just talked to the principals. They knew that, in order to achieve those results, they would have to have good people. That’s the silver bullet: Hire the best people, and support them to do the job that they were hired to do. Without good people, you can try 35 different things and they’re not going to work. And without support, good people are just wasted.

Clowes: What did you do for the parents?

Trujillo: We did everything in the world to educate these parents. You don’t know English? We’ll teach you English. You can’t read? We’ll teach you how to read. Your child is working mathematics at this level? We’ll teach you the math so that you can work with them. You’re unemployed? Come to our computer lab; we’ll give you skills. You’ve never been to the university? Get on the bus; we’ll take you to the university, and the president’s going to meet you and talk to you about having your child come to the university.

We also gave everybody free summer school instead of charging for it. I required every parent to attend school two hours a week for every they had in summer school. We had a very flexible schedule but the parents had to come to summer school for two hours in the evenings or during the day to participate or to volunteer.

The first summer, we went from 3,500 children in summer school to 11,000. Today we have 24,000 students and about 40,000 parents attending summer school. It’s one of the most pervasive parent-involvement programs in the country. The State of Texas now funds summer school as a result of what we have done.

Next, we started the first alternative school in the state of Texas to handle students who would have been expelled, or failed, or dropped out of school. We brought the program in from Boys’ Town. Now Texas requires that every school district have an alternative school.

We also instituted an open enrollment program throughout the district. Now, students can go to any school in our district as long as there’s room. When we opened it up to neighboring school districts, we picked up about 2,000 students and lost only 29.

Clowes: I understand you also instituted child-centered funding.

Trujillo: That’s right. When we did the site-based decision making, it was based on child-centered funding: You get the student, you get the money; you lose the student, you lose the money. It’s a strong financial incentive for a principal to find ways to combat the dropout rate and maintain attendance.

Together with the open enrollment program and the child-centered funding, we began to structure magnet programs. We placed magnet schools primarily in our lower income area, but they have brought in children from all over the county. We have an elementary school that children go to kindergarten through sixth grade; they all learn English and Spanish, and then they have a choice of a third language–German, Russian, Chinese, or Japanese. Every child walks out of that school trilingual.

Finally, we put in the bilingual requirement: All students will graduate fluently bilingual. Being on the border of Texas and Mexico, many of these parents all of a sudden see value in themselves when they see their language and culture being appreciated by the school rather than being suppressed and eradicated.

Clowes: A different bilingual approach from that in California?

Trujillo: I think the problem is that the bilingual folks take their security from an artificial source that is non-productive. They tell everybody that in order to learn English, you ought to be in a bilingual program. I don’t think you learn English in a bilingual program, or in any program. You learn English on the playground, you learn English in the streets, you learn English in the home.

The bilingual people oversold themselves because it was lucrative–it provided for departments of bilingual education and coordinators and national associations. That builds up an entrenched group of people who don’t have to produce. They exist because the problem exists. Why should they get rid of the problem?

Clowes: What about policies for special ed, standardized tests, and dropouts?

Trujillo: I changed a lot of the special ed people because–just like the bilingual people–their jobs depend on having students assigned to them and care-taking these children instead of educating them.

My theory is that special ed is the result of reading problems. You need to know how to read in order to be tested, and so when younger children are tested into special ed, it’s because they can’t read. We wanted to make sure that every child was reading on grade level and so we went heavily into reading programs early and made major investments in things like reading recovery.

But you can’t just say it to make it come about–you have to mean it, and there have to be consequences for not doing it. When I evaluated the elementary principals every year, my first question was, “How many children in your school are not reading on grade level?” So they knew that was the most important thing to me. After they had told me, my next question was, “What are you going to do about it?”

Today, most elementary principals can name the one or two children in their school who, at the end of first grade, do not read at grade level. That takes care of special ed, because those children are not being put into special ed any more.

Testing all the children is a policy with consequences, too. We test as many children as possible, and principals who have high exemptions know that it will be discussed in their evaluations.

Dropouts are also part of the evaluation of the high school and middle school principals. Like special ed, I no longer ask how many but who–who in your school dropped out this year? My next question is: “What did you do personally to try to prevent it?” I ask that because I think that it is devastating to have children who are being allowed to drop out of school without any intervention. They just float out of school. We have millions of them in our society, on our streets, in our penal institutions, and on our welfare rolls because they haven’t acquired a high school education.

Clowes: So your specific policies produced a difference in results?

Trujillo: In order for the people in the system to know that you’re serious about the policies, there have to be consequences. The people in the system have to know the lengths and the depths to which you’re willing to go to get those results. For example, when our lowest performing high school didn’t turn around after four years and getting a new principal, I reconstituted the school. I fired the whole faculty and started over. I took some heat for that, but I gained credibility. Everyone realized that I was serious and willing to do the ultimate to get results.

The other thing is that you can’t ask people to do something unless you yourself are willing to do something for them. If you are asking people to produce, you have to produce for them, too. I promised my staff that I would make them the highest-paid employees in El Paso County. Last year, we achieved that.

Clowes: With your success, why are you no longer with the Ysleta district?

Trujillo: In Texas, school boards often hire cronies who have done them favors, people who don’t have to present their credentials to get a job. With this, you get two things: cronyism and mediocrity. School boards don’t want active superintendents who usurp their control. The teacher unions are very, very tight with school board members, and they don’t want active superintendents, either. The reality is that it takes only four members of a seven-member school board to change a superintendent and say, “Bye, bye, Trujillo.”

Clowes: Are your strategies applicable to other urban school districts?

Trujillo: I think you can apply the principles, but the techniques will have to be adapted to the area you’re in. I think you can accomplish the same thing, but you may have to do it in a different way depending on the political and social problems in your specific area. For example, we did not have collective bargaining in Ysleta. I had collective bargaining in California and so, by law, you would be forced to talk to the representatives.

Although I’ve spent my whole life in public schools, I think the urban public schools are rotten, and they will remain rotten with the present governance structure. Our job is to change the system. We have to find a way to change the system and change the behavior of the people in it so that they do what we want even when there’s no one there to supervise them. That means we have to set up the system so that the incentives, rewards, and punishments operate on an automatic basis.