The 2017 Best in Education Prize Winner
The ballots are in, and TheBestSchools.org is pleased to announce the 2017 winner of the $20,000 Escalante–Gradillas Prize for Best in Education:
Superintendent of Socorro Independent School District in El Paso, Texas
For 2017, the finalists were all school administrators in nonclassroom roles, nominated by peers, parents, and students. As elite leaders in education, they work tirelessly behind the scenes. They lead and inspire teachers and school staff, and they ensure our children get the best education possible. Each of them did more with less, overcame obstacles, boosted achievement levels, and raised the standard of excellence for their schools and districts.
José Espinoza wins a $10,000 individual cash prize, and another $10,000 for his district.
Our second place honoree is Sharif El-Mekki of Mastery Charter–Shoemaker Campus in Philadelphia, whose school will receive $5,000 in recognition of El-Mekki's outstanding leadership. Our third place honoree is Woodland Johnson of Mort Elementary in Tampa, who will receive $3,000 to honor his many accomplishments.
Author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote: “If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” The three we celebrate here lead in just that way, through inspiration and ganas, Jaime Escalante's singular word for the desire to strive for something greater.
Many a compelling story begins with a dream. For José Espinoza, it was his mother's and father's American Dream.
Now, as TheBestSchools.org 2017 winner of the Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education, Espinoza models for El Paso's children, who live in the shadow of the Mexican border, a stellar commitment to academic excellence and achievement. His successes in the field of education would make not only his parents, but also Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas proud.
José Espinoza of Socorro Independent School District,
El Paso, Texas
But dreams don't follow the perfect script.
The unexpected death of his father and the grinding poverty of a north Houston neighborhood meant his mother worked multiple meager jobs. Yet even in the hard lessons of life he witnessed, Espinoza learned truths he would later use as the superintendent of Socorro Independent School District in El Paso.
“My mother was a Mexican immigrant with almost no education, but she demonstrated that success for your children is possible when you have the desire—ganas—to do more for them,” Espinoza says. “My single greatest contribution to create a culture of learning and improve academic outcomes for all students has been advocating for my students just as passionately as my mother did for my siblings and I as well as inspiring others to do the same. From Day One as superintendent, my expectation has been: we must educate and treat our students as if they are our own children.”
Needless to say, that expectation has worked for the more than 46,500 students in his district.
Seventy percent poverty. Ninety percent Hispanic students, many of them immigrants with all the commensurate English language issues. In just two years of Espinoza's leadership, SISD students achieved the unheard of: outscoring Texas's state passing rates in all STAAR exams after lagging behind in nine of the seventeen exams given. And they have surpassed passing rates for grades three through eight in all STAAR exams since.
To state-level leaders in the Texas State Legislature, Espinoza's success is the new model for the state's 1,200-plus districts, especially given he's achieving it with the rest of his Team SISD for a lower cost per student than almost any other district. When the top legislators in the state are wondering how the district is achieving such amazing results, you're doing something right. “For them to single out Socorro made me proud,” Espinoza says.
It's the kind of positive notice low-income families in El Paso need.
“Poverty is the number one hindrance of at-risk students,” says Espinoza, who fought to ensure his schools have the same edtech advantages as richer districts. “We're addressing the equity issue in education by providing electronic devices like iPads and making sure students with no Internet at home have access to hotspots they can check out from the libraries.”
To meet the needs of the most needy and underperforming students, Espinoza founded the WIN (“Work hard, I can do it, Never give up”) Academy, funded by working tirelessly to secure an $800,000 W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant and reallocating district funds. This special program provides more learning time, resources, and support to help students with additional learning challenges overcome obstacles and succeed. “I plan to honor Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas,” Espinoza says, “as I campaign for our WIN Academy as a model for education reform across our great country.”
Espinoza recognizes there is more to challenging students than academics. Sports and fine arts matter too. He did his dissertation on the critical need for extracurriculars. “As a kid, they helped me stay out of trouble. While some superintendents put that aside, students who are involved in extracurricular programs feel more of a sense of belonging to that school. Research shows their grades will be higher and attendance will improve, as do office referrals compared with students who don't get involved.”
Looking back, Espinoza did much more than simply stay out of trouble. From humble roots and an uncertain future, he has walked in the footprints of Jaime Escalante and Henry Gradillas and taken their undertrod path to educational excellence.
“This award means the amazing work we are doing here in Socorro ISD is being recognized at a national level. It's not an individual award but a team award. A school superintendent can have a vision and put systems in place for high student achievement, but it's our teachers and staff that ensure those new initiatives and best practices are successful in the classroom. And our students continue to have an 'I can do it' attitude, even when faced with obstacles outside of their control. We have an amazing team that has beaten the odds.”
Espinoza continues to beat the odds of his youth. Consider these career accolades:
- As principal of Burbank Middle School in Houston ISD, a first-for-his-school Texas Education Agency (TEA) Recognized Rating under the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and ultimately, a TEA Exemplary Rating
- 2009 North Region Houston ISD Secondary Principal of the Year
- 2010 League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Educator of the Year
- 2016 Region 19 Superintendent of the Year
- SISD recognized twice as an HEB Excellence in Education District Finalist
- First in Texas and one of the first in the US for AASA National Superintendent Certification
And now, the 2017 $20,000 Escalante-Gradillas Prize for Best in Education.
“I told my mom that I didn't know what I wanted to do when I grew up, but I wanted to be in a profession that helps people," says Espinoza, who has worked as a teacher, counselor, assistant principal, principal, school improvement officer, and now award-winning superintendent. "I don't think there's a better profession than helping little ones grow up and achieve their dreams.”