Education Leaders Go Back to School

Last Updated on April 20, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published April 20, 2017

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

After 27 years as an educator and administrator at El Paso Community College (EPCC), Steve Smith has gone back to school.

Doctor of Education degree program
From left, Diane Duncan, Yvette Huerta, Lucia Borrego, Steve Smith, Keri Moe, Myra Ortega, Marianne Torales and Lorena Garcia are members of the first El Paso Community College and Socorro Independent School District cohort in UTEP’s Doctor of Education degree program in Educational Leadership and Administration. Photo: Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications

Smith, the vice president of instruction at EPCC, is part of a new cohort of eight faculty members and administrators from the college and the Socorro Independent School District (SISD) who started UTEP’s Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) degree program in Educational Leadership and Administration during the spring 2017 semester.

Smith’s short commute to class on Wednesday afternoons is one of the perks of the program. The course, “Introduction to the Doctoral Program,” is taught a few feet from his office in EPCC’s Administrative Services Center.

“It’s great!” Smith said with a laugh. “I walk down the hall and go to class.”

This is the first time the Ed.D. program at The University of Texas at El Paso has assembled EPCC and SISD leaders into one cohort, enabling students to learn from each other, share best practices, and engage in research to improve public schools and higher education across the Paso del Norte region.

In addition to online instruction, students meet once a week at EPCC and SISD facilities, allowing working professionals like Smith to spend less time commuting to class and more time studying to refine and advance their leadership roles.

“What really intrigued me about this particular program was the dual nature of teaming community college administrators with SISD administrators or potential administrators,” said Smith, who also considered doctoral programs in Florida and New Mexico. “I think there’s high value and benefits to our region if I were to learn more about their world and they were to learn more about our world, and leveraging that to make sure that we’re doing the best for our students in the region.”

One of the goals of the program will be to develop thematic dissertations in which students work collaboratively to research a contemporary problem in public or postsecondary education.

Students will share their experiences and perspectives to better understand the problem and will work together to find solutions. The result will be dissertations around thematically similar topics.

“SISD and EPCC have many of the same challenges because they share many students,” explained Rodolfo Rincones, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of UTEP’s Department of Educational Leadership and Foundations. “A lot of SISD students graduate and go to EPCC. They also share a lot of programs, like the Early College High School program. In class, they start talking about common issues and how to resolve them. Their education is enriched by having kindergarten through 12th grade and higher education people learning together.”

Since 1996, the Ed.D. program in educational leadership and administration has offered students opportunities to develop the added knowledge, skills and experiences necessary for leadership roles in educational settings.

“The more educated people we have at the doctoral level in the community, the better educational systems we’re going to have,” Rincones said. “Educators are going to be more conscientious about the population of the students they serve. It’s a challenge for them to get a doctoral degree, but in the long run this community benefits from having more educated people.”

The EPCC and SISD cohort is the Ed.D. program’s 22nd cohort, but the first to be offered offsite to EPCC and SISD educators like Marianne Torales, a science and biology teacher at Montwood High School.

Torales dreamed of earning a doctoral degree, but with a full-time job and a family, she didn’t think it was possible to go back to school.

“I looked at some of the online options out there, but there were so many barriers that had prevented me from going for it until I heard about this program,” recalled Torales, who earned a Master of Education degree from UTEP in 2009. “It just seemed like it would fit perfectly with my particular schedule as a teacher, wife and mother.”

UTEP will work with SISD’s year-round schedule to make the course schedule flexible and adaptable for district employees. As students go through the program, they also have the opportunity to earn an administrative license such as a superintendent certification.

“One of our top priorities is to build and maintain a highly qualified, effective faculty and staff to serve our students,” SISD Superintendent Jose Espinoza, Ed.D., wrote in a letter supporting the program. “It is important for our employees to continue their professional growth and for us to grow leadership capacity at every level of our school district.”

Ed.D. students can specialize in one of three areas: central office and school site leadership, leadership in higher education and other educational settings, and leadership in educational policy and evaluation.

Torales is considering specializing in educational policy and evaluation because it can be applied at all levels.

“One of the things that I enjoy is professional development,” said Torales, a teacher for 18 years. “I think that having a doctoral degree gives you more credibility when presenting new ideas to teachers and administrators. That’s something I could do. I could be a professional developer or even a consultant. There are so many different ways that I can use my degree.”

For Smith, a doctoral degree will help him keep up with the constant changes in higher education.

“What I’m trying to do is make sure that I have the skills necessary to better assess things that we’re doing both as a state, and more specifically, at EPCC,” Smith said. “We’ve got a number of initiatives, and making sure that they’re being effectively evaluated and looked at in the context of limited resources is really one of the reasons that I wanted to go back and work on a more advanced degree.”

Rincones is hoping to develop similar doctoral cohorts for educators in the Ysleta and El Paso independent school districts.

In January, the master’s program in educational administration launched a cohort for SISD educators.

The program focuses on K-12 administration, which can lead to a principal certification. Classes are offered twice a week at the SISD Service Center. Fifteen students are enrolled in the two-year master’s program.

For more information about the Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and Administration or the master’s degree in educational administration, visit the UTEP College of Education’s website at