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El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence Celebrates 25 Years of Success

Last Updated on September 25, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published September 25, 2017

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

Concerned by the large gap that existed in the academic achievement levels of minority and non-minority children in the Paso del Norte Region, UTEP President Diana Natalicio and UTEP alumna Susana Navarro, Ph.D., a seasoned education advocate, formed the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence (EPCAE) in 1992.

UTEP hosted an event on Sept. 19, 2017, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. Participants included (top, from left) Kati Haycock, Robert B. Schwartz and Armando Aguirre, Ed.D. and (bottom, from left) UTEP President Diana Natalicio, Susana Navarro, Ph.D., and Ivette Savina. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications
UTEP hosted an event on Sept. 19, 2017, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence. Participants included (top, from left) Kati Haycock, Robert B. Schwartz and Armando Aguirre, Ed.D. and (bottom, from left) UTEP President Diana Natalicio, Susana Navarro, Ph.D., and Ivette Savina. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP Communications

They brought together leaders from UTEP, El Paso Community College, Region 19 Education Service Center, the El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization and the superintendents of the region’s three largest school districts to offer high quality educational opportunities to students from pre-K to graduate school regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, ZIP codes or financial means.

“Over the past 25 years we've engaged in steady systemic and strategic investment in the education of talented young people in this community,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio said. “We've stayed focused on our goals to improve their educational attainment and expand their future options and equally focused on the metrics to measure our progress in attaining those goals. And attain them we have.”

To mark the EPCAE’s silver anniversary in 2017, UTEP hosted a lecture on Sept. 19 to celebrate the remarkable achievements that have resulted from the Collaborative’s collective efforts. The event featured presentations from some of the EPCAE’s key players, including Robert B. Schwartz, professor emeritus of practice in educational policy and administration at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Kati Haycock, former president of The Education Trust.

“What absolutely has to be noted is how very different this community is from the one that we saw in 1991 and 1992,” Navarro said during the event’s panel discussion. “In those days the achievement patterns painted a pretty dismal picture. Few students achieved and were at remotely acceptable levels whether at 3rd grade, at 8th grade, or in high school. What was happening in postsecondary [education] was just as gloomy. The University’s enrollment didn't reflect that community and too few students earned a degree.”

Navarro returned to her native El Paso in 1991 from California where she served as director of the Achievement Council, a nonprofit organization that worked to improve educational opportunities for minorities.

She considered starting an independent organization similar to the Achievement Council after data on educational achievement patterns in El Paso revealed significant underachievement among low income and minority students. Instead, UTEP President Natalicio convinced Navarro to headquarter the organization at the University.

Today, the EPCAE has become a national model for urban school reform. It has been credited with successfully improving high school graduation rates; increasing college readiness programs; and reducing academic achievement gaps across demographic groups.

“The community grabbed ahold of itself, came together to face a not very pretty picture and committed to doing much better for each and every young person in El Paso,” said Navarro, who retired in 2011 after serving as the EPCAE’s director for 20 years. “We pulled ourselves together and pulled together our own best ideas and the best ones out there and we set out to find resources and funds. Today the vast majority of students in elementary schools are passing state assessments and moving to the next grade prepared for the content in that grade, and the vast majority of students in high schools are taking college prep courses and being prepared for college. And enrollment at UTEP is reflecting the demographics of our community.”

Since the start of the EPCAE, UTEP has experienced impressive growth in enrollment and in the total number of education degrees awarded.

Total UTEP enrollment has grown from 17,000 in 1992 to more than 25,000 in fall 2017. Hispanics make up 80 percent of the University’s enrollment, compared to 60 percent 25 years ago. UTEP degrees conferred have increased from around 1,500 per year in the early 1990s to over 4,500 per year currently.

“This region has a very special educational interdependence,” President Natalicio said. She has been chair of the Collaborative since 1993. “More than 80 percent of UTEP students are graduates of high schools in this region and an estimated 75 percent of area teachers are graduates of UTEP. This means we have a mutuality of interests and a shared stake in our collective success, as well as huge opportunities for innovative collaborations, data sharing and reciprocal accountability.”

Schwartz served as program director for education at the Pew Charitable Trust in 1992 when Pew’s Community Compacts for Student Success program awarded the EPCAE a $1 million seed funding grant.

During his keynote remarks, Schwartz credited the Collaborative’s success to its leadership. He also said the region’s geographic isolation served as a huge advantage because it compelled education institutions, community organizations and employers to work together to improve education in the region.

“The motivation for the creation of the Collaborative was if the institutions could pull their resources and if the University could bring to the table high-quality tools and resources for teachers and leaders in the schools and provide the kind of support system and structures that current teachers needed, as well as … build partnerships with schools for the preparation of the next generation of teachers … this would be a win-win for the schools and school districts that participated, and certainly a big win for the University,” Schwartz said.

Generously supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Education and numerous national foundations, the EPCAE launched several initiatives, including professional development workshops for teachers and administrators and a program that provided math and science teacher mentors. It also helped to enhance teacher preparation programs in mathematics, science, literacy and technology.

“In the College of Education, the alignment of curriculum through standards across grade levels extended into our academic programs, which produced courses that emphasized the progression of learning from K-16,” said William H. Robertson, Ph.D., the college’s interim dean. “For the students in our Teacher Preparation Program, this meant a greater understanding of how curriculum is aligned and how to effectively build lessons that lead to continual learning.”

While the EPCAE spurred education reform in the region, its work is far from over.

One of the Collaborative’s major goals over the next 25 years is to increase the number of dual-credit and advanced courses offered in high schools and prepare more teachers with credentials required to teach these college-level courses.

A 2016 study by UTEP’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning showed that El Paso area high school students who took dual credit courses from 2005-15 earned higher GPAs, were 40 percent more likely to continue their studies in higher education, and 60 percent more likely to graduate in six years or less. They also saved $36 million in tuition and fees.

“The next phase of the Collaborative will be to amplify opportunities for the talented and motivated youth of this community to engage in a college-going culture through expanded access to dual credit and early college high school,” said Ivette Savina, UTEP assistant vice president for outreach and student access and EPCAE manager. “[It will do this] by engaging with business and civic leaders to support the economic development necessary to create the high-paying jobs that match the post-secondary educational attainment and aspirations of the students in our region.”