New EPISD superintendent wants outside auditor to help restore trust in school district

POSTED: 04:53 AM MST Dec 24, 2013    UPDATED: 12:55 PM MST Jan 16, 2014 
EL PASO, Texas -

The new superintendent of the troubled El Paso Independent School district  wants an outside auditor to help restore trust in the district after state investigators failed to uncover a widespread cheating scheme.

“Certainly that was a big part of it,” said Juan Cabrera, Superintendent of EPISD.

“Other districts in Texas have potentially had problems and we’re going to have to have some outside oversight. And I want that in this district as well,” said Cabrera.

The Texas Education Agency cleared the El Paso school district of any wrongdoing—twice after it looked into complaints but the federal government then stepped in and uncovered a cheating scheme.

An investigation by the Department of Education and FBI found the El Paso district kept low performing students from taking the TAKS test so struggling schools could meet academic standards used for accreditation and funding.

Some students were held back a year. Others advanced a grade without doing the course work so they could avoid taking the 10th grade TAKS test.

Immigrant students from Mexico who did not speak English well or others students who had poor grades were singled out.  Some were prevented from enrolling altogether.

“They pushed us away. They’re like you’re not in this school and we live here in front,” said Guadalupe Guerrero, a 9th grader.

On a rainy morning she walked past Bowie High School with another student on the way to catch a bus to another campus.

Guerrero said she wanted to attend the school that is walking distance to her home. But she said instead of “missing school” she enrolled in Sunset High, a non-traditional school.

“After looking into her situation, we found that she was directed to Sunset High School because it could best serve her needs,” said  Renee de Santos, Assistant Director of Public Relations for EPISD .

The student is in 9th grade now bit 20 years old.

“She also is the mother of two young children and faces circumstances that make Sunset the optimal educational setting for her to complete her graduation requirements,” said de Santos.

Sunset High School helps non-traditional students like Guerrero get a high school diploma.

But the federal investigation also found EPISD diverted some students to that alternative high school to help inflate test scores at other struggling schools.

The TEA is supposed to provide oversight. But a recent independent audit of the agency found schools were allowed schools to police themselves.

That federal investigation led to a guilty plea from El Paso school superintendent Lorenzo Garcia who is now serving a 3 year prison sentence for his role in the cheating scandal. 

Cabrera was hired in August and began work this week. Previously  he was the chief legal adviser and an executive cabinet member at Eanes Independent School District.

He says he welcomes extra scrutiny as he tries to restore confidence in EPISD.

“We’re facilitating the operation of a district that’s completely funded with taxpayer dollars and everyone has a right to look at the way we operate and to make sure we’re doing it legally, fairly, justly,” said Cabrera.

He also wants to start a coalition for Border School Districts who face similar challenges so as a group the superintendents can take their concerns to Austin and Washington. 

The students affected by the scandal, including those who dropped out, are now the focus of a new outreach campaign that includes billboards and door to door visits.

“Please understand that we are working really hard to find students that might have been affected by the previous actions of the superintendent, said De Santos.

“It’s embarrassing for them,” said Manuel Garcia, a freshman at Bowie High School.  He hopes things will change.

“I think it’s going to be better this year, said Garcia as he walked toward Bowie High School.

In front a sign read “Welcome Superintendent Juan Cabrera.”