Dori Fenenbock, president of the El Paso Independent School District’s board of trustees, hasn’t been in El Paso that long, only 13 years, but she has become an important community leader – on the volunteer side.
She won her first election last year and took office with a new crop of trustees who promptly picked her to be the board’s president.
Seven new trustees replaced a board of managers the state had appointed in 2013 to clean things up at EPISD, after the testing scandal that sent a superintendent to prison and implicated many of the district’s top administrators.
Fenenbock was ready for the demanding but unpaid job of school board president. She had already served seven years, including two as chair, on the board of the El Paso Jewish Academy, and was a parent volunteer at Coronado High School for four years.
Fenenbock, 48, was born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the daughter of an elected state district judge, Donald Lane. She followed her mother’s faith into Judaism and her father’s interest into law, earning her law degree at the University of Tulsa where he had taught.
Degrees in hand, she went into business, not law, and started a packaging business that developed the U.S. Postal Service’s first overnight envelope.
In 2003, she moved to El Paso, where she met and married Mark Fenenbock and moved from the for-profit side of business to the nonprofit world. They live in the Upper Valley and have two sons and two daughters.
Mark Fenenbock is chairman of W. Silver Inc., which owns the rolling steel mill just west of El Paso in Vinton.
As school board president, Fenenbock leads a surprisingly like-minded group of trustees who support the ambitious direction taken by the district’s unconventional superintendent, Juan Cabrera.
Hired by the board of managers, Cabrera was a lawyer for school districts in Texas and before that, a software sales executive in Europe. But he was from El Paso and had been a teacher early in his career.
“Change is difficult,” Fenenbock said. “The stars are aligned at EPISD because we have a progressive superintendent and a very committed board of trustees.”
She notes that 88 percent of El Paso high school graduates who go on to higher education do so in El Paso, but the four-year graduation rate at UTEP is only 35 percent. The six-year rate is just a few points higher.
Cabrera is moving the district toward a new educational model that involves less emphasis on standardized testing and rote memorization and more problem solving and collaboration by students.
“The shift is from thinking about how teachers teach to asking ourselves how students learn,” she said. “Children show up and they’re naturally curious and are natural learners.
“At some point, our educational system has snuffed that fire out of them. We want to keep it alive.”
Fenenbock spoke with El Paso Inc. about EPISD’s 2020 strategic plan, the $300-to-$400 million school bond election planned for November and big changes still to come.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter David Crowder at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 122 and (915) 630-6622.
Q: Things seem to be going very well for EPISD these days. And it seems the appointed board of managers set things up pretty well for the new elected board.
Things are going very well. We have a very committed group of seven people who are very much behind the superintendent’s passion and commitment. He is such a great man, and he has rallied us all behind the work that was begun by the board of managers. We’re thrilled to be a part of it.
Q: The district’s 2020 strategic plan calls for a $300 million to $400-million bond election, similar to what we’ve seen in Ysleta. What are you looking at?
Ysleta and EPISD have many similarities. We have a district with aging facilities and a declining enrollment, so we’re continually taxed with having to cut budgets, yet the cost of operating and running these aged facilities increases. So the board of managers approved the facilities modernization plan last April. Because we had so many other things on our plate ... we just came back around to facilities in January.
We are endorsing the plan and taking it into the community. We’re meeting with community stakeholders, our school principals and administrators and parents. We’re meeting with our elected officials at their community meetings and seeking as much input as we can on the existing proposal.
We’ve also formed an 80-person citizen committee. They will work through the end of May. They have in their hands more or less $1 billion of identified projects and needs in our facilities across the district. They will try to select the projects into a sizable bond that we can manage effectively and without too much tax impact.
As for the timing, they’ll complete their work in May. It will come before the board in June and whatever that bond looks like, it will be on the ballot in November.
Ysleta passed $420 million, I believe. We have very similar needs, but we’re even bigger. But we want to do this in a manageable way. We don’t want it drawn out. We’re thinking about a five-year horizon – projects we could take on and manage in five years. Money is very cheap right now, so we want to take advantage of it before interest rates start rising to get as many projects underway now as we can.
Q: What is the current EPISD property tax rate?
The current rate is $1.23 (per $100 valuation).
Q: Is there a target rate you don’t want to go exceed?
We have a meeting this week where we’ll be looking at comparable tax rates across the region and state. We want to stay within what our peers are doing. It’s a balance, trying to be sensitive to taxes and burden on citizens while also getting the message out and getting our citizens to understand the need to invest in our schools.
It will pay back in terms of the educational opportunities and employment opportunities for our citizens, raising the quality of our workforce and being able to attract better paying jobs to our community. We need to do our part and invest in schools now.
Q: The El Paso school district is losing enrollment. What kind of loss did you have this year and what do you expect next year?
About 1,000 this year, and next year, we are anticipating the loss of 1,400 – the size of a small high school.
Q: Why is the district losing families, losing students?
The typical pattern for inner city schools, which we are now considered to be, is that as the city sprawls, you have newer facilities, including schools and houses and less expensive houses around the periphery.
So you see Canutillo in a growth phase; Socorro’s in a growth phase along with Clint and Horizon. Our best judgement is that the community’s just spreading out and leaving the inner core of the city.
Q: The previous El Paso City Council worked to reduce sprawl and to encourage infill development and growth on Public Service Board property. The former head of the water utility, Ed Archuleta, called for discouraging expansion of the city limits to the east because it’s so expensive to provide services and water.
Has there been any collaboration between the city and the El Paso district on this?
It is very taxing on our collective resources, not just water, but infrastructure like police services, roads, etc. We’re not doing ourselves a favor by spending our resources, even when it comes to schools. We’re working with the city and county to encourage families to stay in the central part of El Paso instead of going to new areas on the fringe.
Our job is to grow elementary schools, and many times families will go where the best schools are. That’s what we are focused on doing. But we also want to be part of incentive programs if there’s a way we can work with the city to attract people to the district and thinking outside of the box. If we can be a partner in applying some resources to bringing kids back, we’re willing to look at that.
Q: What is EPISD doing along these lines?
One of the things we’re looking at right now is where to locate our central office. There are 400 to 500 employees who’ll have to move from the location on Boeing. We’re hoping the city will help make it possible to move Downtown, to a building owned by the community college on Stanton and the former Hotel Dieu site.
Q: You are changing classrooms and teaching styles, getting rid of desks in rows and having students at tables looking and talking and listening to each other instead of the teacher. Has that change taken place throughout the district?
We call it active learning, and it was rolled out last year. We describe it this way: Instead of a teacher being the sage on the stage, they become a guide on the side.
They’re helping children be a little more self-directed in their learning. Like having a classroom with some children on their laptops working on a research project on their own. You might also have a group in the corner working collaboratively on a project. And you might have a teacher roaming around the room, helping to facilitate the different types of learning in the classroom.
To do that, the classroom will evolve from 20 desks facing forward with the teacher imparting knowledge and information to a more fluid-style classroom – desks that pull apart and can be pushed back together. And we’ll have space in the classroom where students can get up move around and sit on the floor or at a computer.
Q: Is that going on in all schools and grades?
All schools, all grades. This is a huge shift in how out teachers teach. So as time goes on, we have what we call the early adopters who get it right away. They’re passionate about it they’ve already made these changes in their classrooms. There are other teachers that will be a little bit slower to evolve and understand it.
Q: So it’s in all the classrooms yet?
Not yet. Great teachers have a lot of ownership in their classrooms. We didn’t want to approach this as, “Thou shall do this.” It’s more like, “Let us show you that you can evolve into a better method,” and kind of lead them instead of forcing them. It will be a journey of, hopefully, just a couple of years.
Q: This is part of the 2020 plan?
Q: Is this new teaching style and classroom setup being adopted around Texas and the country, or is EPISD out front?
There are national movements in this direction, and we are following some of the districts across the country that have the best results. In Texas, and particularly El Paso, we’re on the leading edge.
The shift is from thinking about how teachers teach to asking ourselves how students learn. Children show up, and they’re naturally curious and are natural learners. At some point, our educational system has snuffed that fire out of them. We want to keep it alive.
Q: Are teachers able to keep up? Are some having a difficult time?
I don’t think so. It’s about inspiring teachers to have more success with their students. We’ve been in a testing mode for so long. I think this is a breath of fresh air and that we are going to unlock their ability to be more creative in their classrooms.
Q: Are you confident it will work?
What we do know is that what we’ve been doing isn’t working, because our student’s educational attainment is dismal. So we must have the courage to try new approaches. Some will work, some will fail. We have to have the tolerance to let go of what’s not working and to get behind things that do. This is what our kids deserve.
Q: Is it the same for dual language?
Yes, it’s an excellent example of a program that has been tremendously successful. We need to make sure that we are tracking it and that we are communicating the success and failure of each of our initiatives.
We’re showing great results with dual language and kids across the board are testing higher in every subject. The results are truly remarkable. I think we can get everybody on board when we start seeing that kind of success.
Q: Is there another school district that has adopted dual language districtwide?
I don’t know of another district that has adopted it districtwide. We are all in. One thing that is exciting about EPISD is that people are reaching out for us to teach them how we are rolling it out.
They’re seeing our numbers, our success and they’re following our lead. That’s a really unique position for our school district.
Q: Are there other aspects of the 2020 plan you’d like people to know about?
The El Paso 2020 strategic plan is centered on student growth and student performance. We are committed to building better opportunities for our children when they leave EPISD – whether that is prepared and ready to go into a vocation or prepared and ready to enter college. Those are kids that are likely to stay in our community and we want to build better jobs and better opportunities, and our whole community is going to benefit.
Q: There used to be a much greater emphasis on vocational education. A lot of kids took shop and auto mechanics. If you look at the European system today, many graduate at 17 or 18 with an employable skill and don’t go to college. Is EPISD looking at that or is the district’s focus still fixed on college preparation?
We’re looking at building opportunities. We have to be very honest and aware than an electrician could make $100,000 with no college. That is a solid, respectable career. And college is not the right path for everyone.
The important thing is that they’re leaving high school prepared and on a path for something better than just a GED or high school diploma.
Q: Does that mean that kids who are interested in, say, electronics can graduate from high school ready to go into higher-level training?
A certification program. It means they are at an advanced stage, ready to earn a vocational certificate whether it’s electrical or plumbing or auto mechanics.
But we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we’re not graduating every student ready for college if that’s what they choose to do. I don’t see that as an either/or.
Q: Then there’s the whole issue of algebra. Is there any discussion in EPISD of backing off from the requirement for students to take and pass algebra in ninth grade? Many kids are still dropping out of school because they can’t get past algebra, and some school districts are offering an alternative math track.
You do need algebra, in my opinion, and if they do chose to go to college at the end of their 12th grade year, they’re ready. Algebra is very difficult and tricky and we’ve got to get them over the hump. We can’t go around it, we’ve got to get them over it.