New executive director enjoying her role

The challenge of helping struggling schools and continuing her work as a principal supervisor drew Cindy Retana to Ector County ISD.

Retana is one of the district’s executive directors of leadership overseeing 11 schools. The majority are elementary, but she has Bowie Middle School and George H.W. Bush New Tech Odessa.

She was hired in September 2021, but officially began with ECISD in October. Previously, she was at Socorro ISD.

An El Paso native, Retana earned her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies and master’s in education specializing in school counseling from University of Texas at El Paso. She is currently working on a doctorate in educational leadership online from Texas A&M Commerce University.

She has been a teacher, counselor and principal. Then she had a chance to become a principal supervisor.

“That’s what I’ve been doing since 2018 so I had experience with that. When I saw the opening here, I applied and it just kind of happened really … fast. I’ve really enjoyed my time. It’s hard to believe it’s almost half a year I’ve been here,” Retana said.

Having been in education for 25 years plus, Retana said when she got her bachelor’s and master’s there weren’t online classes.

“So going back for your doctorate, it’s a whole different world being a student. However, navigating through COVID as an educator, having to think the model, be part of the team that thinks up the model for kids and students, it kind of helped me be on the other side of it, too, and be a student struggling with the issues,” Retana said.

While she originally thought online learning would be great, it has been a struggle to rely on just her laptop for learning, learn the learning management system for Texas A&M Commerce and learning how to communicate via her device.

“I’m in a cohort of doctoral students that we all live everywhere. We may never, ever see each other face to face and be in the same room with each other. So it’s interesting, when you’re with groups like that, and you’re just on the device communicating,” Retana added.

Coming to Odessa, she said she knew there were issues with some campuses and that the district had F rated campuses under state accountability standards. But change has to be sustainable so it becomes part of the campus culture and no matter who the leader is the success will continue.

“… I was excited to come because I know that there was a great need here. … I’ve liked … getting to know principals and campuses. That’s always the most challenging when you when you go to a new assignment. But I’m going to tell you … I love my team here. I love the other EDLs (executive directors of leadership). I love working with our chief of schools, Dr. (Keeley) Simpson; the other cabinet members. Everyone has been very welcoming and friendly and so … almost almost half a year in it feels very comfortable,” Retana said.

Simpson said Retana joins the team as an experienced principal supervisor.

“Having also served as a principal at the elementary, middle and high school levels, her K-12 lens adds a broad range of knowledge to our work with school leaders,” Simpson said in a text message.

Both El Paso and Socorro ISD are larger than the City of Odessa and the school district. El Paso is right on the border with Mexico and also New Mexico.

“So when you add that whole community together it’s well over a million people and so it’s large. … My district that I came from was much larger, as well. We have about 32,000 kids here and the district I came from had about 46,000, so it is a little bit different,” Retana said.

El Paso has three large districts — Ysleta, El Paso and Socorro. There were also a lot of small districts around it.

“… The district I came from, we had six comprehensive, free-standing high schools, plus our specialty schools. … We had 10 middle schools and they’re building the 11th one, so it’s larger,” she added.

Retana said she appreciates the model that Superintendent Scott Muri has set up because principal supervisors are meant to spend most of their time on campuses with Fridays being their office day.

“… When we go to campuses … We … go into classrooms and watch instruction, watch teachers, so it literally is we are in the classrooms. And then of course, then we go back and we debrief with our principals and we talk about what we saw and we talk about where the campus is at and we look at where do we want to go and what are the steps we need to get there,” she said.

Every student has to show growth and sometimes, and even during the pandemic, they have seen it. For the high performing students, sometimes growth is difficult because they’re already high up on the scale.

She said it is the district’s responsibility, opportunity and obligation to give students what they need “because they only have one shot at third grade, fourth grade, fifth grade, whatever grade they’re in at the moment. That is their one opportunity to master that grade level curriculum, solidify that foundation and move on to the next grade level.”

She noted that people will be hearing about COVID learning gaps for years.

“… It’s not something that we can get out of … very easily. COVID gaps are going to be around for a while. I think it’s very telling when you say … a third grader this, they have not had a normal, uninterrupted school year since, I believe, it was their kinder year, because it was on the tail end of their kinder year where this happened,” Retana said.

She added that it’s the same for every grade.

“… I have a ninth-grade son. He has not had a normal school year like this one since sixth grade,” she said.

Because middle schools are only three years, Retana said it goes by fast and the students may not have a chance to adjust at all because of COVID.

“It’s not just learning. It’s social situations and social skills that they may be behind on. It’s … how to be around large groups again. So the kids have anxieties about that still because their school setting was interrupted,” she said.

Given that she has 11 campuses to oversee, she said keeping track is a matter of focusing on data, walking campuses and being in the schools to notice what they are celebrating, what the campus culture and climate is like, how much student work is on the walls.

“… You feel a lot from just … being on a campus. And then of course, you have data that’s going to tell you academically how are the kids doing,” Retana said.

Asked how they can raise campuses out of their struggles, she said teachers are the secret ingredient.

“It is the teacher. That’s where the magic is. It is what the teacher does every single day with the kids; that is it,” Retana said.

She supervises the campus leaders who have to work with the adults to make sure that optimal learning environments are happening every day.

“As a campus leader, you are entrusted with the adult work. You have to make sure that the state-mandated curriculum is being followed, that the pacing is correct. You have this much curriculum that the state says you have to roll out, so you’ve got to plot it, and literally place it on a calendar and make sure that your pacing is right,” Retana said.

“Then … you’re assessing the kids in little small chunks along the way …,” she added.

She said you need to see what students are missing and determine what has to be spiraled in.

“But you’ve got to keep going. I always say it’s like a moving train. The train’s moving and it doesn’t stop. And there are kids that aren’t catching some stuff, but that’s where the data-driven instruction and data driven planning … comes into play. Because that is telling you we need to re-focus on this again. And it might be in a different time, place and way that it’s reintroduced,” Retana said.

Retana and her husband, Alfredo, have three children. He is a hair stylist and owns his own salon in El Paso, so the couple goes back and forth.

“… He already … so many people here. It’s so hilarious. … He travels back and forth … He’s acclimated very well,” she said.