Carlos A. Contreras – Principal
Carlos A. Contreras joined Dell City ISD this year. As principal, he's the public face of the school, charged with setting strategic goals, monitoring student achievement, encouraging parental involvement and overseeing day-to-day school operations. Contreras said that, amidst all those duties, his role is that of a “coach,” keeping staff and students focused on the goal of academic achievement.
The teachers and students are the “superheroes” and “superstars,” Contreras said, and his job is to empower them to “do their magic.”
“My role is setting the stage for the teachers to teach and for the students to learn,” Contreras said, “and to take away as many of the hurdles and challenges that get in the way of that as I can. I truly want to provide the kids here with the highest quality education possible. They deserve it, and it's so crucial to their future.”
Central to “setting the stage” is supporting teachers, providing them with the training and resources they need. Contreras noted that, in a small school like Dell City, teachers are called upon to “wear many hats.” Contreras wants to limit the “distractors,” and to keep teachers focused on the central mission of instruction.
“There are opportunity costs,” Contreras said. “Whenever they're wearing a different hat, they're not wearing their teacher hat, and that is the most important hat they wear.”
Dell City ISD has many teachers that are new to the profession, and Contreras works to provide them with the support and training they need. Veteran teachers are assigned to mentor new educators. And staff from the regional Education Service Center in El Paso visit the campus regularly, to watch teachers in action and to consult and advise.
The vital heart of the school is what happens each day in the classroom, between teachers and students. But as principal, Contreras is responsible for the big picture – tracking student progress, identifying areas in which students are struggling, and that need particular attention. In collaboration with Service Center staff, Contreras has helped craft “benchmark” assessments that students take every three weeks. These assessments allow Contreras and Dell City teachers to identify areas of weakness, and to modify instruction or schedule tutorials when necessary.
After two consecutive years of failing to meet state standards, Dell City ISD last year met standards and moved out of “improvement required” status. But school administrators and teachers know that the pressure is on to sustain that progress.
The district has seen a high rate of teacher turnover in recent years, and that turnover has been identified as one of the “root causes” of shortfalls at the district. Contreras said that having new teachers is both a challenge and an opportunity. New teachers are open to guidance and training. But administrators want to be able to retain young teachers, once the district has “invested the time to train them and teach them and let them find their voice.” Contreras said the school board has taken positive steps in that direction – including implementing a 2-percent pay raise this year. Contreras said that while teaching is a “profession driven by intrinsic value,” pay raises are a way in which teachers know they are “respected and esteemed.”
The Dell City ISD position is Contreras' first as a principal. But Contreras is now in his 18thyear working in education.
Contreras was raised in El Paso, and after graduating from Bowie High School, he joined the Navy. He was trained at Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps base in California, and at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, as a Navy corpsman, or medical specialist. He was stationed in Jacksonville, Florida, and spent four years in active military duty, followed by seven years in the reserves. His interest in science and medicine carried into his undergraduate studies, and Contreras graduated from UTEP with a major in microbiology and a minor in chemistry.
Contreras said he enjoyed his years in the military, and the camaraderie he found there. He said military service left him with a deep appreciation for the sacrifices made by those in uniform, and by their families. And he said the experience itself was an education, introducing him to Americans from many backgrounds and many parts of the country.
“I think everybody should serve,” Contreras said. “It's a benefit, both for the country and for the individual.”
Contreras said the skills he developed in the military – attention to detail, respect for authority, understanding a chain of command – have served him well, and continue to shape how he approaches leadership.
“You learn that each person has a role to play,” Contreras said, “and that you have to be smart enough to know that you don't know everything, and to empower people so they can give you input.”
After his years in military service, Contreras decided to put his training in the sciences to use as a teacher. He taught high school science at El Paso ISD, working primarily with ninth-grade students.
After seven years in the classroom, Contreras took a position at the Education Service Center in El Paso, providing professional development and consulting to science teachers in the region. While the region's largest districts – El Paso, Ysleta and Socorro ISDs – have their own staff-development departments, the smaller districts in El Paso and Hudspeth counties turn to the ESC for that support, and Contreras worked with science teachers in Fort Hancock, Sierra Blanca, Anthony and elsewhere, to help them to improve their skills and grow as educators.
But Contreras himself was looking for avenues for growth, and he completed a master's degree in education administration at UTEP. After three years at the ESC, he went back to work on school campuses, as an assistant principal first in Clint and then in San Elizario.
Contreras worked with Ruben Cervantes, Dell City ISD's new superintendent, in San Elizario. Contreras said he enjoyed the work he was doing, but that when the chance arose to apply for the principal position and join Cervantes in Dell City, he was attracted to the opportunity. He'd always urged his students and fellow educators to challenge themselves, and he felt called to do so himself.
“Why stay where I was comfortable?” Contreras said. “I want to experience this vantage point, because there are more and different responsibilities. I want to stretch myself – it's the continuing nature of the learning process.”
Contreras is the father of two sons, ages 6 and 9. Contreras' wife homeschools their sons. Contreras said his sons are “the world” to him, the “biggest blessing” of his life.
At Dell City ISD, Contreras has embraced a philosophy of “servant leadership” – leaving his office and getting into “the trenches” to improve the school. He spearheaded recent efforts to clean up the campus, joining maintenance and custodial staff in organizing and hauling off junk items from the school's former elementary building. The building had become an all-purpose storage area – but Contreras and Cervantes agreed the space would be better used for tutoring, extracurriculars and other activities central to the school's mission.
Contreras said he eagerly welcomes the input of Dell City School parents and community members.
“I really want to be here for the community,” he said. “Two heads are better than one, and if there's something that can be done to improve the culture and the quality of education we provide the kids, I'm all for it.”
Contreras said it takes the commitment of school staff, and families and the community, to ensure that Dell City students get the educational foundation they need.
“I was afforded that when I was going through high school,” he said. “I had quality teachers – they pushed us, they challenged us. I want what's best for these kids, and part of that is that quality education.”