Distinguished teacher sees students transformed through robotics program

Omar Cortez has been a key player in transforming the robotics program over the past three years at the School for the Talented and Gifted in Pleasant Grove. In his first year on campus, he said he was so excited to start competing that he entered a robotics competition before there was even a team. 

Six interested students joined the new robotics club at the time, and now, Cortez teaches robotics to every sixth-grade student on campus while coaching 40 students in five teams in middle and elementary school alongside three other driven teachers and coaches. Cortez and fellow coaches Julian Beltran, Brittney Fletcher and Alba Ramirez have been working together to foster the teams. They have seen tremendous success.

“The interest in robotics at our campus has grown miraculously,” Cortez said. “It’s been a dream, with all the support that I’ve ever wanted from Dallas ISD. We wanted robots, and we got robots—one for every three students in my classroom. The kids love it, and I love it. It’s been a blast.” 

Mastering robotics is about more than building and programming. Cortez also helps his students develop leadership and public speaking skills, and he said it has been “incredible” to watch them gain confidence and break out of their shells. 

One student was quiet and nervous when he joined Cortez’s robotics club in sixth grade. The student wanted to drive a robot in competitions—a role that Cortez said comes with a high level of pressure—and in the student’s first competition, he became so nervous that he believed he could not do it. Cortez encouraged him to persevere and believe in himself, and the student, who is still on the robotics team as an eighth grader, thrived. 

“I’ve had teachers and my principal tell me, ‘When this student came in, he was introverted, he was a little bit nervous. Now he’s active in class. He’s holding conversations, and he’s participating in different ways,’” Cortez said. “To see that come full circle, to see him grow and become this leader, has been amazing.” 

Cortez recently learned that his hard work and dedication helped him earn the distinguished teacher level. He credits his success to the rapid growth of the school’s robotics program, his students’ passion for the craft and incorporating a competitive aspect into his teaching. 

Every robotics unit ends with an assessment, and Cortez said he loves turning them into competitions, such as robot soccer, in which his students can earn prizes like gummy bears. His students get so excited for the assessments that Cortez said some of them will even come to his room during lunch to work on their projects. 

“I would challenge other teachers to have fun and try to bring challenges into the classroom,” Cortez said. “Once I started doing that and bringing my own twists in, that led to my greatest successes, not only for my distinction to be a distinguished teacher, but also with the students, because now, I have students who are engaged and who are wanting to do this.” 

Women’s History Month profile: Ramona Soto

Ramona Soto, Dallas ISD’s general counsel, is approaching her fifth anniversary with the district, leading a team of attorneys, who advise school leaders, help them make sound legal decisions, find solutions and pursue options. And she says she has enjoyed every moment. 

Soto did not initially intend to practice school law, but when she started working in private practice, she had Dallas ISD as a client and said she fell in love with the work. She transitioned to Fort Worth ISD for about four years before coming full circle to serve Dallas ISD as in-house counsel. 

“I love doing school law because every day is different,” Soto said. “You learn something new every day, and that just means I had a great day. It’s always changing, always evolving.”

In honor of Women’s History Month, which recognizes and celebrates all the diverse roles women play in history and society, Soto shared some of her career highlights and reflections below. 

What accomplishment are you proudest of? 

“I was able to come from a smaller district and adapt to a much larger district. It was a great change, and I enjoy it so much. Not only is there so much to do, but it’s interesting work. It’s truly a dream job for me. I am really proud to lead a team of attorneys and professionals that are making a difference in our schools.”

What advice or words of encouragement would you give your younger self or someone following in your footsteps? 

“Life turns out the way it should. Sometimes we get rejections and we don’t know why, but that’s part of the journey, going through those things and knowing in the end you are where you’re meant to be. I don’t think I could have planned my career out any better. It just happened. You don’t know why it’s happening at the time, but then you see where you are now, and you realize, ‘That’s why I had to go through all of those things, to help prepare me for the role I was meant to have.’”

What helps you persevere during hard moments? 

“Everything is part of learning, falling and picking yourself back up. You don’t give up with every rejection. You learn from it, and you change what you need to change and get feedback. That has always helped me in life, to always question, ‘How can I get better?’ And that’s through feedback. I really need honest feedback to get myself up and do better.”

What drew you to the field of education?  

“I was always interested in being a public servant, and I kind of fell into it. All my early court experience happened with my favorite client, which was Dallas ISD, and I think I gravitated toward it because I felt like I was doing something great.”

What is your favorite memory at Dallas ISD? 

“When they told us we were shutting down when the pandemic hit, it was so foreign to not be in person. I remember saying, ‘How do you lead remotely?’ But I had already ordered everybody laptops by then, and I had implemented an electronic system. It was as though I was already preparing for this huge pandemic even though I had no idea it was coming, and so as it turned out, it was pretty easy to make that adjustment. I get excited knowing that we can adjust and adapt so quickly. The work didn’t stop, it continued, and we’ve just kept going in this new world.”

Promoting a nutritious beginning to the school day

Busy weekday mornings make it a challenge for many families to find time to prepare a healthy breakfast. Fortunately, Dallas ISD schools offer free nutritious breakfasts that are being highlighted during the upcoming School Breakfast Week. 

During March 6-10, the district wants to raise awareness about the importance of nutritious breakfasts offered in schools to ensure students are fueled for learning every day. The Food and Child Nutrition Services Department encourages all families to take advantage of the healthy breakfast choices available at the school cafeteria.

The SBW campaign theme, “Get your day in gear with a healthy school breakfast,” reminds the entire school community that school breakfast provides a healthy and energizing start to the day for students. Studies show that students who eat school breakfast are more likely to:

  • Reach higher levels of achievement in reading and math
  • Score higher on standardized tests
  • Have better concentration and memory
  • Be more alert
  • Maintain a healthy weight

School nutrition professionals and students will be encouraged to show their enthusiasm for school breakfast from March 6-10 as the district celebrates SBW with special menus, activities and more. Visit https://www.dallasisd.org/fcns to find out more fun activities and a chance to win a prize.

“A healthy breakfast at the start of the day is a great way to ensure students are nourished and ready to learn,” said Michael Rosenberger, executive director of Food and Child Nutrition Services. “National School Breakfast Week helps us educate parents and students about all the nutritious and delicious choices we offer.”

On March 8, students will be offered a special treat, a mini blueberry parfait, for breakfast, and on March 9, students will be able to enjoy a delicious and nutritious breakfast-for-lunch meal.

Let’s celebrate school breakfast week together. Mark your calendars and join the Food and Child Nutrition Services team in promoting nutritious breakfasts.