Master Teachers: A series 

Sandra Urton, a  teacher at Wilmer Hutchins Elementary School, first  came to work as a teacher when she heard of the district’s need for bilingual educators. Urton saw this as an opportunity to make a positive impact for youth in the community.

Now in her 15th year teaching in the district, she had previously taught two years in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, at the Universidad Tecnológica de Cancún, as well as in a middle school and at a language school. 

Where are you from and how did you end up at Dallas ISD?

I am from Mexico City. I decided to work at Dallas ISD because I heard its need for bilingual educators, and I wanted to impact the community positively.

What drew you to education? 

Before entering education, I worked in a French geophysics firm, Compagnie Generale de Geophysique, CGG.’ I was a legal advisor in charge of reviewing bids and contracts between the company and Mexico’s state-run oil company, Pemex, writing and translating legal and technical documents in French, English, and Spanish. Then, I moved to the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, where I realized that some kids were without someone who could help them make good choices. I saw too many teens and young adults struggling with the party atmosphere of the area. They didn’t have anyone motivating them to think about their future, despite having the opportunity to do so. I realized there was a lack of role models, and I immediately understood that I wanted to be that person who could help them become successful, the one who could help them discover their talents and help them believe in themselves. I wanted to be the person who makes a difference in their lives and who would impact their future positively, therefore, I started counseling them. Later, I  became a middle school teacher and part-time college professor, and, not long after, I heard of Dallas ISD’s need for bilingual teachers. I packed a bag and moved to Dallas to start teaching at Dallas ISD. 

How are you creating opportunities for students?

First of all, I take the time to know my students, and learn about what they like to do, so I can plan and create meaningful and effective learning opportunities for them. Once I know my students, I self-reflect and think of ways to reach their fullest potential. I build language and social skills along with content knowledge. I want my students to become global citizens, so I create activities where students can collaborate and engage with their peers. I pair and group them strategically, so that they can support each other and grow together. This is a powerful tool for active learning. Collaboration is a skill that will follow them throughout their lives, fostering inclusion and community empowerment. When working in groups, students learn how to interact socially and the importance of their voices being heard. I create opportunities that allow them to connect their experiences with the content to construct knowledge.

Involving students’ cultural perspectives, experiences, and identities into the classroom  creates a more inclusive and relevant learning environment. I  recognize the importance of acknowledging and respecting students’ cultural identities and using them as valuable resources for teaching and learning. I create opportunities for students to become lifelong learners and independent thinkers through different approaches, such as real-world applications and blended learning activities. 

I foster students’ curiosity, to become innovative critical thinkers and problem solvers. I am aware of the importance of checking for understanding, so I ask students to paraphrase and monitor their own learning and justify their thinking so that misconceptions can be addressed early. I create opportunities to grow and set goals, therefore I implement constructive and timely feedback.  

As a bilingual teacher, I create language acquisition opportunities to develop oral competency in two languages and promote biliteracy, biculturalism, and bilingualism through the implementation of research-based strategies.

My students’ responses provide me with information that I use to make effective instructional decisions. I use this data as a tool to increase and drive instruction. When students make connections with the real world, they engage in their own learning. Self-reflection is also a powerful learning opportunity for my students to construct knowledge.

What is your best teaching tip? 

Provide students with experiences that promote deep understanding and thinking. I also provide clear instructions and communicate the expectations to avoid confusion and promote a focused learning atmosphere. Engage students with open-ended questions and then challenge them to think more deeply. Always ask students to justify their answers to make thinking visible and to enhance their learning experiences. Be aware of the diversity of the students and take the time to explore their background knowledge. Another tip is to create safe environments where students can experience positive feelings so they can associate them through their learning journeys. Making content comprehensible to students, using visuals, and collaborative strategies to help all students create meaning is an effective tip for all learners.  

Creating positive relationships in the classroom and building strong teacher-student relationships are important. A safe environment is crucial for students to learn and to allow themselves to take academic risks. Always provide constructive feedback. Students need to know how to improve every day and we need to set goals with them and celebrate when they achieve them. Always tell students that what they are learning is important and explain why.  All voices are important in the classroom. Promote listening skills and taking turns, as a leadership skill that will allow them to help their communities in the future.  Good instruction is essential and must be accompanied by differentiated techniques to allow all students access to content and accommodate it to their diverse abilities and to their diverse language proficiency levels.

Remember to stay current in the field of education, learn about new research-based strategies that have been proven to be effective, and share them with other educators. Don’t forget to involve parents in the learning process of their children. And finally, the most important tip is to have fun and enjoy what you do every day, students need to feel that we are there to help them become successful. 

What would your students be surprised to find out about you?

My students would be surprised to find out that my bachelor’s degree is in law, and that I speak four languages: French, Italian, English, and Spanish. They will also be surprised to find out that when I moved to Dallas, I arrived with only one suitcase and that I started from scratch in the Dallas ISD Alternative Certification program. They will also be surprised to find out that  at the beginning, I was very scared, because I was in a new country without knowing anybody in the program and not having anything but my dreams and a passion to impact lives.

What inspires you the most about being an educator?

Knowing that students have acquired the social-emotional and academic content and that they have learned lifelong and global skills that will follow them  for the rest of their lives is what inspires me. It also inspires me to know that I have impacted them positively.

Former Dallas ISD ESL student inspires students as their teacher

When Gustavo Zaragoza, a teacher at Career Institute East, was a student and a newcomer to the country, he never imagined going into the education field. Through his work as a teacher, he is now able to identify with his students and empower them, as teachers once did for him.

Having grown up in Mexico, and not knowing the language when he first arrived in the district, he said he felt intimidated at times, and that it was in his ESL classes that he felt safe. He says he’s committed to create that type of environment for his students, where they feel confident and secure.

He credits former teachers like Elena Bates, who is now the executive director of Personalized Learning, for motivating him and helping him feel seen as a student. He recalls a moment when he and other students were taking a state exam and how Bates waited with them past school hours until they finished their exam. Zaragoza said that by doing that, she sent a powerful message, one that he would never forget on his road to becoming a teacher. 

“She made us feel comfortable and would let us be ourselves,” Zaragoza said. “And that’s what I want to show my students.”

Now in his fourth year of teaching Spanish heritage for careers, an elective class designed for native speakers, which meets the foreign language requirement for graduation.

Before working in the education field, Zaragoza worked as a behavior technician in a community clinic. After graduating from the University of North Texas with a degree in sports medicine, he found challenges finding a job in this field, and worked with children who have autism. In his behavior technician role, it was a parent who suggested he become a teacher because she noticed he had great rapport with children. 

That motivated Zaragoza to go through the district’s alternative certification program. It was at a district career fair that he met Career Institute East Director Kyna Eberhardt and Assistant Principal Victoria Davis. Zaragoza came on board during COVID and most of his students were virtual with only a few in the classroom. Davis and Eberhardt knew that he was the right one for the job. 

“You can tell through his language, he has such a growth mindset,” Davis said. “He always wants to be the best for the students. He’s always wanting to learn, and he’s always thinking about what he can do next to help his students.”

Davis added that Zaragoza sees himself reflected in his students, and he puts all of his heart and soul into his work. 

Zaragoza said that if there’s one word to describe how he feels about the work that he is doing  is “grateful.” He said that his students make him happier, and he’s able to identify with his students, especially his ESL students. His students might not notice, but they give him more than what he gives them.

Zaragoza’s hope for his students is for all of them to be successful. He says he wants to change his students’ mindset, and for them to know that they are smart, that they are good enough, and that they can accomplish their goals. 

“That’s what I want to be able to accomplish,” Zaragoza said. “To have at least one of my students say ‘Mr. Zaragoza, your work changed my mindset and helped me.’” 

Davis describes Zaragoza as a teacher who works hard and is a role model who lets his students know they can be anything they want to be. 

“He’s thinking positively and speaking positively to them and helping them problem solve and become critical thinkers,” Davis said. “His level of professionalism and commitment to excellence is executed every day.”

Zaragoza says he understands what his students are going through as newcomers to the country, and wants to make sure that he not only is a professional, but a professional who is a human being, expressing empathy and understanding to his students. He says his students often express themselves in the classroom because they tell him that they trust him. 

His work has earned him the award of “Teacher of the Year” at Career Institute East. 

Despite the praise and accolades, Zaragoza said he remains focused on the work and on making a difference in the lives of his students, always reminded of what his grandmother used to say: “Stay grounded, keep learning, and keep developing.” 

Teacher leads student news team that gives back to school and community

Every morning, on screens throughout David G. Burnet Elementary School students can see a live newscast that includes announcements and the Pledge of Allegiance via Zoom presented by their classmates. The newscast is a project that started during the pandemic and has grown into a daily staple at the school. 

During COVID, Sophia Zolezzi, math instructional coordinator at the school, found a creative way for students to still give their morning announcements and Pledge of Allegiance despite being in a virtual setting at that time. 

“I was looking for a way for us to still feel a sense of community, as if they were in-person at the school,” Zolezzi said. 

So on Sundays, she began recording the news for the whole week. She would record the students saying the Pledge of Allegiance for each day of the week, as well as an announcement for every day. Then, the recording would be sent out to students and parents. When the students returned to in-person learning, Zolezzi said the students were ready to lead this initiative and continue to present their segments live at the school. 

A total of 15 students in third through sixth grades are part of the Student Lighthouse Committee, whose motto is to be “the light that is always guiding the student.” The students take turns presenting the news and other duties during the morning. Students who are not part of the committee are still able to participate in the Pledge of Allegiance, as that is open to all students. 

Before the students start with their news segment, music plays for about 10 minutes as part of the pre-show. Different days have different themes. For example, on Fridays it’s Selena music, Wednesdays is disco day, Thursdays is the 80s, and so on. Zolezzi says the biggest take-away from this work is to not underestimate what students can do.

“Even at a young age, they’re ready to take on these roles,” she said. “They have the leadership skills. You just need to help motivate them.”

Recently, pre-K students were the ones who led the Pledge of Allegiance, and the older students had to model for them and lead their younger classmates. 

“One of my favorite things is that we get to be leaders for the smaller kids and to be an example for them and encourage them,” said fifth-grader Xiomara.  

The newscast includes presenting the news of the day, where they share something positive or a learning fact. Zolezzi said the students are always very intentional with the news of the day and are aware that their audience ranges from pre-K to sixth grade. They also present things such as the school menu and make announcements reminding teachers about PTA meetings and other school happenings. 

Burnet is a campus that is a Leader in Me Lighthouse Certified campus, and Zolezzi says that part of this includes having different activities where students are in charge of everything in order to build leadership skills. 

“I like to show my confidence and I like to give people positive vibes when they’re sad. I like to give people confidence in themselves,” said fifth-grader Leilani. 

Some of the students were motivated to join the Student Lighthouse Committee by their older siblings. Fifth-grader Janet’s brother, who is now a student at W.T. White High School, is an alumnus of the program. Janet credits her brother for motivating her to get involved although she was hesitant at first. Now, Janet is one of the student leaders. 

“My brother and my mom started telling me positive things about it, and that I could do it, so I decided to participate,” Janet said. 

In order to participate in the program, students need to fill out an application and explain why they would like to be a part of the program. Gaby, a fifth-grader who is new to the group, said in her application that she wanted her teacher to see her as a leader. Her teacher is her dad. 

“One of the things I like about being in the Student Lighthouse Committee is teaching other people how to be a leader,” said Gaby, who does the news of the day.

Another way in which the student-led committee supports the school and teachers is to check every morning how each classroom’s attendance was and after several weeks, reward those with perfect attendance.

“They get to see the importance of being at school, not just for the teacher,” Zolezzi said. “They also get to see that it’s valuable to be here because if  they’re not here, they’re not learning.” The students’ efforts have worked. According to Zolezzi, attendance rates at the school remain high. 

Besides supporting their school, the committee gives back to the community by participating in a community project twice a year. Last year, they did a pet food drive within the school to donate to Operation Kindness, an organization that rescues homeless animals. The students research charities as well as what areas in the community can they help support. 

“Having high expectations for students is important,” Zolezzi added. “If a student is shy, let’s teach them not to be shy. Let’s give them the tools that they need because we all can be leaders. We just need someone to tap into our genius, and we all have genius.”To watch a behind the scenes video of the students’ work, click here.

Celebrating African Americans in the arts

February is Black History Month, and this year, Dallas ISD is celebrating African Americans and the Arts with a variety of activities like webinars, videos, guest readers and more.

Join the Racial Equity Office every Wednesday in February for webinars with local artists.

  • Derrick Perkins, Tailor & Fashion Designer of Dorretta Lang
  • Jess Garland, Musician & Founding Director of Swan Strings
  • Akwete Tyehimba, Pan-African Connection Bookstore Art Gallery & Resource Center CEO
  • Curtis King, Founder of The Black Academy of Arts and Letters (TBAAL)

REO will also host virtual readings of African American literature every Tuesday at 7 p.m. read by members of the Dallas ISD Community.

The Communications Department has created Black History Month graphics to use as Google Classroom headers, website banners, slide presentations, and social media posts. Students and staff can access these images below.

A featured event of the month is the African American Read-In, which will take place on Feb. 22 at Fellowship Church Dallas and all elementary schools. REO will distribute books and activities to all elementary schools and livestream part of the event at Fellowship Church so all elementary schools can participate in the read-in.

For additional information, events and resources for Black History Month, visit REO’s Black History Month page.


Meet the Core 4 Champions: Stephanie Espinoza

Stephanie Espinoza has been with Dallas ISD for 15 years, and for the last year has been an Accounts Payable specialist. Prior to that, she worked at Bryan Adams High School Leadership Academy as an office manager and at Thomas J. Rusk Middle School as a financial clerk.

What attracted you to education? 

Being able to inspire others and making a difference in someone’s life.

Why do you think the district’s culture tenets are important? 

The district’s culture tenets are important because they keep everyone focused on what is important, which is helping students succeed.

Is there a time when one of the Core 4 tenets made a difference for you or someone else? 

Yes, every day I have a situation where at least one of the Core 4 tenets has made a difference. Providing fast service to others is usually where I find I get the most feedback. If I can avoid prolonging delays, I will. Being fast while paying close attention to detail is a skill that I seek to improve daily.

What is your go-to Core 4 tenet and why? 

Usually, my go to Core 4 tenet is to be friendly. I think it is important to treat others with kindness and respect. I usually strive to treat others how I would like to be treated.


Access to W-2s

Dallas ISD team members who have opted to receive their W-2s electronically can now access them through Oracle employee self-service.

For those who did not opt to access the form online, paper W-2 forms were scheduled to be mailed on or before Jan. 31, 2024. 

The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows the use and distribution of electronic W-2s in lieu of the paper form. To receive their W-2 online, employees must consent to receive their W-2 form in electronic format. If you haven’t consented previously, please follow the steps below.

  1. Log into Oracle, click on the HUMAN RESOURCES/PAYROLL EMPLOYEE SELF-SERVICE folder, then click on     EMPLOYEE SELF-SERVICE folder.
  2. Click on PAYROLL INFORMATION folder, Employee W-2 Delivery Method.
  3. Click the ONLINE box, then update.
  4. Click on the box that references this: “I hereby confirm that I have read and understood the implications of this form submission and declare my preferences for my payroll documents”.
  5. Last, click APPLY, this will help ensure that you will have access to your W-2 online even if you had paper preference before.

Once an employee has signed up, the consent is valid for all subsequent years unless the employee chooses to withdraw the consent, or upon termination of employment.  No action is necessary for those employees who elect to continue to receive their W-2 form through the mail. Please note that employees who continue to receive their W-2 form through mail will not be able to access or view W-2s online.

Mailing Address Accuracy

W-2s were mailed on or before Jan. 31 to the current address on file in Oracle. Employees are responsible for the accuracy of their addresses and updating them through Oracle employee self-service or Human Capital Management.


Dallas ISD retains more teachers

While teacher turnover increased from 2021-2022 to 2022-2023 across the state, new data from the Texas Education Agency shows that Dallas ISD retained more teachers than similar urban districts, those in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and those across Texas.

Each year, via Texas Academic Performance Reports, TEA publishes data on teacher turnover that gives districts a consistent method to benchmark turnover against peers across the state.

“We begin projecting turnover early each fall, but when we received the data over the winter break, we saw that for the first time, the Dallas ISD teacher retention rate was higher than the state and Region 10,” said Human Capital Management Chief Robert Abel. “The data is clear: Dallas ISD is retaining more teachers and at higher rates than comparable districts.”

Of those teachers, TEI data shows that the district continues to retain our most effective teachers at a rate above 90% annually, Abel said.

Abel attributes the lower attrition rate to the district’s comprehensive retention strategy that pairs market-leading compensation under TEI with wrap-around teacher development opportunities and supportive campus leaders that balance high expectations with opportunities for success.

“It’s a whole philosophy of supporting teachers and making sure they have everything they need to help their students succeed,” he said. 

For early career teachers, Dallas ISD’s teacher mentor program has more than doubled the number of teacher mentors to more than 950 this school year, and the program provides targeted support to accelerate professional growth of those new to the district, he said. 

“Dallas ISD is a great place to work that offers a career ladder with leadership opportunities in a variety of roles as well as leadership development within the teacher role,” Abel said.


Comparative Teacher Turnover by District in 2021-2022 and 2022-2023


Source: TEA

Master Teachers: A Series

Shundanae Pierce, a master teacher at Elisha M. Pease Elementary School first began her journey with the district as a student at Nancy J. Cochran Elementary School. When she was in college, she knew she wanted to complete her student teaching with Dallas ISD, where she has been teaching for the last 17 years. 

What drew you to education?

My elementary years played a pivotal role in this decision. I enjoyed going to school and had great relationships with my teachers. I’ve loved kids since my days of working in a daycare during my summers in high school. I was always good with them and knew I wanted to make the same impact as my teachers did with me. 

How are you creating opportunities for students?

By providing a nurturing environment that fosters growth and success, opportunities for hands-on learning and differentiated instruction, encouraging collaboration amongst peers and the ability to take risks.

What is your best teaching tip?

Strong classroom management will take you far. Develop those relationships early. Remember to be patient and give grace.

What would your students be surprised to learn about you?

I am just as silly and light-hearted as they are. I am a big kid at heart and enjoy some of the same activities they do such as watching movies, swimming and theme parks. 

What inspires you the most about being an educator?

The opportunity to make a positive impact, to watch the growth and development of the  child as a whole, not just academically, but also socially and emotionally, to ignite the love for learning and reading, and to see the joy in a child when they realize they have been successful.

New center offers resources to students

The new Resource Center South is now open and ready for business. Housed at the J.J. Rhoads Elementary School campus, the center supports community members from the Lincoln and James Madison school communities. Essentials such as healthy food, counseling, and medical help are now more accessible for those who need a place of support and respite, thanks to the Bond 2020 program.

“When communities are deprived of access to resources, like grocery stores, health care, job training, recreation, the results are a lower academic achievement in the classroom,” said Pamela Lear, deputy superintendent of Staff and Racial Equity. “Dallas ISD is determined to make a difference. We realized if we want all of our students to excel to the best of their abilities, we need the community’s help in filling those needs. The end result is this beautiful resource center.”

The center aims to provide services that fit the needs of its diverse community, including offering non-traditional working hours and evening programming. Visitors will enjoy safe public spaces with engaging sports and recreational activities, a podcast studio, art classes, summer camps, and academic workshops. To determine the community’s needs, Dallas ISD team members engaged residents through meetings, focus groups, and surveys.

“I’d like to encourage every single family to take full advantage of this incredible resource center because it is a direct response to the things you requested. This center was designed by you, and for you. The reward is great: It’ll be our children’s success, both in school and out of school,” said Sharon Quinn, deputy chief of the Racial Equity Office.

The resource center is located at 4401 S. Second Ave.(Bertrand Ave. Entrance).

Celebrating school counselors

School counselors have an enormous impact on students’ success, and their contributions are recognized and celebrated during National School Counseling Week, Feb. 5-9.  Counselors assist students in achieving academic success and career planning. Their roles include not simply guiding students academically, but also assisting them in effecting change and improving their overall well-being.  

A school counselor’s workday is never the same because each student has unique needs. This variety is one of the reasons why the job of a school counselor is one of the most fascinating and fulfilling careers in education. 

Here are a few ways to honor and support your school counselor: 

  • Send a thank-you card. 
  • Recognize a school counselor who has made an impact in the lives of their students. 
  • Have a counselor discuss their experience and explain why they selected that career.