Jorge Barrera

District Billingual Coach

When leaders grow, students benefit

In Holdsworth’s Campus Leadership Program, the principal and a team of 3-4 other school leaders take a 2-year journey to become better leaders and learn new ways of solving persistent problems.

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“It’s not training. It’s not a professional development. It is the most transformational experience you will ever have as a leader.”

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Aisley Adams

Holdsworth Alum, Aldine ISD

Each school chooses an area — rooted in data and related to student learning — where they have an opportunity to get better.

Using continuous improvement methods, they learn to:

  • Analyze the root cause.
  • Break the problem into bite-sized chunks.
  • Test out potential solutions before spreading to the whole school.

41 of 49 schools made
significant progress

Despite the challenges of the past two years, 84 percent of schools in our program made significant progress toward an ambitious student impact goal.

McNeill Elementary
near Houston is one of
many success stories.

Speaking skills soar at

McNeill Elementary

Lamar CISD

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Nearly 41 percent of McNeill students are still working to master the English language.

Source: Texas Education Agency, 2020-21

~ 41%

McNeill students working to master English

This mirrors a state trend. In Texas, the population of students working to master English has risen 40% over the last 10 years.


Jorge Barrera

District Billingual Coach

In the faces of the students at McNeill Elementary, Jorge Barrera sees himself.

Barrera’s family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was in the 5th grade.

He went from being a top performer at his school in Mexico to being placed in easier classes – especially in math – though he was capable of more advanced work.

As the bilingual coordinator for McNeill during the 2021-22 school year, Barrera felt motivated to help young students like himself build their language skills.

If students perform well on state tests, they can unlock more advanced classes in middle and high school.

“I was a smart student. People just didn't know that because I didn't speak the language.”

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Jorge Barrera

District Billingual Coach

Digging into data

After digging into data, school leaders at McNeill realized that less than 10 percent of 5th graders were mastering the speaking portion of the state test for non-native speakers.

This was a problem Barrera understood because he had experienced it as a student. Holdsworth’s Campus Leadership Program equipped him and his team with the tools to solve it.

Using methods taught through Holdsworth, Barrera and the team got to work identifying root causes and figuring out potential solutions. The team observed teachers as they worked with students and conducted interviews with both students and teachers.

Here’s what they discovered:

Students felt teachers always called on the “smart kids.” They didn’t feel safe speaking up.

“Teachers had no idea the kids felt this way. They were in tears. It was a big moment”

Jorge Barrera

District Billingual Coach

Students wanted teachers to include everyone in class discussions, and they wanted more opportunity to collaborate with classmates on the best answer before being called upon by the teacher.

Trying new strategies

The responses motivated teachers to try new strategies. Through trainings led by district staff, teachers learned how to incorporate more “turn and talk” opportunities into the schedule so that no matter the subject, students had a chance to practice higher-level speaking skills.

Teachers also learned to structure classroom conversations and seating in a way that gave all students a chance to contribute.

“When we heard the responses from the students ... it made us want to make changes so that they did have opportunities to speak and they felt confident and secure in the classroom.”

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Berkeda Taylor

4th grade reading teacher

Making a difference
for students

The changes made a huge difference for Oladiran, whose parents are from Nigeria and speak two different languages at home.

While his English is good, Oladiran had not yet mastered the speaking portion of the state test.

As a result of changes teachers made, students were able to rotate among different assigned speaking partners, collaborate on answers and get to know each other a little better. Teasing stopped and class became more fun.

After a semester implementing the new strategies, Oladiran mastered the speaking portion of the state test.

Not only that, Oladiran decided to run for president of National Honor Society.

And won.

“By the end of the year, we all felt like family. We were bonded because we weren't laughing at each other. I do feel confident about my speaking ability.”

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6th grader, Wertheimer Middle School

Little changes lead
to big results

Former McNeill Principal Toni Scott – now the principal at Wertheimer Middle School – said Oladiran wasn’t an isolated case. The changes that flowed from their Holdsworth learning had ripple effects across the whole school.

In the small Holdsworth test group of 33 students, the percentage of 5th graders who mastered the speaking portion of the state test rose from nine to 23 percent. The state average is six percent.

As an unexpected bonus, the same group of students outperformed the entire school in reading on the STAAR test, with 83 percent reaching mastery level.

The school population as a whole performed better – in grades, on state tests and in their general confidence around speaking. In 2022, McNeill earned an A rating from the state accountability system and earned five of six possible distinctions.

In Scott’s view, the game changers were Barrera sharing the story of his own childhood and students sharing their perspectives.

These strategies, recommended by Holdsworth, moved teachers in a way Scott had never witnessed, inspiring total commitment.

“When we saw the big picture of the results from the kids, I just started sobbing because I could not believe that our little project had such a huge impact on all of our kids.”

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Toni Scott

Principal, Wertheimer Middle School

Sharing the knowledge

This year, Barrera is serving in the same district office that assisted McNeill with training and is now coaching his former peers. They all want to know – what did you do to get such great results at McNeill?

As a districtwide coach, he will be able to spread the strategies he learned through Holdsworth, especially the importance of including student voice and gathering data to inform better practice.

In this new role, Barrera will be able to serve more students like him – kids excited about their future who need caring adults to help unlock their potential.

Their stories are his story.

“The things we did here were very close to the heart because I was able to step in their shoes. That's what made the difference – when we saw their faces. Not the numbers, but their faces.”

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Jorge Barrera

District billingual coach

Barrera is one of nearly 750 school leaders in more than 220 schools The Holdsworth Center served in 2022.

Santos Livas

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD

At this elementary school in the Rio Grande Valley, Principal Rodrigo Hernandez and his team noticed that when emerging bilingual students reached 5th grade, they stopped making progress on speaking skills, and some even regressed.

Rodrigo Hernandez of Santos Livas Elementary in PSJA ISD is photographed during a Holdsworthh Center leadership session at the Campus on Lake Austin.

Introducing more speaking opportunities during class and via an audio recording app helped the team reach a goal set through the Holdsworth program.

55% of 5th graders made progress on the speaking domain of the state test, up from 29% the previous year.

Fabiola Alfaro of Santos Livas Elementary, PSJA ISD, is photographed during a Holdsworthh Center leadership session at the Campus on Lake Austin.
“Our journey is far from over. We must get every student in every grade level showing growth in every domain. One of the most important things we learned over two years in Holdsworth is that it takes ALL of us to really create an impact.”

Rodrigo Hernandez

Principal, Santos Livas Elementary

Rolling Meadows

Judson ISD

At this diverse school in San Antonio, leaders discovered that too many 3rd graders in special education were not mastering grade-level content. After trying several change strategies, Principal Michelle La Rue and her team began to move the needle by focusing on small group instruction and extended planning time for teachers.

A teacher from Judson ISD is photographed wearing a face mask bending over to speak to a student on campus.

The changes had a much broader impact than expected.

The share of all 3rd graders meeting grade level expectations in comprehension increased by over 10%.

A teacher from Judson ISD is photographed wearing as she works with students at a classroom table.
“The collaboration amongst staff, the vulnerability we showed and the way that we interact and look at problems now was the biggest growth for us through the Holdsworth experience. We are finally having real conversations!”

Dwan Joseph

Academic Trainer, Rolling Meadows Elementary