EL PASO, Texas -- Diana Sayavedra had a front row seat to the challenges of running a large school system, particularly one in the public eye.
In the late 1980s, she watched as her father, then president of Laredo State University, faced mounting pressure from city and business leaders for the school to join the University of Texas System.
The UT System wanted control over the public universities along the border, she and her father recalled in a recent interview. But Leo Sayavedra did not want LSU to compete for resources against UT’s El Paso and Brownsville institutions and was steadfast that it would merge with the Texas A&M University System.
“It would have been very easy for him to just fold because that would have been the path of least resistance and would have washed away a number of headaches,” Diana Sayavedra said. “But he held on to his morals and his principles.”
In 1989, LSU joined A&M and a few years later was renamed Texas A&M International University.
That was one instance where Sayavedra saw her father “lead with integrity” and “operate with conviction, knowing what your deal breakers are,” she said -- character traits and life lessons that will guide her leadership of the El Paso Independent School District when she begins Tuesday.
Sayavedra, 55, is the first permanent female superintendent in EPISD’s nearly 140-year history.
Leo Sayavedra, who has had an outsized influence on his daughter’s career, was present when she signed a three-year contract with the district last month.
“The passion and the conviction that I have for the education of children comes from my father,” Diana Sayavedra told the crowd gathered to see EPISD usher in a new chapter.
Sayavedra has no connection to El Paso, having spent most of her 31-year career working as an administrator in Austin and Houston area districts. She comes from Fort Bend ISD, the state’s eighth-largest district with 77,000-plus students, where she served as chief academic officer, deputy superintendent and briefly as interim superintendent.
Despite the fact that Sayavedra is an outsider, EPISD trustees say they believe El Pasoans will be able to rally behind her, finding familiarity in her story as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant and as a person raised on the border in Laredo.
Community support will be critical to her success as she works to repair EPISD’s reputation after years of negative headlines, largely involving her predecessors, Juan Cabrera and Lorenzo Garcia. She must also tackle long-standing inequities across EPISD campuses, and devise a districtwide plan to help catch up students who have fallen behind during the pandemic.
“There are children in our school system in El Paso that are my father -- all over in classrooms in El Paso,” Sayavedra told El Paso Matters.
Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Leo Sayavedra migrated with his parents to the Rio Grande Valley to work in the citrus fields. He didn’t attend school until he was 11 years old, after a truancy officer came across him picking oranges and informed his parents that school is compulsory.
At age 19, he graduated from high school, working long hours to put himself through college. He eventually earned a doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin, where he was classmates with Diana Natalicio, who would go on to be president of the University of Texas at El Paso.
One of the many lessons Diana Sayavedra’s father imparted on his three children was to never forget where they came from and to give 110% of themselves in all of their endeavors, she said. “(He taught us) you don’t quit, you don’t walk away. As difficult as it gets, you stay the course.”
“I wanted my kids to be educated because to me, education was the bridge to success,” Leo Sayavedra told El Paso Matters. “All of my kids had to be college graduates and all (three) of my kids became college graduates.”
Diana Sayavedra, who will complete a doctorate in educational administration from Texas A&M University this spring, calls education “the opportunity equalizer.”
“It has changed the trajectory of my family for generations to come,” she said.
She chose the same career path as her parents, who like her, started as public school teachers. Her first job was as a middle school teacher in Laredo ISD at a campus four miles from the border.
While her late mother stayed in the classroom, Sayavedra followed her father’s path into administration, working as a middle and high school principal for eight years before becoming a director of curriculum and instruction in Pflugerville ISD just north of Austin.
“I always knew that with every position that I held, I wanted to increase my scope of influence, my scope of responsibility, because I knew in doing that, I could touch more children and more children could benefit,” she said.
As superintendent, Sayavedra aims to spend a third of her time in schools with students, teachers and principals. Another third will be spent with the school board and the final third with the community, she said.
When she left Laredo two decades ago, Sayavedra was unsure whether she’d return to the border. But when she saw the opening in EPISD, she said she knew it was time to return to a community she says mirrors where she was raised.
“The demographics in our state have been shifting for a number of years,” she said of the rise in Texas’ Hispanic population. In the 2020-21 school year, Hispanic students accounted for 53% of the state’s public school learners, up from 40% in 2000.
She views her leadership of EPISD as a continuation of her father’s legacy of creating educational opportunities for Hispanic students on the border.
“She’s going to have the same opportunities that I had when I was a young man in Laredo and she’s going to be able to change that district (EPISD) in ways I cannot even imagine,” Leo Sayavedra said.
As to what she would like her own legacy to be, Diana Sayavedra said it’s to leave public education better than she found it and to have created opportunities for students who didn’t think such a path was open to them.
“That’s really what I want to do -- I want to open every door for children so that if they choose to walk through the door, the door’s not shut.”