Zahira Torres: Digital First’s Metro Journalist of the Year

In June 2012, El Paso Independent School District superintendent Lorenzo García pled guilty to steering a $450,000 no-bid contract to his mistress and artificially inflating student test scores to rig the federal accountability system. El Paso Times coverage was integral in exposing this and other circumstances of corruption at EPISD. (File/El Paso Times)
Headline: El Paso school cheating scandal
Outlet: El Paso Times
Journalist: Zahira Torres
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Zahira Torres

Zahira Torres

Zahira Torres wins the DFMie as Metro Journalist of the Year for her investigative reporting about cheating in the El Paso Independent School District.

Torres, who was Austin Bureau Chief for the El Paso Times, took a job in April as education reporter for the Denver Post, another Digital First newsroom. She is one of four finalists for Digital First Media Journalist of the Year. That winner will be announced Sept. 12 in Denver, when the DFMies will be presented.

Torres and Hayley Kappes shared a December DFMie for their reporting on the El Paso cheating scandal. Torres also won the top public service journalism award from Governing magazine.

El Paso Times Editor Bob Moore’s nomination explained the outstanding year Torres had:

The El Paso Independent School District had faced cheating accusations for more than a year, but managed to frustrate attempts at public scrutiny. When presented with open records requests for documents by the El Paso Times, the district responded by saying that it would cost the requestor tens of thousands of dollars because of the labor involved in compiling the request.

Then, in November 2011, Times Austin bureau reporter Zahira Torres found a tidbit in another open records request. The district had already compiled much of the information we were seeking as part of an audit by the U.S. Department of Education. So Torres filed another request, this time for the information the district had compiled for the Department of Education. Unable to use the cost argument because it was now clear the district had the documents already collected and organized, EPISD officials sought permission from the Texas attorney general to keep the documents secret. In February 2012, the attorney general rejected that request and ordered the documents released to the Times. The resulting investigation by the Times showed that EPISD officials had participated in one of the worst cheating scandals in the nation’s history, denying Mexican immigrant students their constitutional right to an education as administrators collected bonuses by gaming the state and federal accountability systems.

The district released the documents in batches. Torres’ first story was startling – the district had conducted an internal audit in 2010 that found serious problems at Bowie High School, the school at the heart of cheating allegations lodged by a state senator. Student grades had been changed from passing to failing so that students were moved out of the 10th grade and back to 9th grade, where their test performance wouldn’t matter for federal No Child Left Behind accountability. Other students were mysteriously promoted from 9th to 11th grade in order to meet state and federal graduation requirements but avoid having their scores count for accountability measures.

Subsequent reports from Torres documented how the scheme unfolded. Memos from top administrators instructed principals on how to keep certain students, particularly immigrants with limited English proficiency, out of the accountability testing pool. Torres also told the compelling stories of some of the students who were kicked out of school or denied enrollment, putting them in a perilous position as they began their adult lives. An assistant principal confessed to Torres that he had taken part in the schemeto push out students that might not do well on accountability tests. (The assistant principal later resigned after the district threatened to fire him.)

Torres also documented how state and federal agencies failed in their oversight of the district. Her reporting spurred numerous actions in 2012. The former superintendent was charged with and pleaded guilty to leading the cheating scheme. The Bowie High principal was first transferred to a central office position, then resigned as the district prepared to fire him. The interim superintendent, who was the top aide to the former superintendent, resigned under threat of being fired. Finally, the Texas Education Agency in December began the process to remove the school board, only the fourth time such an action had occurred in state history.

DFMie judges explained why they chose Torres as Metro Journalist of the Year:

Zahira Torres completed the trifecta in investigative journalism: she won the release of vitally important documents by being alert, demanding and persistent. She uncovered a story of massive significance and put it before the community. And she got results: resignations by those involved and state action to remove a board that had utterly failed the public. Her investigation of the El Paso Independent School District was classic public service reporting with national significance because it involves a case of cheating to get around the No Child Left Behind act that did indeed leave some children behind.

Other finalists for Metro Journalist of the Year were:

A native of El Paso, Torres began her career in journalism more than 13 years ago with a part-time position writing obituaries for the El Paso Times. She worked her way up the ranks writing for the neighborhoods, business and metro sections of the newspaper. She covered the military and public education before moving to Austin in 2009 to serve as the state politics reporter.

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