HIGHLIGHTING HAPPINESS: In the heart of Houston, a school beats the odds

By: Andrew Campanella

Last Upated: April 15, 2021

Just imagine: elementary school students begging their teachers to open school on Saturdays.


That is exactly what happened at De Zavala Elementary School in Houston. Students did not just beg their teachers to open the school’s doors on Saturday, they begged to go to school so that they could participate in a reading competition.

De Zavala Elementary celebrates National School Choice Week

For Victoria Orozco-Martinez, De Zavala’s principal, instilling a love of reading in the school’s students is an essential component to success.

“Our children are very competitive,” Orozco-Martinez said, in describing the motivation behind participating in a reading competition. “And so we outperformed our competition by doubling the number of books read, because our students were really, really driven by that competitiveness in them.”

In addition to focusing on reading, the school places a strong emphasis on other learning clubs. These clubs help achieve the school’s goal of “addressing the whole child” and “bringing in love and care to our students and connecting with them,” as Orozco-Martinez describes it.

Teachers are encouraged to create and sponsor clubs based on their interests, focusing on everything from 3D printing to gardening, fine arts, soccer, art, robotics, computer coding, and programming. And parents are encouraged to get involved and play key roles in the school’s success and in their children’s academic and social growth.

De Zavala is a traditional public school. If you reflexively think that a school with such a broad range of programs and with such strong academic performance must be in an affluent suburb, you’d be wrong.

“We try really, really, really hard to connect with parents,” Orozco-Martinez said. “Last week, we had a parent university that addresses some of their questions. We addressed reading and writing connections and how to support their children’s learning at home. We also have afterschool events for parents and children.”

The result is that by all metrics, De Zavala is a happy place, where students love learning, teachers love teaching, and parents feel invested and involved. 

It is also a place where students outperform their peers in other schools. In reading and writing, students at De Zavala scored 16 percentage points and 15 percentage points, respectively, higher than the state average. They also outperform state averages in math and science.

Situated in East Houston, 92 percent of De Zavala’s students come from low-income households and 98 percent are Hispanic, with some students learning English as a second language. 

“We are basically in the heart of a poor neighborhood [but] we are one community coming together to strive for student excellence because we want to involve everybody,” Orozco-Martinez said.

Part of involving everybody includes actively promoting the school as a smart choice for parents by celebrating National School Choice Week.
Far from being concerned about the impacts of nearby school choice options, De Zavala – which will celebrate its one hundredth birthday next year – embraces the opportunities available to families with the same competitive spirit that their students draw from when winning reading competitions.
“Giving parents and students choices actually gives them a goal to work on,” Orozco-Martinez said. “And whatever your passion is, you strive for that goal to accomplish.”

Read more: Five questions for Victoria Orozco-Martinez, De Zavala’s principal. 

Sign-Up for Updates