On December 9, 2014, the NISD Board of Trustees voted to rename the Northside Excel Academy after its longtime and now retired principal, Irene Chavez. The Irene L. Chavez Excel Academy was established by Chavez as Challenge High School in 1990.
Ms. Chavez, a graduate of Fox Tech High School and Our Lady of the Lake University, began working for the Northside School District in 1974 as a bilingual teacher. She later applied for and received a Title 7 Fellowship and in 1980 earned her Master’s degree from UTSA. Later, in 1986, she received the distinguished honor of being invited for six weeks to the University of Madrid, Spain to be a bilingual teacher.
Throughout her career in NISD, Chavez not only worked as a bilingual teacher, but supervised various programs such as the At-Risk, Migrant, and Parental Involvement programs. Before becoming the first female high school principal in the district, Chavez spent five years working as a truancy officer. It was this experience that served as the catalyst of what would later become Challenge, then Excel, and ultimately the Irene L. Chavez Excel Academy.
A very approachable person, Chavez would talk to the kids who were skipping school and ask what it was that was keeping them from going to school regularly. The reasons were numerous. Many had jobs that were needed to keep their family afloat. Some had children of their own and couldn’t afford daycare, others lived on their own, and some simply didn’t fit in at the regular high school campus and would spend time at the local mall skipping school.
With support from what was then the Westlakes Mercado Mall, store managers, merchants, security guards, and the community, Chavez spearheaded a “Stay in School” program. Bright red stickers warning students who were skipping that they would be reported were placed on mall doors and shop windows. The successful program also incorporated local television and radio public service announcements.
“My parents taught me that the only way to get ahead was through education,” said Chavez. “You can’t get anywhere in life if you’re missing out on an education.”
Throughout her career, she has made it her mission to get this very message to at-risk students.
“When I talked to truant students, over and over I would hear the same things: they needed less homework, less time spent in school, and flexible hours because they couldn’t always be at school at the same time every day. They needed choices, options, flexibility, and a way to work at their own pace, "said Chavez.
In 1990, through the Adult and Community Education Department, a grant was received from the Texas Education Agency to establish a school to meet the needs of at-risk students. Chavez was appointed principal of the three-year pilot program. Thanks to a business owner of the Valley-Hi Mall, an abandoned drugstore was leased free of charge to Chavez and her make-shift school, which was so successful that when the grant money ran out, the Northside School District decided that Challenge High School provided vital, necessary options to students. In the spring of 2003, Challenge High School and Sunset High School merged to create a new school that would be more responsive, efficient and accommodating to the needs of students who are not thriving in the traditional, comprehensive high schools. This new school built a firm foundation based on the best practices from Challenge High School and Sunset High School where students could engage in effectively designed, relevant curriculum and a unique schedule in order to earn a Texas high school diploma. Northside Excel Academy was established to serve seniors from throughout the Northside Independent School District who have experienced a "disconnect" from traditional education.
The students who last attended Challenge High School and Sunset High School participated in the naming of the new school. Of the three proposed names put forward by the students, The Northside Board of Trustees chose the name Northside Excel Academy. The name seemed fitting because of Northside's commitment to excellence and their desire for all students to have a learning community where students can excel. In 2006, the school moved to its current location on the Holmes High School campus.
Current Chavez Excel Academy Principal, Darren Calvert said “In 2007, I had the honor of meeting Ms. Chavez when I applied for the counselor’s position at Excel Academy. Instantly, I understood how her school, specifically designed to reach out to at-risk students, grew from an idea to a proven way to solve the problem of at-risk students in the district. Ms. Chavez didn’t “interview” me for the job. She sat with me and got to know me, gauged my priorities and my genuine feelings about my job as a counselor. She wanted to know me as a person, not as a slot to fill in her office. She has always been the same with her students. She gets to know them as people, not just students at a desk. Thankfully, she hired me and I was fortunate to work beside her for seven years. She has overcome many physical battles in her personal life but not one day have I ever seen that prevent her from giving 100% to her students and colleagues. I admire her strength, stamina, courage, and commitment to her beliefs. “
Ms. Chavez worked tirelessly throughout her career to carry out her mission to convince others that the only way to get ahead in life is through education. She leaves behind a commendable legacy that has touched thousands of lives.