Just a decade after earning her teaching degree, Dixie Vejil is New Mexico’s Elementary School Principal of the year. But the 36-year-old woman’s fast lane to success wasn’t always assured.
Vejil had a jockey for a mom and, as a child, moved back and forth between race tracks in El Paso and Ruidoso almost as often she shifted between stepfathers. But don’t go crying a river for Vejil. The fact that she had to scramble and couldn’t see herself attending college is what makes her a perfect fit as principal at Jefferson Elementary, a school where more than three fourths of students are categorized as low income and face their own form of adversity.
“It was pretty rough when I was young but I think growing up that way helps me now,” Vejil said. “When kids come and talk to me, I try not to minimize the situation but I assure them that you can be okay. Divorce isn’t the end of the world. Poverty isn’t permanent. I just feel like I can connect with them.”
One of those connections came with Jasmine Jaquez, who was a third-grader when Vejil took over as principal at Jefferson in 2003. Jaquez admits falling into the wrong crowd as a sixth grader. Her grades took a turn for her worse – and her future may have too, if not for the intervention of Vejil.
“She was everything to me,” Jaquez, now a 9th grader, said. “She was the one person I could really talk to. She made me think about a lot of things. She told me, ‘If you end up taking the wrong road, you’ll end up doing something bad.’ If I couldn’t talk to my mom, I knew I could talk to Mrs. Vejil.”
Funny thing is, not many people know about Vejil’s background or the reason for her strong connection with students. In fact, Assistant Supt. Pam McBee didn’t even mention those aspects when she nominated Vejil for the statewide award. McBee was more impressed with the autism program that Vejil instituted at Jefferson three years ago. Autistic students are mainstreamed and also receive individual instruction at Jefferson.
“When it was time to institute that program, Dixie was one of the first principals that we thought of,” McBee said. “Dixie is always going to make decisions that benefit the individual child – whether it’s convenient or not. It’s not about convenience for Dixie. It’s absolutely about doing the right thing every time.”
Then there’s the dual language program that Vejil piloted, one which requires Anglo students to speak Spanish half of the school day and Spanish-speaking students to speak English. Finding teachers who can grow with the program – it’s now included in grades K-5 – isn’t easy but it’s worth the effort.
“If I wasn’t bilingual I probably wouldn’t be sitting here right now,” said Vejil, an Anglo woman who is fluent in Spanish as a result of the dual language program she enrolled in as a child in Sunland Park. “Speaking two languages is so important, especially for me,” Vejil said. “I’m able to communicate with parents. It just kind of relaxes them when someone speaks their language.”
Being receptive to innovative programs such as dual language is typical, according to Kim Portillo, a sixth-grade Jefferson teacher who said Vejil is open to new ideas and trusts teachers to do their job. “She supports us and doesn’t jump to conclusions in the face of angry parents or crying children,” Portillo said, pointing out that only one teacher has asked for a transfer out of Jefferson in the time since Vejil was named principal.
Pat Evans, a fixture at Jefferson for 30 years, agrees. Evans, who has seen her share of principals in the time she’s been school secretary, said she could have retired years ago, but stays, in part, because of Vejil. “You don’t have to worry about how to say something or that you’re going to step on her toes,” Evans said. “She’s just one of us. We’re like one big family.”
So much so, that Vejil shows up at many of her students extracurricular events. “Jefferson isn’t like a (middle-income) school where you tell the kids, ‘We have science fair next week. Be there,’” Vejil said. “You have to pump them up and give them a reason to attend things.”
Which is why Vejil spends much of her spare time keeping track of her students. “If I didn’t go to their basketball games, if I didn’t go to science fair, it wouldn’t be as important for them. When they know you care, when they see you outside of school, that’s a big thing for them.”
Vejil should know. She credits high school teachers with one, convincing her to attend college and, two, helping her get the agricultural scholarship to New Mexico Junior College that made it financially possible.
The rest was up to Vejil, who didn’t waste any time collecting bachelor’s and master’s degrees while finding a new life and family in Lea County. “It’s just an expectation to succeed,” Vejil said. “I tell the kids that our school may be located in a poor neighborhood, but that’s not who we are. Just because you’re low income, you can still have goals. You may go over hurdles to get there, but you can still accomplish things.”
Things like becoming New Mexico’s Elementary Principal of the Year.