Mentoring Cohorts

The TALAS mentoring program is a two-year experience for a cohort of school administrators who desire to have a school superintendent or cabinet-level mentor not in their current school system or working chain of command. The program physically meets three times a year attached to the three TASA conferences for the purpose of networking and professional development around career building and successfully serving our students of color. The below list features the protégés of Cohorts 5–7.

Cohort 5

Sarah Schmerber Hodges

Mentor: Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora

Sarah has been developing, coaching and mentoring leaders in the educational community for 12+ years. She currently leads a team of talented educators in Central, Texas as campus Principal. She also has partnered with local nonprofits and civic organizations that are passionate about ensuring high-quality public education for all students and improving outcomes for marginalized communities.

In 2009, she was recruited to assist with the opening of a new school with high poverty enrollment in an effort to establish high-quality performance. In 2012, she began her work on a turnaround campus that had a record of underperformance and high numbers of low socioeconomic students. Through innovative strategic programming, she led multiple teams to align systems and improve student outcomes and created a new campus culture grounded in high-expectations and student empowerment. She is now at her 4th turnaround campus and looking to scale her impact to the district executive level.

She has led & facilitated a variety of professional development workshops designed to improve communication regarding strategic goals, recruiting high-quality teachers, engaging with spanish-speaking communities, hiring & onboarding new team members for campus culture & fit as well as how to create a safe sustainable work environment with less turnover and more engagement. Sarah has raised money for schools through 5K running events, parent-church glow-in-the-dark dodgeball tournaments, online virtual events and Relay for Life teams to fight cancer.

She has a passion for excellence and self-improvement. Sarah is strategic and driven to get results. She has skills at connecting with people on a human level and influencing change to transform their day-to-day work by aligning their company’s events, patterns of behavior, systems and structure and individual mental models. She relies on a strength-based approach and ensures realistic progress to success with annual strategic goals. She builds sustainable teams that bring a diverse group of people together for a common purpose.

Sarah is passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion. She uses her lived experience as the child of migrant parents and Mexican American ethnic studies from UT-Austin for improving public schools for all students. She is a voracious reader and does contract work with the Central Texas Writing Project housed out of Texas State University and hosts a Women in Leadership Podcast & Social Media Group, The Nectar Anthologies. Sarah is bilingual and believes bi-literacy is an equalizer! In her personal time she enjoys being outside including exercise, travel, running, golf and hiking national parks with her husband, family and dog-child, Colonel Stiglitz. Sarah is living the American Dream!

Melissa Holguin

Dr Melissa Holguin is a native of San Antonio, Texas and is committed to serving her community as a lifetime educator. Dr. Holguin currently serves as the Principal of Somerset’s Shirleen Zacharias Early College Leadership Academy. She has been an educator in San Antonio for the past 20 years. Previously she was an administrator at both the campus and district levels at New Frontiers Charter School, a community-based charter school south of downtown San Antonio. She began her career as an upper elementary teacher in Judson ISD in 2001. 

Dr. Holguin is a product of San Antonio ISD, graduating from Thomas A. Edison High School. She attended Trinity University where she earned a Bachelor’s Degree, a Masters of Arts in Teaching, and a Masters of Educational Administration. In May of 2017 received her Doctoral degree in Educational Administration in the Cooperative Superintendency Program at the University of Texas in Austin. 

Dr. Holguin has led the ZECLA campus since 2017 and has worked to continually improve the program after reaching the first milestone of graduating the inaugural senior class in May 2018, with 100% of students consistently earning both a high school diploma and an Associate’s degree, becoming redesignated as an official early college high school campus, and earning the campus the district’s only A rating. She looks forward to continuing to elevate the expectations of the students and staff at ZECLA to provide a rigorous instructional program paired with post-secondary skills to ensure all students graduate college and career ready.

Lisa Walls

Mentor: Dr. Michael Cardona

Lisa Walls is Principal at Chapa Middle School in Hays CISD, Kyle. She opened up CMS in 2006. Lisa was an elementary teacher for 8 years and an Assistant Principal at Wallace Middle School and Lehman High School for 2.5 years. CMS was named a School to Watch in 2011 and was re-designated in 2014, 2017 and 2020. 

Lisa was born and raised in San Marcos. She received her Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies (1995) and her Master of Education in Education Administration (2001) from Southwest Texas State University. She is currently attending Texas State University to attain her Superintendent’s Certification. She has been married for 11 years and is a doting mom to their beautiful daughter Analisa Ruth Walls.

Michael J. Ruiz

Mentor: Dr. Anthony Sorola

Michael J. Ruiz was named principal of Geneva Heights after serving as Assistant Principal at Woodrow Wilson High School where he led the Math and Science departments to two straight years of academic gains.

Mr. Ruiz joined DISD in 2008 after working in marketing for six years. During his 11 years in education, the engagement strategies and customer service skills from his time in corporate America have influenced his teaching and leadership styles.

In his nine years as a Dual-Language Teacher, Mr. Ruiz had the privilege of working with widely diverse populations of students and staff. At Hotchkiss Elementary, he served students from 17 different countries.

At William B. Travis Vanguard, Mr. Ruiz learned to personalize his instructional practices to meet the unique needs of Gifted and Talented students.

In 2016, he was honored to be named one of Dallas ISD’s District Teachers of the Year. The following year he received the Jose Marti National Teacher of the Year Scholarship at the National Association of Bilingual Education Conference.

Mr. Ruiz joined the Woodrow Wilson Wildcat Family in 2017, where he quickly planned and implemented the secondary Dual-Language program. Despite these successes, Mr. Ruiz affirms that he does not consider awards or test scores to be the crowning achievements of his teaching career, but rather the meaningful relationships he has formed with students, parents and staff.

Neil Bonavita

Mentor: Dr. Stan Paz

Neil Bonavita is a product of New York and Texas public schools. After obtaining his bachelors degree in in both American Cultural History and Russian and Soviet history from Portland State University he secured his Doctor of Jurisprudence degree and for 13 years represented victims of medical malpractice and defective products before transitioning to a career in public education. For the past 17 years, Neil has served in a variety of capacities both at the campus-level and in central administration, having taught students and coached teachers, facilitated school improvement programs and identified and acquired talented educators. He has held director-level positions in student services, special education, and policy development and currently serves as counsel for Fort Worth Independent School District.

When he is not serving Texas students, you might find Neil on a Texas back country road—he’s an avid motorcyclist and loves spending time exploring Texas State Parks.

Denisha Jackson-Presley

Mentor: Dr. Craig Shapiro

 Denisha Jackson-Presley was raised in Anson, Texas where her father served thirteen years on the school board. Surrounded by a life of educational policy, she was in the 6th grade when she told her dad she wanted to work with teens when she grows up! Graduating from Texas State University in 1999, Denisha began her career as an English teacher at Nolan Middle School in Killeen ISD. One year later she assumed her first high school teaching position as a 9th grade teacher in Lockhart ISD. She spent the next eight years teaching English in high school classrooms at Lockhart and San Marcos, respectively.

Earning her Masters of Education from Texas State University, in 2007 Denisha began her career as an Assistant Principal at San Marcos High School and was quickly named Lead Assistant Principal. Playing a monumental role in the restructuring of the organization from a traditional high school to a wall to wall academy; building the school’s first Positive Behavior Initiatives and Supports program; in addition to, its first Advisory and Response to Intervention Programs Denisha quickly moved into an Academy Administrator (Associate Principal) where she would oversee two schools within the school.  In 2013 Mrs. Presley accepted a position as Principal of the Lockhart High School Freshman ML Cisneros Campus. There she applied and earned her campus a position in ESC XII’s pilot, Restorative Discipline program. Through implementation, in only one year the LHSFMCC was able to decrease major disciplinary infractions by eighty-five percent and a seventy-five percent increase in credit recovery. 

In 2016, Denisha made history as the first African-American High School Principal in Hays County when she assumed the role as principal at Lehman High School – Hays CISD. There she is known to have had a dramatic positive impact on the culture of the school-community. Through her work as a transformational leader with a focus on rebranding culture and tier one instruction, Lehman high school moved from just points above Improvement Required to a B-Rated school.  In 2019 Denisha accepted the position as principal at San Marcos High School – San Marcos CISD where she led its inaugural year as an Early College High School; a 1:1 technology high school…and its inaugural year in a pandemic! 

With a heart for community; a soul for culture and a focus on instruction Denisha Presley continues to work closely with the San Marcos High School and ISD’s learning community  to develop a shared vision of high expectations and 360◦ comprehensive action plan to love children through this pandemic and on to capitalize on the opportunities that await them both before and when the dust settles. 

Denisha has recently joined the Texas State University – Superintendent’s Certification Program and will to complete certification in May, 2022.

Cohort 6

Abigail Tarango

Mentor: Dr. Stan Paz

Abigail Tarango serves as an administrator with the Ysleta ISD in El Paso, Texas, as the Director of Special Projects and Strategic Initiatives, Abigail works in a cross-functional leadership capacity strategic role. She supports the Superintendent and Executive Cabinet with advanced managerial, consultative, and professional work providing leadership, professional expertise, and strategic direction to support the District with various special projects and initiatives. Such as Bond Referendums, Facilities and Construction Projects, Maintenance and Operations Departments, Internal and External Stakeholders, Regional and State-level Relationships, and others. Throughout her career, Abigail has been an educator at the preschool, high school, and post-secondary level, including a faculty role with TRio Upward Bound at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), and a faculty member with Texas A&M AgriLife as an Extension Educator for the County of El Paso.  Additionally, Abigail has served as a Board Member with El Paso Center for Children, Goodwill of El Paso, Inc., was a member of the Junior League of El Paso, and works closely with Wise Latina International (WLI). She maintains an active role in her community, building bridges between organizations that serve the Paseo del Norte. At a state and national level, Abigail has served in various committees and roles. For example, an active member and protégé of the Texas Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (TALAS), annual presenter and member of the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS), annual presenter, serving on various committees, and member of the Texas Association of Superintendents and Administrators (TASA), and Advisory Council Board Member for the Texas Education Consortium for Male Students of Color under the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin.

As a recipient of the 2017 Women Leading Education (WLE) Across Continents by the School Superintendents Association (AASA), Abigail is also a mama of three teenagers, a doctoral candidate at New Mexico State University (NMSU), a published author, a scholar, speaker/presenter, and advocate for social justice issues, access and opportunity, champion of public education (EE-12), Postsecondary Education, and Educational Pipeline (EE-20).

Beatris Martinez

Mentor: Rene Sanchez

As a first-generation Mexican-American, my life is proof that caring educators paired with meaningful learning experiences can equip a generation with the necessary skill set to succeed in life, regardless of their background or socioeconomic status. The two educators that impacted my life the most include my first-grade teacher who taught me to read and nurtured my learning of a new language through hands-on and real-world experiences, and the other being the college advisor that held my newborn son as she coached me through the enrollment process for my first college course. 

My parents made sacrifices when they came to this country and dreamed of what I would achieve. Learning grade-level skills and a second language at the same time often made me feel lost. My parents always encouraged me to do well in school. While I managed to excel in my studies as I started to dominate the new language, I had to resolve school challenges on my own due to my parent’s limited schooling and inability to speak English. I graduated from high school as a Texas Scholar and worked two jobs to contribute my portion to the household income.   

They say your life can change in a split second, and when I held my newborn son for the first time as an unemployed, teenage mom, it did. I felt as though my world stopped when I realized the difficult challenges my son would face because of my decisions. I felt shame and despair when I saw my parent’s faces filled with disappointment for my lack of preparation and life choices. Not being able to supply my son with his basic needs forced me to request government assistance. While waiting in line, I vowed to change my life and one day be on the other side, helping others not requesting it. I knew that a college education would give me a second chance I needed to provide my son a life without poverty. Education gave me hope to reimagine my life beyond what other people could see.    

In 2002, I earned an Associate of Arts degree from Richland College, then continued my studies and, in 2005, became the first college graduate of my family when I walked the stage to receive my bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas at Dallas. I then initiated my career in the profession that changed the course of my son’s and my own life, education—returning to serve in the district that did so much for me was an honor. As a bilingual teacher, I identified myself with the students I taught and did everything within my reach to equip them with the academic and life skills needed as a first-generation Latino student. I pursued a degree in leadership and earned a Master of Arts from Texas A&M University-Commerce in 2008. I worked for four years as an assistant principal and have led my campus as an elementary principal for approximately nine years now. While there have been challenges, my commitment to provide our students with the same opportunity for a better life overshadows any thoughts of doubt or impossibility.     

As a parent, educator, and community member, I believe it’s my responsibility to contribute a legacy that leaves this world better than it was before me. Since joining TALAS, I have been blessed with the opportunity and privilege to extend the organization’s growth as the current president of a local affiliate through Garland ISD’s Garland Association of Latino Administrators (GALA). I’ve experienced, first-hand, what the power of education can do to unlock doors of opportunity, empower, heal, and change the course of a life. No amount of money could repay what the educators in my life did for me, and because of that, I strive to pay it forward as a leader in both education and my community. 

Having the honor to join such an exemplary organization provides me with the necessary tools and abilities to extend my contribution at a larger scale for the growth and development of more leaders. Attending the Texas Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (TALAS) has been beneficial and the opportunity is especially valuable to me, as it has allowed me to learn from a community of professionals that have achieved and succeeded with professional goals that I plan to one day achieve. The dialogue, wisdom, and leadership experiences are immeasurable, and the benefits outweigh the knowledge gained from traditional learning. 

Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, said it best when he stated, “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is about growing others.” This quote brings to mind the value of what the program is doing by establishing such cohorts that offer unique opportunities of growing and equipping leaders with the capacity to succeed and thereby creating a cycle in which developed leaders can help create new generations of leaders.  

Joining such a professional community has been an honor and one of the greatest opportunities for my development, professional goals, and career. I commit to prioritizing the time, energy, and one day, the contribution of paying it forward to a community of leaders and upcoming TALAS cohorts.

Eileen Puente

Mentor: Dr. Mark Ramirez

Eileen Puente is currently the principal of Rucker Elementary School in Houston ISD.  Mrs. Puente’s 13 years with HISD include her experience as a classroom teacher and reading interventionist at Golfcrest Elementary, as well as her service to Patterson Elementary as a magnet coordinator and assistant principal.  She is proud of her work with the leadership team at Patterson Elementary which led the campus to earn five TEA distinctions in 2017.  While leading Rucker Elementary, she strives to improve academic achievement, leadership effectiveness, and school culture.  During her time with HISD, she has earned recognition as Teacher of the Year, ESL Teacher of the Year, and, in 2019, East Area Elementary Assistant Principal of the Year.  Mrs. Puente is a native Houstonian with a bachelor’s degree in Applied Learning and Development from the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston, and an MBAE from the University of St. Thomas.

Filemón Aldama

Mentor: Dr. Lucio Calzada

Filemón Aldama is an Assistant Principal at Deerpark Middle School in Round Rock ISD where he has served for the past 4 years. He also served Austin ISD as a teacher, and instructional Coach for 9 years. Throughout his career as an educator, he has centered his work on giving voice to the marginalized, committing to family outreach, and celebrating the communities he serves. 

Lacye Matejowsky

Mentor: Dr. Craig Shapiro

Lacye Matejowsky has served Texas high schools for over 16 years. During this time, she has led as a teacher, Student Activities Coordinator, Instructional Coach, district professional developer, Assistant Principal, and currently as Assistant Principal – Dean of Instruction.  She began her career as a high school teacher and debate coach. In 2008 she was named the National Speech Communication Association’s National Secondary Speech Teacher of the Year. As debate coach, Matejowsky led her school’s speech and debate program to more than double in size and earn national recognition as well as several UIL state championships. As Student Activities Coordinator, Matejowsky launched one of Central Texas’ first  one hour lunch programs to embed school day supports for students as well as opportunities to connect each student with an extracurricular activity. This program became a model for others as Matejowsky presented her unique design at TASSP and hosted several site visits for schools around Texas. Matejowsky has launched three comprehensive instructional coaching programs resulting in increased academic performance for one of Central Texas’ most diverse, economically disadvantaged campuses leading the school from a C rated campus to a B in one year.

Matejowsky also serves in higher education, teaching Fundamentals of Human Communication at Texas State University- San Marcos and by supervising speech student teachers for the University.

Matejowsky’s most treasured role is that of momma to her two daughters. She also enjoys reading, running, Ted Lasso, and visiting family back in south Texas.

Linda García

Mentor: Dr. Veronica Vijil

Linda García is entering her 20th year serving in public education.  Having been born and raised in Brownsville, Texas, she began her bilingual teaching career back in her hometown after completing her undergraduate degree at Texas A&M-College Station.   Once moving to Central Texas, she started to work in Hays CISD as a 5th grade bilingual teacher and continued to pursue her Master’s in Education in Educational Technology.  Once she completed her master’s, she pursued a new chapter in her career and transitioned to a role as an instructional technologist.  She spent some time with the Hays CISD special education dept. as an instructional technologist and then instructional specialist.  Her time spent in an instructional support role was the catalyst that motivated her to pursue her principal certification and move into administration. She served as a middle school assistant principal for three years before moving to an elementary AP role.  Her passion for early intervention is what motivates her to want to continue to work at the elementary level and hopefully become a school principal one day.

Leticia Vega

Mentor: Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora

Leticia Vega is the Director of International High School.  She was born in McAllen, Texas and attended the University of Texas Pan American where she received her bachelor’s in education.  She received her Master’s in Education Administration from the University of Texas San Antonio.  Ms. Vega began her teaching career in the Rio Grande Valley where she taught high school English for 6 years and then moved to San Antonio where she taught English at Fox Tech High School for 2 years while completing her Master’s in Administration. She has been an administrator with Austin ISD for 13 years and started her administrative journey as the assistant principal of International High School. Ms. Vega was also the proud of Martin Middle School for 4 years. Ms. Vega says she has the best job in the world and draws her strength from her students and community.  She is currently pursuing her PhD at Texas State University.

Mechiel Rozas

Mentor: Dr. Celina Estrada-Thomas

Dr. Mechiel Rozas has spent her life serving our children and their families. A native Texan, she has served as a teacher, instructional coach, PK-12 principal, and district director. She has launched literacy initiatives and expanded early childhood programming in a large urban district. Mechiel joined Teaching Strategies in January and she is eager to partner with our Texas educators as they support our youngest learners.

Ramona Morin Aguilar

Director of Family and Community Engagement, Garland ISD

Mentor: Dr. Abelardo Saavedra

Dr. Ramona Morin Aguilar is currently the Director of Family and Community Engagement in Garland ISD. With over 20 years in public education, she has been a bilingual teacher in Lubbock ISD, assistant principal and principal in Garland ISD, and has served previously as the Region 10 bilingual/ESL/migrant program coordinator. Most recently, Dr. Aguilar was a panel member at the 2019 State Board Of Education Learning Roundtable serving as a model program that exemplifies the SBOE Long Range Plan in the area of Family and Community Engagement.  Dr. Aguilar was awarded a Raise Your Hand Texas Raising Family Partnerships fellowship to attend the Harvard Family Engagement Institute in 2017. She has also received a Texas PTA Honorary Life Membership and was awarded the 2018 Parent and Family Engagement Model School award at the Statewide Parent Involvement Conference. Dr. Aguilar was named the Garland Association for Hispanic Affairs Educator of the Year in 2018 and the Rowlett Chamber Educator of the Year in 2014. She currently serves the GISD Council of PTAs as the District Liaison and has been a Silver Angel Member by joining 10 local PTAs for the past five years. Dr. Aguilar is an active member of the GISD community and serves on the Salvation Army of Garland Advisory Council.  She is also a member of the Garland Association For Hispanic Affairs and the Kiwanis Club of Garland. Dr. Aguilar received her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Texas Tech University and a doctorate at Texas A&M University-Commerce. Most importantly Ramona is a wife, Sachse High School band mom, Girl Scout mom and a tireless advocate for all Garland ISD families.

Victoria Sendejo

Mentor: Dr. Richard Lopez

Victoria Sendejo is a native of Fort Worth, Texas and has served in the education field for more than 21 years. She is bilingual (English/Spanish) and has previously served in the roles of classroom teacher, special education teacher, special education coordinator, assistant principal, and principal in elementary and high school campuses. Currently, Mrs. Sendejo serves as the Associate Superintendent for Lena Pope & Chapel Hill Academy in Fort Worth.

Mrs. Sendejo earned her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and her Master of Education with an emphasis in Correctional Special Education from the University of North Texas. She holds a Texas teaching certificate in Special Education EC-12th, a Principal certificate and a Superintendent certificate.  She attended the Art of Leadership program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is currently completing her Doctorate of Education at Texas Wesleyan University.

Mrs. Sendejo is known to her students as someone who shares her excitement of learning, while maintaining high academic and behavioral expectations and always celebrating successes. She is known amongst her colleagues for prioritizing safe learning environments; promoting social emotional learning and trauma informed practices; cultivating leadership capacity in others; expanding student development initiatives in the areas of student and parent engagement and campus and district culture. 

Mrs. Sendejo is a firm believer of investing in others and her community and is active in several organizations. She has mentored several principal interns who now hold educational leadership positions across the state.  She previously served on the Advisory Board to the Texas Wesleyan School of Education and was recently named President-Elect of Region XI Texas Elementary Principals & Supervisors Association TEPSA for 2020-2021.

Stacy Garcia

Mentor: Dr. Ruben Alejandro

Stacy Garcia is the proud principal of the High School for Law and Justice in the Houston Independent School District. She began her career in education 16 years ago as a bilingual teacher at Davila Elementary School and has also served as an instructional specialist at Law Elementary School.  Her administrative experience continued as an assistant principal at Lanier Middle School, where she was responsible for providing instructional support to the science department that led to academic gains. Prior to becoming principal she was also an administrator at Chavez High School. Mrs. Garcia’s experience at all levels of PK-12 is an asset to her campus, staff and students.  She is dedicated to improving academic outcomes for all students and ensuring that they are prepared for the challenges of the world outside the walls of the campus.  She holds a bachelor’s in Interdisciplinary Studies from University of Houston-Downtown and a master’s in Educational Administration from University of Houston-Clear Lake. 

Venus Valenta

Mentor: Dr. Xochitl Rodriguez

Dr. Venus Valenta serves as Executive Director of Curriculum & Instruction in Pleasanton Independent School District. She oversees the planning, development, implementation and evaluation of the school district’s instructional programs. Dr. Valenta has over nineteen years of experience in education. Her past experiences include working in a large, urban school district as a teacher, curriculum instructional coordinator, assistant principal and principal. Most recently, Dr. Valenta served as a director of elementary and multilingual education. Dr. Valenta is a proud graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio where she earned her Doctorate of Education degree in 2015.   

Cohort 7

Alyssa Blanchette Alva

Alyssa Blanchette Alva

Mentor: Dr. Richard Fernandez

Alyssa Blanchette Alva grew up attending public schools in Dallas, Texas. She earned her undergraduate degree and has a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education from Stephen F. Austin State University. In addition, she has had the unique opportunity to study abroad at La Universidad de Costa Rica where she refined her Spanish language skills. After graduation, she began teaching Spanish in Timpson ISD and then in Pflugerville ISD and is now currently serving as an administrator at a comprehensive high school in Houston, Texas. Alyssa has over a decade of experience as a public-school educator and her passion lies in being an advocate for underserved student populations. One of her many strengths is her ability to develop and activate the instructional expertise of the teachers under her supervision by utilizing a highly effective system of coaching strategies. She is actively pursuing high school principalship and is looking forward to a future role as a school district superintendent.

Norma Castillo

Norma Castillo

Mentor: Dr. Joe Rodriguez

Norma Castillo is currently the Director of Talent Acquisition for Austin ISD where she leads a team that recruits, staffs, and retains staff for one of the largest employers in Austin, TX.  Austin ISD is an urban school district of 80,000 students, over 11,000 employees, and 129 schools. She has experience recruiting and developing talent nationally and globally. Prior to leading in Austin ISD, Norma served as Director of Talent Acquisition and Development in Harlingen CISD. In her capacity as Director of Talent Acquisition, Norma has developed and implemented strategic recruitment and staffing models with a keen focus on diversifying staff. Under her tenure, Austin ISD has doubled the number of newly hired Black teachers in the district. She has likewise developed leadership academies, professional learning, and a variety of educator pathways. 

With 21 years of experience in public education, Norma is passionate about ensuring children have access to an equitable education. A former school principal and district staff developer, Norma also served for several years as the Leadership Development and Certification Specialist for the Region One Service Center.

As a migrant student and English language learner herself who attended public schools across the country growing up, Norma believes that public education is the most powerful equalizer to bring about systemic change in society. Bilingual and bicultural, she is committed to increasing the number of Hispanic teachers entering the profession. She currently serves as board secretary for the Amala Foundation, an Austin area non-profit organization that inspires people of all ages to serve as conscious leaders in their communities. 

When she is not working, you can find Norma kayaking in the local lakes or hiking the trails. Norma has one son, Adriel, who is currently a senior at the University of Houston majoring in Political Science. 

Lori Davis

Lori Davis

Director of Transformation Partnerships, E3 Alliance

Mentor: Dr. Lisa Ramirez

Lori Davis has served the Central Texas region as a professional educator for more than 20 years in the roles of Classroom Teacher, Special Education Teacher, District Behavior Specialist, Assistant Principal and Principal. Her relentless dedication to doing the right things for students resulted in a career of achievements, such as District Teacher of the Year, Special Educator of the Year and participation in the Raise Your Hand Texas Harvard Leadership Program. Lori now supports students in districts throughout the region and beyond as the Director of Transformation Partnerships for E3 Alliance. She earned a Bachelor of Arts in Special Education from the University of Texas-San Antonio and a Master of Arts in Special Education at Texas State University.

Yliana Gonzalez

Yliana Gonzalez

Mentor: Dr. Stan Paz

Yliana Gonzalez has invested 16 years of service to public education both as a classroom teacher and administrator. She commenced her career serving in the capacity of a teacher and delivering instruction to underprivileged children in the lower Rio Grande Valley. After only three years, she sought to serve in a greater capacity. With a heavy heart, she left her hometown and continued her career in a neighboring district where she was afforded an opportunity to to serve in various administrator roles including a Reading Coach, Instructional Officer, Assistant Principal and Principal. In her attempt to further her knowledge and grow in her career, Yliana was able to serve as the Executive Director for School Improvement with Kingsville ISD. She briefly served in this capacity given that a door to fulfill her desire to become superintendent presented itself.

Currently, Ms. Gonzalez continues in this administrative role while fulfilling other duties relative to the day to day operations of this district. Ramirez CSD is a unique district and recognized as only one of five common school districts in the state of Texas. This small rural school district sets itself aside with a student population unlike that of a traditional school district. With only 44 students enrolled, it is necessary that each staff member employed wear different hats and the Superintendent is no exception. Ms. Gonzalez serves this school community as the Superintendent, Principal, Federal Programs Director, PEIMS Director to name a few.

Through her service in public education, Ms. Gonzalez prides herself in having served her hometown as a Trustee and Board President for six consecutive years. The experiences she has acquired as a teacher, administrator and trustee have helped her better understand the bigger picture and have allowed her to see situations through different lenses. But beyond the experiences she has acquired in education, her greatest achievement has been that of fulfilling her desire to mother a beautiful daughter who is now well on her way to achieve her own dreams. It is her hope that her own love for education will manifest in her daughter’s endeavors.

Keri Launius

Keri Launius

Mentor: Dr. Darryl Henson

Dr. Keri Launius has worked in preK-16 education for more than 20 years as a campus principal, district coordinator, college director/professor, and most recently as the executive director for learning and development for Galveston ISD. She began her career as a high school teacher and spent close to a decade teaching in Texas public schools. While in East Texas, Launius’ focus was on highly successful partnerships where she served as a College Readiness Special Advisor to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, as well as serving as vice chair for the East Texas College Readiness Council.

Launius graduated from Sam Houston State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Speech Communication and a Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction. She earned a Doctor of Educational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University and holds both superintendent certification, and principal certification from Stephen F. Austin State University.

Away from the office, Launius enjoys taking part in community events. She has served as a member of many service organizations including the Nacogdoches Junior Forum and the Galveston Island Kiwanis Club. She spends many evenings and weekends cheering for youth sports with her husband, John Launius, who is a high school football coach. The two of them have three children, including one that just entered the teaching profession.

Felix Lerma

Felix Lerma

Mentor: Dr. Mark Ramirez

Felix Lerma began his education career in 1999. He started teaching Technology Education in Brownsville Texas at Simon Rivera High School. He soon became a strong advocate for the increase of Technology Education for low socio-economic students. Mr. Lerma provided many of these at-risk youths the opportunity to excel in the fields of manufacturing and design. Between 1999 and 2007, Mr. Lerma lead his students to eight State and seven National Conferences.

In 2008, Felix obtained his Mid-Management Certification. He served with multiple leadership teams in Point Isabel HS, Los Fresnos HS and in 2013 Austin High School in Houston Texas. During that time, he served as Special Education and LEP coordinator where he helped improve state compliance with all student populations.

Beginning in 2013, while in Houston ISD, Felix had the privilege to lead multiple enterprise level projects that impacted 217,000 students, 25,000 employees and over 300,000 parents.

As a project manager, Felix has managed project deliverables from concept planning while driving a smooth transition to launch, execution and transition through project lifecycles. His jobs have allowed him to gain experience in a wide-ranging skill set, including expertise in corporate governance, strategic planning, and project management.

Eva Quinonez

Eva Quinonez

Principal, Hommel Elementary, Everyman ISD

Mentor: Dr. Veronica Vijil

Mrs. Eva Quinonez has accumulated over 18 years of service to public schools.  She began her career as an educator in 2003 teaching Kindergarten for Fort Worth ISD.  Throughout 7 years of teaching, Eva taught grades kinder, fourth and third.  She entered into her administrative role as an assistant principal in August of 2010 at Bess Race Elementary with Crowley ISD, where she supported her principal for five years.  In July of 2015 Eva was hired to be the principal of E. Ray Elementary with Everman ISD.  During her principalship, E. Ray earned 5 Academic Distinction Designations through TEA, the Gold Ribbon School two consecutive years, and the Texas Honor Roll award.  Her contribution to the district of Everman was to create the Aspiring Principals’ Academy, under the direction of Dr. Curtis Amos, Superintendent of Everman.  Eva is now principal of Hommel Elementary in EISD.  She is working to grow teachers and staff in order to take students to the next level in learning.  She is also currently working on her doctoral studies in Educational Leadership.

Juan Sandoval

Mentor: Justin Fuentes

Dr. Juan M. Sandoval has served over 20 years as an educator in the Coastal Bend area serving the academic needs of his students. He began his professional career at Lamar Elementary serving two years as a physical education teacher in the Kingsville Independent School District. After two years of coaching at the elementary level, an opportunity to coach at Memorial Middle School within the district was presented to him where he coached 8th grade football and 7th grade basketball.

In July 2000 and only after three years in the field, Dr. Sandoval was selected to be the new assistant principal and coach at Luehrs Jr. High School in Bishop, Texas. The next two years, he led the Lady Badgers Varsity Softball program to its 4th and 5th consecutive district titles and the area playoffs. After three years, he was promoted to Bishop High School to serve as the assistant principal followed by one year as the assistant principal at H.M. King High School in Kingsville ISD.

In 2006, Dr. Sandoval joined Brooks County ISD as the principal as Falfurrias Jr. High School. During this time, he built a positive campus culture centered around student success. After taking a year off to focus on completing his doctorate, Juan became the Career and Technical Education Director at Alice ISD. The following year, he assumed responsibility of the district’s federal programs department as well. After showing the ability to leading multiple departments, Dr. Sandoval was assigned the Director of Operations position in addition to his other responsibilities. After four years at Alice ISD, Dr. Sandoval sought an opportunity be an instructional leader and assumed the principal position at H.M. King High School. During this time, Dr. Sandoval planned and transitioned into a new school building and lead the implementation of the districts first early college high school. After two years as the instructional leader, Juan went into the private sector where he served as owner and President of HandyMan Construction, Inc. In 2017, Dr. Sandoval returned to education to serve as the assistant principal at Santa Gertrudis Academy High School at Santa Gertrudis ISD. The following year, Dr. Sandoval was promoted to principal where he led the campus to a second consecutive “A” Rating from TEA. He served two years as campus principal before joining Kingsville ISD in his current position as the Executive Director of School Improvement.

Dr. Sandoval earned his doctorate in educational leadership from Texas A&M University -Kingsville in 2010. In his spare time, he likes to spend time with his family at their ranch in Riviera or vacationing and making memories with them. He also finds time to relax building and renovating homes. Juan has been married to his beautiful bride, Priscilla Sandoval and have raised three girls, Evelynn, Savannah, and Sierra together over the last 26 years. He is also a proud grandfather to three boys.

Cynthia Jaird

Mentor: Dr. Xochitl Rodriguez

Dr. Cynthia Jaird has devoted 23 years to serving students, educators, and families in the public school system.  Dr. Jaird has served as a bilingual teacher, campus assistant principal, and a campus principal.  In addition, she has served as a School Turnaround Consultant and a Program Coordinator for Bilingual/ESL & Migrant Services for the Region 10 Education Service Center.  She currently serves as an Executive Director for Learning Programs in the Irving Independent School District.  In this capacity she leads, designs, and supports the learning for students served in special education, dyslexia, Multi-tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), Gifted & Talented, and Bilingual/ESL programs.  Dr. Jaird possesses a multi-faceted skill set that she uses to create equitable systems so that all students thrive.   She strives to embody the words, “service above self.” 

Cohort 8

Miguel Garcia III

Mentor: Dr. Rick Fernandez

Miguel Garcia III is a Principal who works with all students to reach their full potential, socially and academically. Miguel believes in preparing students so they can make the best decision about their post high school life. Miguel has been in education for 18 years, 8 as a teacher, 4 as an Assistant Principal, 1 year as an Administrative Supervisor, and 5 years as the current Principal of Eastside Early College High School (EECHS). Miguel has had the privilege to lead the turnaround at EECHS by improving the graduation rates to over 96%, leading the formation of the Early College High School program, establishing Career Academies to ensure student post-secondary success, and opening a brand-new campus in fall of 2021. Miguel holds a Bachelor’s degree in English from Southwest Texas State, Master’s degree in Educational Administration from Concordia University and is currently pursuing his Doctorate in School Improvement at Texas State University.

Bryan Hernandez

Mentor: Dr. Ruben Alejandro

Bryan Hernandez is a South Texas native and currently the Principal of Utopia ISD. Where he has served in this rural community since 2018. Bryan is well rounded in administration as he has experience in all grade levels. He began his educational career as a high school mathematics teacher. He never planned to be a teacher but his love for children and his passion for helping others lead him to the classroom. Since beginning his journey in education he has earned a Master degree in Mathematics as well as in Educational Administration, and is currently in the process of completing his terminal degree in Educational Leadership with an emphasis in Social Justice.

Mr. Hernandez, in his experience as an elementary assistant principal, was instrumental in removing his campus from improvement required status to acceptable in one calendar year. He was then asked to assist on the Jr. High campus of the same District. Here he created an on-campus DAEP to ensure students were receiving the best instruction while reducing discipline concerns. The next year Mr. Hernandez became the District’s DAEP Coordinator where he implemented restorative practices that reduced the number of suspensions by over 50%. He has presented the use of restorative practices at the national level during the Center for Urban Education Summer Education Forum (CUESEF) in Pittsburg, PA. and spoke on behalf of the Practice of Social Equity in Schools at the University Council for Educational Administration (UCEA) in New Orleans, LA.

Mr. Hernandez is passionate about working with parents and students to form authentic collaborative partnerships. If he isn’t helping someone else’s child, you will find him enjoying time with his six children. He dedicates his time volunteering with our youth and has been actively coaching for over 15 years. Bryan is a champion for children and will go beyond what is professionally required to ensure educational equity. He has testified and met with state legislatures to speak up for what is in the best interest of children. He is an advocate for educating the whole child and will ensure every student has access to education.

His aspirations are to become a school Superintendent where he can provide support and guidance to all stakeholders in his district. Bryan’s goal is to give back to the public school system that originally provided the solid foundation for his own academic success. His hope is to do this by creating equitable opportunities that positively influence those who are entrusted to his leadership.

Yeni Ontiveros

Mentor: Mr. Michael Cardona

Yeni Ontiveros currently serves as the Principal of the newly constructed Coach Archie Duran Elementary in the El Paso Independent School District. The opening of this new campus, consolidated two campuses together, Dowell and Crosby Elementary. Ms. Ontiveros already oversaw the consolidation of two other campuses – Schuster and Dowell, two years ago, while she served as principal of both campuses. That experience will serve her as she welcomes the Crosby and Dowell communities into the beautiful new 21st century campus.

Before taking on the principalship at Dowell in 2015, Ms. Ontiveros served as principal of Bill Childress Elementary School in the Canutillo Independent School District. She also previously served 5 years as Assistant Principal at Bond Elementary School and 2 years as Reading Instructional Coach at Crosby Elementary. Her classroom experience was at both EPISD and Palm Springs Unified School District (California) from 2000 to 2007.

Ms. Ontiveros holds a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies in Bilingual Education and a Masters of Educational Leadership, both from the University of Texas at El Paso. She has been selected to participate in cohort 8 of the TALAS mentoring program beginning this summer.

David Pearce

Mentor: Dr. Richard Lopez

David Pierce grew up in Dallas, Texas and attended schools in Dallas ISD. After graduating, he attended the University of Texas at Austin and began his teaching career in Austin ISD. During his 26-year career, he has been a teacher, High School Assistant Principal and High School Principal. His experience is unique in that he has served as a teacher and High School Assistant Principal at an inner-city high school, High School Principal of a successful rural high school and currently leads a large suburban high school. He credits his success to great mentors along the way and building a world-class teaching staff that challenges students to do their best. 
David has served as Principal of Hays High School in Hays CISD since 2009. During his tenure as the leader of Hays High School, the campus has earned multiple distinctions in the state accountability system, closed achievement gaps among students and consistently graduates future-ready students. Mr. Pierce was recognized as HEB Excellence in Education Principal State Finalist in 2013 and 2019, Semi-finalist in 2012 and was selected Hays CISD Principal of the year for 2019-2020. The cornerstone of his leadership philosophy is building positive relationships with students, staff and the communities where he has worked and served over the last 26 years.

Nicole Creek

Mentor: Dr. Xochitl Rodriguez

My name is Nicole Creek and I am honored to join an organization that advocates for Latino learners and leaders in Texas. I was born and raised in Texas and am a first generation college graduate.I received my Bachelor of History degree from Concordia University at Austin. I am also the first one to continue my education with a Masters degree in Educational Administration also from Concordia University at Austin. This commitment to education has helped me build a strong foundation for my family (3 daughters and 1 son) to set the bar high and make education a priority.

I am currently entering my 19th year in education, all at the high school level and have had a variety of roles and responsibilities. I have been a Special Education teacher, History teacher, taught Pre-ap and AP classes. The experience in the classroom has given me a wide variety of empathy for students and made me rely on a variety of instructional strategies in my tool belt to reach all students. What helped define my professional journey early on was my desire to be a Head Volleyball coach and enter into the realm of Athletic Administration. I started the volleyball program at Canyon Lake High School and established a culture of winning and traditions that are still part of that campus today. I helped resurrect a program at Bastrop High School and lead the program to its first ever postseason playoff berth. At both locations I was an Athletic Coordinator and this allowed me to lead staff and athletes in other programs and facilitate the goals of the district and campus across multiple programs.

I entered into Educational Administration in 2019 as an Assistant Principal with Bastrop High School. I have been a TTESS supervisor over a variety of subjects including History, LOTE, and Science. I have worked closely with Instructional Coaches in leading PLC’s and looking at best instructional practices. I worked with fellow administrators in providing a safe and secure campus by looking at discipline data and being a member of the threat assessment team. I have been charged with leading campus morale and culture by celebrating our staff and have made relationship building a priority.

I believe education is a gateway for a better life and I was influenced and pushed by so many teachers/coaches in my life and continue to be. I believe in giving back and I want to be an advocate for those students who do not realize the possibilities beyond high school and show students how through hard work and grit a better life is waiting for them.

Georgina Castilleja

Mentor: Dr. Abelardo Saavedra

Georgina Castilleja was born in Monterrey, Mexico and came to the US at a young age. Her role in education started as office staff and teacher assistant. She then taught middle and high school and advanced to instructional leadership roles within her district office including curriculum and instructional specialist.  After a tenure coaching and training teachers district-wide as a Teacher Development Specialist Manager, she transitioned to the role of Dean of Instruction, where she felt she could have a more direct impact in the life of students. She later became a middle school principal, trusting that great individuals, together, can impact lives, communities, and futures. She is currently embarking the journey of a founding principal, starting a new STEM middle school that will be opening August 2021.  Her overarching goal is to create a culture of leaders, thinkers and problem solvers, and her mission is to help shape students academically, socially, and emotionally, into great human beings. 

Jennifer Garcia

Mentor: Dr. Martha Salazar-Zamora

Student success and community development have been Jennifer’s driving passions throughout her career. Jennifer has strived to create an optimal, high achievement learning environment for both students and teachers. Her focus has been on developing support structures for students by exposing them to community leaders, developing collaborative relationships with parents and community professionals, and coaching her instructional team to set challenging goals. She has accomplished these objectives by not only encouraging, but actually modeling a whatever it takes mindset.

In her present capacity as Deputy Academic Officer for the Hays CISD, Jennifer has expanded the scope and reach of her influence to a district-wide endeavor. She is actively involved in developing district level systems and supports for student achievement as she provides assistance, guidance, encouragement, and ongoing support for campus principals and district departments.

As a community leader, Jennifer has tirelessly advocated for all students, especially students and families from diverse cultural backgrounds, or different educational experiences. In addition, she contributes her time and energies to mentor the next generation of teachers, as part of her service to the H-E-B Raise Your Hand Texas program and review scholarship applicants for Raise Your Hand and UT–Austin. In her current position as Deputy Academic Officer for Hays CISD, Jennifer’s scope of responsibility and sphere of influence have widened, but her focus on improving student achievement and building strong communities to support them have not changed.

Claudia Vasquez

Mentor: Mr. Rene Sanchez

Claudia Vasquez was born in Cuero, Texas and was raised in a small farming town of Gonzalez, Texas. She prides herself in being the daughter of Mexican Immigrants and of being a first generation American. Claudia has been involved in education for the past nineteen years and has served as a teacher and also as an administrator. Currently, she is serving as an elementary assistant principal at Tom Green Elementary in Buda Texas and has held that position for the past five years. Claudia taught Spanish at Lehman High School in Kyle, Texas for fourteen years before she earned the position as an administrator.  During her time in education, she took pride in being able to help her students advance their education by paving the way to finding a path to higher education. She assisted first generation children and parents in providing information and opportunities on how to pursue a higher education, many of which were students that were first to graduate high school in their families.   As a teacher, she stressed the importance of being bilingual to all her students and in serving their communities. Claudia has earned the titles of Teacher of the Year while at Lehman school and First Year Teacher of the Year for the Texas Foreign Language Association. As an administrator, she continues to dedicate her time to improving all students’ academic successes and advocate for underserved student populations. 

Tonya Kallfelz

Mentor: Dr. Celina Estrada-Thomas

Tonya Kallfelz has devoted 24 years to serving students, educators, and families in Central Texas High Schools. She began her teaching career in Austin ISD where she invested 16 years in education as a teacher, dyslexic designee and academy coordinator. During her time in Austin, she provided engaging programs and opportunities for students to get involved in schools and have a place where they felt a sense of belonging. Mrs. Kallfelz was a Director of the Year Semifinalist with the Texas Dance Educators Association and was named Arts and Humanities Teacher of the Year.

In May 2012, Mrs. Kallfelz earned her Masters in Administrative Education from Concordia University and spent the next two years developing, coaching and mentoring educators as well as providing support systems that would meet the needs of all students.

Mrs. Kallfelz made her transition into administration as Assistant Principal at Hays High School in Hays CISD and quickly became the Lead Assistant Principal. In this capacity she has been responsible for providing instructional support to the campus and with English Language Learners. In 2020 the campus and Mrs. Kallfelz received recognition for its largest growth on TELPAS. She is dedicated to improving academic outcomes for all students and ensuring they are prepared for college and career experiences. Mrs. Kallfelz work also includes developing teachers and staff in their leadership capabilities through campus opportunities and programs.

When Mrs. Kallfelz is not working, you can find her playing golf, watching her son’s play soccer, or taking trips with her family.

Nathan Balasubramanian

Mentor: Dr. Michelle Cavazos

Nathan Balasubramanian is the Chief Education Officer of 7Cs Academy and President & CEO of iLearn, LLC in Leander, Texas. Dr. Balasubramanian knows that we have a lot of compelling data evidence (data) on student learning to improve public education. Yet, the current reality is that the data ‘baby’ is thrown out with plenty of actionable ‘bath water.’ He is on a mission to stop this ‘data’ waste and transform education with actionable ‘knowledge.’ Dr. Balasubramanian also recognizes that this transformation must be catalyzed by schools addressing the social emotional learning and character development needs of every student. 

Most recently, Dr. Balasubramanian served as the Executive Director at Manor Independent School District from November 2017 – November 2019. He led the charge on continuous improvement to move the letter grade of the District from a D (69% in 2018) to B (85% in 2019). Prior to joining the Manor ISD team in November 2017, Nathan served in the rank of Assistant Superintendent in Broward County Public Schools as their founding Executive Director of Strategy and Continuous Improvement for five years. He successfully spearheaded efforts to increase student success every year at the 6th largest school district in the nation. 

Dr. Balasubramanian is a Licensed Curriculum Auditor, TEA Charter Certified Provider, and a Certified LSG Coach who knows how to increase the capacity of leadership teams to improve academic and financial performance. Nathan holds a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Educational Leadership and Innovation from the University of Colorado (USA), a master’s in educational management from the University of Sheffield (UK), and a master’s in physics from the University of Madras (India). 

Sandra K. Cortez

School Principal, Brownsville, TX

Mentor: Dr. Richard Carranza

My name is Sandra K. Cortez, being an educator at heart for 23 years and an administrator for 11 of those blessed years, I have always believed that every student deserves to be part of something great! My middle class, blue collar, passionate Hispanic parents always believed that each one of their children, despite of our zip code, were going to achieve success. They instilled in me to surround myself with people from whose passion I can learn and whose interest will test and fuel my own interest and passions.  I believe that no one ever creates success alone. Growing up I knew that you must work hard to earn respect, time, rest, and most important a good education. Witnessing my parent’s passion for success in their humble daily routines, I quickly learned that one must transform any fear into a determined drive for success. The one thing as my dear father still reminds us of is that one can ever take your education away. This is the message I carry over to all of my students and staff. As a teacher at heart I always remind our students that THEY are the reason we are here, my educational philosophy is to always challenge every student to achieve THEIR personal potential by inspiring and reminding them of their greatness and purpose in this world. Preparing them for the uphill battles that will take them from good to great.

As an instructional leader, my goal is to always be Innovative, visionary and transformational. An excellent administrator works collaboratively to create a student-oriented team of educators who prepare students accordingly to their district mission statement. Each student in the district should be given opportunities to develop their academic, social, emotional and physical skills to their utmost potential. An excellent administrator expands opportunities for staff and students to create an important link from the educational setting to the outside world. Great leadership sets high goals and clear expectations to gain in improving individualized instruction, parental involvement, and meeting or surpassing state standards. In addition, and excellent administrator is present, visible, transparent, communication with all stakeholders, empathetic yet centered with an intentional purpose that leads to success for all. 

I have had the honor to serve in several committees to better serve my educational community. Curriculum, attendance, special education and Book review committee at a State level with TEA, to name a few. I have presented in several occasions to fellow principals, committees, and our community. I am humbled to say that not only have I visited Harvard University in Cambridge through Raise Your Hand Texas as a selected principal. I attended Harvard Graduate School of Education for one week and enjoyed participating in a one-week Leadership academy with national educators, fellow colleagues and amazing Harvard professors. I have   also been nominated three times for principal of the year through HEB Excellence in Education Awards. Two of those times I was a state-wide semifinalist, again humbled by this wonderful experience. In my years as an administrator I have witnessed great academic gains in the schools I have served, which are high in low socio-economic status. It is with great pride that joined an amazing group of educators as our school received The National Center for Urban School Transformation GOLD AWARD! This up to know has been one of my greatest professional highlights, seeing our teachers and students enjoy this amazing recognition has been a blessing.  

After serving many committees, receiving national recognition and several awards, at the end of the day my heart belongs to our students, teaching community and love for teaching! 

Join the program today!

To submit your application, follow one of the links below. You may also contact Lucio Calzada, our Director of Mentoring, at 512.695.6713 or

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