2022 Difference Maker Awards

Every year at the What’s Right in Education conference, exemplary districts and education leaders from across the country gather to showcase creative solutions to problems of practice. At the 11th annual conference in October of 2022, the Difference Maker Award, a nationwide recognition of bold leadership, was given to three honored K-12 superintendents and education leaders making significant impacts in their districts and organizations.

2022 Difference Maker Award Recipients

  • Dr. Xavier De La Torre | Superintendent, Ysleta Independent School District
  • Rina Irwin | Chief Executive Officer, Child Development Centers, Inc.
  • Mark Bielang | Superintendent, Portage Public Schools

Meet the Difference Makers

Fewer than 10 superintendents have received the Difference Maker award over the past 12 years. These individuals were chosen based on their leadership, superior results, and commitment to excellence.


Dr. Xavier De La Torre is a well-known figure in the El Paso community. Prior to joining the Ysleta Independent School District (YISD) in March 2014, he served as the superintendent of the neighboring Socorro Independent School District before relocating to California in 2012 to serve as the County Superintendent of the Santa Clara County Office of Education. During his tenure at YISD, Dr. De La Torre ushered in a new era of innovative thinking, with an ambitious agenda for all students and staff. He is focused on being one of the best school districts in the country highly committed to serving the students and families in the Ysleta Independent School District.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Launched a strategic plan that set a new strategic vision for the Ysleta Independent School District that has led to YISD being an A school district in Texas.
  • Instrumental in passing a $430.5 million bond in 2015 and a $425 million bond in 2019 providing funds for various campus projects, including safety and security updates; new athletics and fine arts facilities; school renovations and additions; technology upgrades; and the construction of several new campuses school renovations and additions.
  • 2022 President of the Texas Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (TALAS), the premier organization in advocacy for the growth and advancement of Latino learners and leaders in Texas.
  • Values input from students, families, employees, and the community by gaining input on surveys and using the feedback to continuously improve and achieve at the highest levels of service
  • Opened the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, El Paso’s only single-gender, college-preparatory public school for grades 6-12.

Listen to Dr. De La Torre on the Accelerate Your Performance Podcast >>

Rina Irwin is the Chief Executive Officer of Child Development Centers, Inc. The Childhood Development Centers operates 14 childcare and early childhood learning centers across northwestern Pennsylvania. Their mission is “educating every child to succeed” and they do so by nurturing and teaching children in a safe, healthy, creative setting that families can trust, and that equips each child to make a successful transition to kindergarten, elementary school and beyond. CDC has grown into a sizable enterprise with more than 400 employees and provides childcare and early childhood education for nearly 2,000 children at 15 centers in Crawford, Erie and Venango Counties.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • CEO Rina Irwin received the Non-Profit CEO of the Year Award for 2022, awarded by the Erie Non-Profit Partnership Organization.
  • Asbury CDC is Erie’s 2022 Choice winner for Preschool AND Childcare in Erie, the Official Community Choice Awards by the Erie Times-News.
  • 9 Centers in Crawford and Venango County, PA have Star 4 ratings from Pennsylvania’s Keystone STARS educational quality improvement initiative. Star 4 — Keystone STARS’ highest rating — is based on compliance with health and safety requirements, early childhood learning standards, staff education criteria and other quality measures.
  • Five CDC centers (Oil City, Franklin, Franklin School-Age, Hasson Heights and Cranberry) are accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). Each five-year accreditation recognizes that a CDC facility is meeting NAEYC’s 10 early childhood programs standards, which are intended to maximize the quality of care and education that a child receives.
  • NAEYC accreditation and Keystone Start 4 ratings put CDC in select company: less than 3 percent of Pennsylvania’s 8,500 regulated providers have achieved both of these marks of excellence.

Listen to Rina on the Accelerate Your Performance Podcast >>

Mr. Bielang has been a steady leader focused on continuous improvement for many years. He has led the school district in Portage since 2013 and was previously Superintendent of Paw Paw Public Schools. Portage has been a Studer Education partner since 2016, and during the years of the partnership, he has focused on leadership development, developing “always actions” for consistent continuous improvement, bringing professional development to all sectors of the organization, and building out some key guiding foundations, including Standards of Service Excellence, a district “Plan on a Page”, and most recently, the development of values, identity statement, and definition of equity to move the district forward.

Notable Accomplishments:

  • Previous awards: President of MASA (Michigan Association of School Administrators), President of AASA (School Superintendents Association), AASA Distinguished Service Award
  • Consistently measures stakeholder perceptions (including during the pandemic)-examples include:
    • Most recent employee engagement survey results show a 70% “Top2 Box” score (those employees marking “strongly agree” or “agree”)
    • Most recent parent/caregiver survey results show a 75% “Top2 Box”
  • Maintains a strong relationship with students via the SSAB (Superintendents Student Advisory Board) as a strategy to seek out and listen consistently to student voices and act on input
  • During 2021-2022, implemented and led an inclusive process to honor the previous 100 years of Portage Public Schools and launch the district into the next 100 years-actions included developing district values, writing an identity statement as a vision for the future, and determining a district definition of equity to serve as a lens to guide the district
  • Served as a presenter of best practice sessions at leading national conferences including “Destination High Performance”, “What’s Right in Education, MASA, AASA, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching

Listen to Mark on the Accelerate Your Performance Podcast >>

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