|HARLINGEN, August 22 - A strong work ethic and a can-do spirit among its people will ensure the Rio Grande Valley achieves great things in the future, with education leading the way.
This is the view of Luzelma G. Canales, the newly-appointed executive director of RGV Focus. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the former migrant farmworker and auditor spoke about how Valley communities have always had to make things happen for themselves, without much help from Austin or Washington, D.C. She also said the Valley possesses the best school district superintendents in the nation.
“RGV Focus is a grassroots-based initiative. It came about because the community decided to get this done,” Canales said. “That is how the community college (South Texas College) was started. That is how the university (Pan American University) was started. It was not Austin that said, ‘we have got to educate folks.’ It was the community that said, wait a minute the rest of the country is educated, what about us?”
RGV Focus has been going for about a year. It comprises 11 school districts in the Valley and the five higher education institutions in the region, South Texas College, Texas State Technical College-Harlingen, Texas Southmost College, UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville. There are also community leaders in the group, such as Juanita Valdez-Cox of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, and Michael Seifert of RGV Equal Voice Network.
“When it is grassroots it is really important. It is really about taking our collective missions, which is all about improving the quality of life of our folks. We want to move beyond the living wage. I tell my kids it took me 15 years to earn more than $50,000 a year. That is the starting pay somewhere else. You have to ask yourself why. I think part of it is taking control. We are in charge of our own destiny. We are doing it all with no external dollars,” Canales said.
Canales said one can see the original work being done in the Valley through the accomplishments of Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD. “You see it in Dr. King’s work. We have been doing this work for years. It is all about passionate people saying we do not expect anybody to come and help us. We are going to get it done. All we want is frameworks, theories, research that supports what we need to do, through high expectations,” Canales said.
By scaling up the best projects underway in the various Valley school districts, RGV Focus hopes to change the entire education landscape in the region, with every student having the aptitude to go to university if they wish to. “There is no research from Achieving the Dream that shows you have to impact 60 percent of a target population. That is a tipping point. So if we can get to where we are working with 60 percent of the students we hope to serve, the rest will fall into place,” Canales said.
Canales was asked to react to the claim that economic development leaders in the Valley often state, that the workforce is not sufficiently well educated to land a major manufacturing project, such as an auto plant.
“We have recognized that since the 1980s. That is why the community colleges and universities were built, because we have a large number of under-educated folks over the age of 25. Employers are absolutely right. But it is a two-way street. We have to push educating people but employers also have to raise expectations of what they expect from our folks. So, they have to start requiring associate degrees, they have to start requiring bachelor’s degrees. They have to compensate people for that. It is no longer about employers saying, come on, come all, cheap labor,” Canales said.
“We have a well-prepared workforce, we have got people with high ethics and a work ethic and so you are selling the asset versus the deficit. And so, employers will come and they will pay what they pay somewhere else, because we are going to have that prepared workforce for them. Nobody has the work ethic that the people of the Rio Grande Valley have. They really don’t. We know what it is like to work out in the fields. We also know all about the aspect of community. It is seen by this (RGV Focus) initiative.”
Asked if state leaders in Austin are prepared to listen to the recommendations of the Valley’s top educators and to RGV Focus, Canales answered affirmatively.
“I think they are ready to listen to us because the rest of the country is going to look like us. Nobody plays together like we do. We are doing it with purpose and mission and the rest of the country still struggles. Can you imagine the Boston schools coming together? The Ivy League schools are never going to talk to the community college. It is just not going to happen. The inner city schools in Chicago are left out. They are not even at the table. Here, we have everybody at the table. I think we have developed a framework for how to do this somewhere else. We will be proving it in an area where there is high need and high desire. We are going to show those guys, I really do believe it,” Canales said.
Canales said it was also important to stress another point – that the Valley has the best school district superintendents in the nation.
“I talk to other educators across the country. We have the best superintendents in the country, we really do. El Paso thought they had them until they came down here and listened to a panel of ours. We have the best because these superintendents are really rooted in the community. They are highly committed. People do not come to the Valley unless they really love the community and love the kids here. Everybody wants to make this work,” Canales said.
The former STC interim associate dean for community engagement and workforce development also claimed that the best innovative work in high schools is emanating from the Valley. The Guardian asked her to give some examples.
“Dropout recovery is now a national model. Look at dual credits, STC has ten percent of all dual credits in entire state. Look at the Coordinating Board reports, the Rio Grande Valley is the only region that met the Closing the Gap mark. Look at everything. We are ahead. Everybody dabbles in two or three early college high schools. South Texas alone has 20. Who does that? Everybody tells you why it cannot be done and folks here tell you how it can be done. When I travel across the country I tell folks, look south. That is where the innovation is. Why? Because desire generates innovation,” Canales said.
Canales concluded her interview by telling Valley parents to “stay tuned” to the work RGV Focus is doing. “You are going to see some real outcomes. We will establish benchmarks. I am all about the data. We will employ really aggressive strategies to get it done.”
Chris Coxon, chief program officer of Educate Texas, sat in on part of the Guardian’s interview with Canales. Educate Texas helped launch RGV Focus. Coxon said he is confident RGV Focus will deliver on its goals. “We have a great opportunity. A los que a muchos se les a dado mucho se le espera. To whom much has been given, much is expected. We have been blessed with a lot of great leadership here and we need to deliver on that. If we don’t, shame on us,” Coxon said.
This is the second in a two-part interview with Luzelma G. Canales. Click here to read Part One.