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Mary Alice Reyes, executive director of the Texas Graduate Center.

MERCEDES, RGV – Forty six high school students from 11 school districts across the Rio Grande Valley are spending four days this week at Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brown University and Boston University.

The aim is the get the mostly sophomore students thinking about attending these prestigious universities when they leave school.

“We do not want our students to think of money as a reason they would not consider an education at Harvard. We want them to go. We want them to see. We want them to believe, “I can be here. This is a place for me’,” said Mary Alice Reyes, executive director of the Texas Graduate Center in Mercedes.

“Our kids are so gifted, so talented. They have the potential to be at Harvard or any university across the country. And so we want them to know, don’t let money be a factor in why you would not consider this university.”

The students leave the Valley on Wednesday and return on Saturday. Reyes explained how the tie-up with the four New England institutions came about. “Our teachers are in the ‘Math for Teaching’ program at Harvard. An important part of what the teachers do in their classroom is to talk to the kids about their future and for them to dream big and to not let anything stand in their way, any obstacles whatsoever, including financial.”

Andrew Engelward
Andrew Engelward

Reyes said this is the first such tour the Texas Graduate Center and the Texas Valley Communities Foundation have organized to Harvard and the other New England universities.

“We have been in the ‘Math for Teaching’ program for three years now and so we have begun to establish relationships with people at Harvard and the other universities and so now we feel confident in being able to take the students over there and provide an amazing experience for them. They are all sophomores. Maybe one school district is taking a freshman. So they have time before they become seniors to do what they need to do to prepare to get to some of these universities.”

Asked what sort of grades the students will need to get to Harvard, Reyes said: “Getting to Harvard is very competitive. Their grades are important, their scores on their SATs, their community service, all of that is important. So, we are talking to our students and preparing them for their college essay. When a reviewer is looking at all these applications there are a lot of kids that are very bright, they have the grades, they have the community service but what is going to set you apart is your story. What is your story? What sets you apart as a student? So, we are also talking to the students about being able to tell their story and many of our kids have struggled, many of our kids have amazing stories of struggle and triumph, these are the things that set you apart. This can be the deciding factor. When all things are the same, when you are competing with all of these gifted kids across the country, that is what can set you apart,” Reyes said.

Asked about the possibility of the Valley losing its brightest students if they go off to Harvard and do not return, Reyes said: “Whatever happens they will contribute back. They have families here. One way or another, they will not forget their roots and that should not be a reason why we hold them back. So many people over the years have been educated elsewhere and have returned and I think that is what is going to build this Valley up and take it to an even higher level.”

Just as sending Valley students to Harvard is important, so is educating Valley teachers through Harvard’s Math for Teaching course, Reyes said. The program started in 2012 and its first cohort of teachers came into the program in January 2013. They will be completing their three-year program this year. Since then two additional cohorts have been added so that there are now 24 teachers in the program. Reyes said the Texas Graduate Center has partnered with the GEAR UP program to provide funding support for the Cohort 1 teachers while the 11 participating school districts have helped to set up the Math Teach Collaborative.

“In doing so they support their teacher in the program but it also provides us with an opportunity to bring Harvard faculty here. They provide math workshops for additional teachers. If you are a member of the Math Teach Collaborative you can send as many math teachers to these workshops as you wish. Typically we do one in the fall and one in the spring. And, we also bring Harvard faculty to do leadership capacity building workshops for administrative teams from all of the school districts. In addition, it supports this student tour, so it does not cost them or their parents any money. This is where the funding comes from and these are the services they provide for the students,” Reyes said.

The first cohort in the Harvard “Math for Teaching” program graduates this year. “This is an amazing accomplishment. These are full-time teachers in the classrooms across the Valley at the 11 participating school district. “They are full time teachers yet they are in this very rigorous Master’s program at Harvard. They leave their families for three to seven weeks every summer for three years to attend classes at Harvard. At the end of the three years they receive their master’s degree in Mathematics for Teaching from Harvard University.”

Reyes said the first cohort will officially walk across the stage next May at the Harvard Commencement. “We are so, so, proud of them,” Reyes said.

The 11 participating school districts in Harvard’s “Math for Teaching” program are La Joya, McAllen, Edinburg, Hidalgo, Donna, Weslaco, Mercedes, Lyford, San Benito, Mission and PSJA.

Roland Arriola
Roland Arriola

“I am very appreciative of the school districts that have taken a leap of faith with us. Any time that you start something new you are like a new kid on the block. But, I have to say that the commitment and the dedication of our school superintendents and our school boards that have approved support for these teachers is second to none. You can tell the interest they have in providing not only support for their teachers but in understanding that this is such a critical component to inspiring their students. I would like to thank them so much for their support of this program,” Reyes said.

Asked who is most responsible for connecting the Valley to Harvard through the ‘Math for Teaching’ program, Reyes said she must start with a thank you to the founder and president of Texas Valley Communities Foundation, Roland Arriola.

“When President Arriola retired as VP for external affairs at UT-Pan American he wanted to continue his with school districts and college and career readiness. Remember, he is Harvard alum and he wanted to make a difference. He wanted more teachers to teach math more effectively. So, he founded the program. I would also say the director of the Harvard extensions service, Andrew Engelward. He has been amazing. Heretofore Math for Teaching was just a program on offer in their area. Now, they have extended it to our teachers. Many courses that were only offered on campus have since been offered online to accommodate our teachers. Capstone was something you had to do on campus. Harvard, the Dean, everyone has been so awesome and supportive. The Dean has said, what you are doing is part of our mission, outreach to communities that have not had that level of access. They share our philosophy and they have been extremely supportive.”

Reyes also thanked the Harvard faculty members that have been working in the Valley. “The Harvard faculty that has come here has been absolutely amazing. We were thinking how can we expand this access and exposure to more teachers if they are not in the Master’s program? So, they started to conduct workshops for teachers in mathematics, the same professors our teachers have in their ‘Math of Teaching’ program. They come in on a Thursday, workshop on Friday and go back on Saturday. Our teachers tell us what they need and they come in and do a marvelous, fantastic job and so our teachers are exposed to Harvard professors while they are here. So, in essence, we are bringing Harvard to the Valley.”