WESLACO, RGV – The Rio Grande Valley will become a major metropolitan region like Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth in the next 15 years, predicts one of the area’s top educators.

Dr. Ruben Alejandro, superintendent of Weslaco ISD, said he does a lot of environmental scanning and can clearly see trend lines of explosive growth. He spoke with reporters about his vision at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Weslaco Early College High School that has been developed in partnership with South Texas College.

Alejandro said students graduating from the school with associate degrees in welding, diesel mechanics and precision manufacturing will be well positioned to secure high paying jobs associated with energy production and distribution in the Gulf of Mexico and the Port of Brownsville and with SpaceX’s space exploration program.

Weslaco ISD and South Texas College have partnered to create a new early college high school.
Weslaco ISD and South Texas College have partnered to create a new early college high school.

“This area is going to grow phenomenally, because of the energy in the Gulf, the Port, the Burgos Basin, SpaceX. There are going to be huge opportunities for our kids,” Alejandro told the Guardian. “These kids, by the time all this explodes and the Valley starts to grow… I am confident our Valley will become a major metropolitan area. It will be like another Houston, another Dallas-Fort Worth. I know it is going to look like that in the next ten to 15 years. Our kids will have that opportunity. They will be ready to go by the time that comes around.”

Alejandro also spoke about the Valley becoming more mobile and that the catalyst for this will be UT-Rio Grande Valley.

“I do a lot of environmental scanning and you can see the trends. With the UTRGV, the medical school, kids will be going to school in both Edinburg and Brownsville. That is going to fuse the Valley. It is going to make us one big area. We are in for something phenomenal in South Texas. And here in Weslaco, we are in the center. We are the heart of that growth.”

The idea for specialized, career-focused, early college high schools was unveiled in June by Texas Commissioner of Education Michael Williams, Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes and Texas Workforce Commission Chairman Andres Alcantar. They said their agencies would fund the development of four new career and technical education early college high school (CTE ECHS) opportunities for students in Dallas, Houston, McAllen and Odessa. The funding for the McAllen-based program was to be administered by STC, they announced.

Each agency committed $1 million to support partnerships between local school districts and institutions of higher education to create career and technical education opportunities that help students simultaneously earn a high school diploma and a postsecondary credential aligned with a critical community workforce need.

STC decided to partner with two school districts, Mission Consolidated Independent School District and Weslaco Independent School District to will develop two Career and Technical Education (CTE) Early College High Schools (ECHS).

“Our 24 early college high schools focused on academics are incredibly successful with large numbers of high school graduates also earning an associate degree. It is time to extend this successful model for career and technical students,” STC President Shirley Reed said at the time of the announcement. “The CTE Early College High Schools will align dual enrollment with the career pathway requirements of HB 5 and provide a pathway to high-wage, meaningful careers.”

Mission CISD has already had its ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Weslaco ISD is calling its new school 21st Century CTE-ECHS, which stands for Career and Technical Education-Early College High School. It opened on August 25 and has 117 students with an average age of 15. About 20 percent of them are female. They learn the basic high school curriculum at the high school at 700 South Bridge in Weslaco and welding, diesel mechanics and precision manufacturing at STC’s Weslaco and McAllen campuses. The great thing about this, Alejandro said, is that the tuition fees for college will be cut in half because half their university education will have already been completed at STC.

“As well as the regular curriculum they are going to get an associate’s degree in welding, diesel mechanics and precision manufacturing. Those are the high demand jobs because of the fracking that is going on in South Texas. If these kids become underwater welders, for example, they will be able to get jobs associated with SpaceX and the new deep sea drilling in the Gulf. There is going to be demand for underwater welders. They will not have to go to Houston. They will have those opportunities right here.”

Alejandro said Weslaco ISD actually submitted six programs for funding. In addition to welding, diesel mechanics and precision manufacturing there were three other programs related to healthcare professions. He said his school district was not successful with the healthcare program bids but hopes to apply again in the future. “We would like to have another early college high school. We have to be very forward thinking, especially with the medical school coming.”

Alejandro added that Weslaco ISD is “really cutting edge.” He said he knows this because he interacts with other superintendents around the nation and is aware of what other school districts are doing. “I made a presentation in Atlanta, Georgia, recently. The subject was how to implement an innovative vision against the odds. We are doing that and we are succeeding because it is truly a community effort. We include parents and staff. The superintendents who heard my presentation came up to me afterwards and said, ‘it can be done, you just told us how it can be done.’ All 18,000 of our students are a success story waiting to be published. We are writing their success story.”

The administrator of Weslaco’s new early college high school is Sergio R. García. He told the Guardian that the most important thing is not to cut corners with the education of the students. “We have to engender a college going culture because many of them cannot see themselves doing four years for college. We transport them to STC’s Weslaco and McAllen campuses so they can get a feel for what college is like.  We tell them this is not your regular high school. We have a small number of students so we can afford to provide quality time so that no one falls through the cracks,” García said.

In speeches at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, both Mario Reyna, dean of business and technology at STC, and Weslaco ISD Board President Robert Sepulveda spoke of the great opportunity students at the new early college high school have. They said they wished they could have had such opportunities when they went to college.

Reyna said the earning capacity for students wishing to pursue trades in welding; diesel mechanics or precision manufacturing is “mind boggling.” He said if these students, upon graduating, want to “spend a few chilly nights in Alaska” they can earn a quarter of million dollars as a welder. Those who want to become diesel mechanics in the Valley can earn $70,000 to $80,000 a year. He told students by all means go out and earn a good living but also think about furthering their studies.

In his speech, Sepulveda alluded to a big announcement coming out of Austin soon. “This week there’s an announcement coming of something dramatic that is going to happen in the Valley for education,” Sepulveda said. He said he was sworn to secrecy and could not reveal any more details.

Sepulveda told reporters after the ceremony that he was not surprised Weslaco ISD was chosen for the early college high school. “We have a very, very, good school district. It has always been academically oriented. I am happy and proud we got chosen. I know our children are going to succeed with this program. I would like to see a 100 percent graduation,” Sepulveda said.

In her remarks, Dr. Anahid Petrosian, interim vice president for academic affairs at STC, pointed out that if it were not for House Bill 415, passed in the 2003 regular legislative session, early college high schools would not be possible. The legislation was authored by former state Rep. Kino Flores of Mission.