BROWNSVILLE, RGV – With so many students unable to access the Internet in their homes, Brownsville ISD Superintendent Esperanza Zendejas says she is determined to reduce the digital divide in her community.

“One of the challenges Brownsville has is many of our parents are very poor. So, they do not have access to the Internet. We are looking at how we are going to increase the number of families who can have access to the Internet,” Zendejas said.

Zendejas spoke to the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM at BISD’s first ever Innovation, Strategy and Educational Technology Bash, held at Veterans Memorial Early College High School on Saturday.

The event, which was attended by more than 400 educators and parents, was led by Alma Cardenas-Rubio, BISD’s new assistant superintendent for innovation, strategy, and educational technology. 

Esperanza Zendejas

“An area superintendent left our district and I created this position, assistant superintendent for innovation, strategy, and educational technology. We want to focus on discovery, innovation, technology,” Zendejas said.

“Brownsville has been doing a lot of things in the area of technology with students but we want to put together a master plan or where we want to see the district 10, 15, years from now, when it comes to the use of technology. We want more technology in the classroom.”

Microsoft, Apple, Google, LEGO Education, Region One Education Service Center, Texas Southmost College, UT-Rio Grande Valley were represented at the Innovation, Strategy and Educational Technology Bash. FIRST RGV President Jason Arms and McAllen ISD robotics coach David Ruiz were presenters, speaking about FIRST’s robotics competitions. BISD recently signed up with FIRST RGV. 

Zendejas pointed out that none of the teachers that attended Saturday’s event were paid. Instead, they learned about different ways to introduce technology into the classroom and they earned credits. She also said parents are going to play an important role by helping BISD gauge the level of technology used by students.

“Technology is the future of our country and our world. It is embedded in so many systems that everybody uses. Even the poorest of the poor know they can scan a price at Target to find out how much it is before they go to the counter. We need to make sure our district prepares our students for the very best,” Zendejas said.

Brownsville ISD has around 47,000 students and is the largest employer south of San Antonio. Zendejas was superintendent at BISD between 1992 and 1995 but then left. She returned four years ago. 

“I love to work with kids. The kids here are near and dear to my heart. Not only do I work with fantastic teachers and families, my grandchildren are also part of this district,” Zendejas said.

She described Brownsville as a small town connected by families. 

“There are so many relationships of culture and language. One of the beautiful things about the students of Brownsville is that many of them start not speaking Spanish and graduate with Spanish. Those that do not speak English are doing so well at English by the time they graduate. I am a proud superintendent.”

Zendejas said that on her return she noticed that BISD’s approach to technology was uneven. She said Cardenas-Rubio can even out the kinks.

“When I came back I found the district has done a lot to support technology but it was scattered and piecemeal. We have spent millions of dollars on laptops and tablets and all kinds of tools. We need someone to corral everything we are doing and make sense of it so that the future superintendent and board members know that we are headed in the right direction,” Zendejas said, referencing Cardenas-Rubio’s work.

“Right now, many of our services depend on different technology. Some of our staff, in some schools, are doing better. Some schools need more technology but we need to have technology be the equalizer. In order to do that we need to make sure we have a total understanding of the district’s direction.”

One example of the new approach BISD is taking is signing up with Region One ESC to utilize its MEGAbyte Services. This partnership allows school districts to access cost-effective, high quality professional training in the technology field. 

“We pay a service fee and receive all the training related to technology is free. If we were to send 100 employees, we would have to pay so much. Instead, we join the Region One network to make sure our teachers have as much access to as much training as possible,” Zendejas said.

Zendejas pointed out that two years ago BISD started teaching coding in its elementary schools. “But, I have found out that in some schools, they are doing better because the teachers are better prepared. We want to make sure our teachers are highly prepared to move towards the higher integration of technology in our classrooms.” 

MEGAbyte will help with this, the superintendent said.

“We want to open up opportunities for our students. When I was in high school in the 1970s I was supposed to be a secretary. We did a lot of typing. We were supposed to be the future secretaries of America but now the world is open so many opportunities, it just depends which one you want to choose from. All of those opportunities will involve technology.”

Meanwhile, BISD is appealing a recent ranking from the Texas Education Agency because the district could easily have been awarded an “A” grade.

“We have outstanding teachers and principals. I believe principals of the schools make all the difference, they are the equalizers of a school. Over the last three years our school district has made significant academic gains. None of our schools are performing in the 60th percentile. We moved our schools up,” Zendejas said.

“TEA gave us an accountability rating of an A but because one of our high schools has some academic problems we ended up with a B. We are appealing that with the commissioner and hope he reconsiders that, mainly because the school we are appealing for is our teenage pregnant program. Many of those students, while they graduated, they have many challenges during the course of their pregnancy, babies raising babies. We were not given the A that overall we warranted.”

Asked for a wrap-up remark, Zendejas said: “We want to open up opportunities for all our students. Come and visit, we have a lot of great things going on and this is just one example of a progressive movement, to incorporate technology from the lowest levels to the highest levels.”

Editor’s Note: Brownsville ISD has produced a video featuring Alma Cardenas-Rubio to explain its plans to use more technology in the classroom. Here it is: