McALLEN, RGV – Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, says having colonia community groups in RGV Focus keeps its education project honest.

The RGV Equal Voice Network, which represents many colonia groups, including La Unión del Pueblo Entero and ARISE, are part of RGV Focus.

Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD.
Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD.

RGV Focus grew out of the Rio Grande Valley Collective Impact initiative that was started in 2012. It aims to transform college readiness, access, and success across the four-county region. It includes educators, non-profits, community groups, funders and business and civic leaders that are dedicated to making major, systematic improvements to educational and career attainment in the Valley.

“It helps to keep us honest that we have groups like ARISE and LUPE and others in the Equal Voice Network within RGV Focus. We as educators may say we are doing something well but what are those groups hearing in the colonias from the parents? This connection is vital,” King told the Rio Grande Guardian.

King gave his comments at an event held to unveil the RGV Focus 2014 Baseline Report. King is chair of the group’s leadership team.

“What we are doing with RGV Focus is unique,” King said. “School districts, higher education institutions, workforce entities and some of the community based organizations have come together and agreed on specific goals where we are really going to try to move the needle on educational attainment. Our goal is to improve the quality of life of residents in the Rio Grande Valley and we want to start changing things very, very quickly,” King said.

“We have had progress in the Valley but we have to do better. Our first focus is education attainment. We really want to dramatically increase the number of young people completing post-secondary education.”

Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero.
Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero.

The baseline report shows the Valley has a long way to go when it comes to measuring the percentage of college ready graduates and students graduating from a four-year higher education institution. “That is why we feel we have to accelerate very, very, quickly, in educational attainment,” King responded. “This is why we meet every month. We look at the data and the indicators, we have work groups; we are looking at strategies, sharing best practices, so instead of each one of us attacking the challenge by ourselves we are working across the board.”

King said RGV Focus helps ensure that school districts and colleges learn from each other. “As we move forward we will probably reach out to the business community but we felt the initial focus needed to be educational attainment. As an organization we want to have our act together before we reach out to the business community more deeply. We have had some involvement already.”

King said that when measuring some of the metrics, the Valley is doing well. The Valley is ahead on students with advanced placement/dual credit, graduates immediately enrolled in higher education, students graduating from community colleges, and community college graduates getting employed or enrolled in university.

“I think that already there is some momentum in place. We want to build on this by working on things collectively. If you look at some of the data, for the first time, probably ever, you have the high school graduation rate being equal to the state. You have the dropout rate at about average. With some institutions we are outperforming the state average. Now, you are starting to see the community college completion rate is slightly surpassing the state,” King said.

“The four-year college completion rate is going up at a time when our institutions are growing. It is one thing to bring the numbers up when you are not growing but when you are growing it is more challenging. But, we are not moving fast enough and so the whole point in bringing everyone together to work on acceleration. We have a lot of ground to make up.”

King added that the RGV Focus leadership team is not satisfied with being at about the state level on educational attainment. “We want to surpass it. We want to be the leader in the state. With every passing year the demographics of the state look more and more like the Valley. We have the opportunity to be the laboratory to show that the demographic change in the state can be a great opportunity.”

Juanita Valdez-Cox is executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero. She is a member of the RGV Focus leadership team. Valdez-Cox was pleased the baseline report was into two eight-page community reports, one in English and the other in Spanish. LUPE plans to distribute the reports to its members.

“The community reports are a way to communicate the current state of education in our region and a way to spark conversations that could become catalysts for change for the betterment of our children’s education,” Valdez-Cox said.

“We need to ensure that the voice of both students and parents are involved in the work that we do. Parents are ready to be engaged. Parents want to be part of the decision-making process affecting their children’s education, while students have a desire to learn about opportunities for their future.”

Valdez-Cox said she challenges education and community leaders to “open the doors to involve the community in building a stronger system dedicated to educating the whole community.” The LUPE leader said Equal Voice plans to host a “community roundtable” on House Bill 5 on August 14. “We welcome all ISD and university officials to participate,” Valdez-Cox said.

Another speaker at the RGV Focus event was Arturo Cavazos, superintendent of Harlingen CISD. Cavazos said that by working together through RGV Focus, school superintendents are “going to remove the excuses.” He pointed out that Harlingen CISD will be graduating 1,000 students this year. “The work is great, our mission so important. It is exciting and humbling to be part of this organization, RGV Focus. Unless we come together with the same goal and with the same interest we are not going to advance the work.”

Cavazos then told his family story. He said it was not dissimilar to that of other education and community leaders in the Valley. He said he was part of a first generation of college graduates and that this helped break the poverty cycle. “My mother used to say, your education will become your inheritance. Of 28 kids, eight got a college education. We are one generation removed,” he said.

Arturo Cavazos, superintendent of Harlingen CISD.
Arturo Cavazos, superintendent of Harlingen CISD.

Cavazos said RGV Focus is “illuminating the darkest corners of our region” by putting out data on educational performance. “This is how we are going to measure our progress,” he said. Cavazos also praised UT-Rio Grande Valley for “forcing us to think regionally,” even though there is “a lot of pushback.”

Cavazos said that Harlingen CISD he and his management team “plan the work so we can work the plan.” He said the 6th thru 12th grade can only be as powerful as the earlier grades and that therefore he is concentrating on literacy. “We are focusing a lot on the importance of reading and redesigning our high schools and secondary programs. You cannot access education if you cannot read. So what if there is a great equalizer out there? I cannot access it if I cannot read,” Cavazos said.

Cavazos said Harlingen CISD id also “transforming” its secondary education experience. “We realize we are preparing our kids for a workforce that does not exist yet. But we must be grounded on a foundation of 21st Century skills, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and the ability to communicate effectively. We are breaking down the high schools into small learning communities, focused on workforce needs. That is why the board of trustees in Harlingen made a commitment to open a school of health professions, which is a school for 600 kids who are interested in following the medical profession,” Cavazos said.

To those who argue that many students are not suited to college, Cavazos said that is not for the school district to decide. “Our responsibility is to put them in the best position to access it, if they want, and to remove all the barriers.” Another important thing, Cavazos said, is to “keep the parents involved in the conversation.” He said Harlingen’s Early College High School and 9th Grade Academy are built around five programs of study and are built like a college. “It is amazing when we ask the parents to come for orientation and we are able to take them to academic wings specifically designed to the endorsements,” he said.

Cavazos concluded his remarks by saying educators should be past the point of saying to kids, where do you want to go to college. “I think it is incumbent on us to ask the kids, what problem do you want to solve in this world? When they answer that question they are speaking to their passion and they are speaking to what we should be driving them towards. Let’s champion what problem they want to solve,” he said.

Cavazos added: “We are passionate about the work. This is not about our journey – it is about their (the students’) journey. It is about what they need.” Cavazos said he gained his doctorate at UT Austin in 2012. “I do not want to be the exception anymore. I need to be the rule. The story needs to be everybody. Enough of the one story here, one story there. It is now about how well we are doing. I am so excited we are speaking regionally because I think we are so powerful when we do that.”

Editor’s Note: Pictured in the main photo accompanying this story are Lily Tercero of Texas Southmost College, Arturo Cazavos of Harlingen CISD, Frank Almaraz of Workforce Solutions, Luzelma Canales of RGV Focus, Juanita Valdez-Cox, of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, Shirley A. Reed of South Texas College, Havidan Rodriguez of UT-Pan American, and Daniel P. King of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD.