EDINBURG, RGV – In the wake of positive accountability rankings for Rio Grande Valley school districts from the Texas Education Agency, PSJA ISD Superintendent Dr. Daniel P. King says things are only going to get better.

Of the 38 school districts in the Valley, TEA gave ten an “A” in its new rankings. The number getting a “B” was 21, with around half of these only two or three points short of being awarded an “A.” Five Valley school districts received a “C” ranking from TEA.

“You are only seeing the beginning. The Valley is stepping into its own, and moving forward into a leadership position in terms of education, and other things as well,” King said, referring to the TEA rankings. 

PSJA was one of the Valley school districts to secure a “B” ranking.

Dr. King made his remarks at the Rio Grande Guardian’s most recent LIVE at Bob’s luncheon event. He was joined on the star-studded education panel by Ana Gonzalez, executive director of Teach for America RGV, and Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV Focus.

The opening question was about the TEA rankings and why it was the Valley had made great strides over the past decade or so. 

“We had pockets of excellence but they were spread far apart,” Gonzalez said, speaking about education in the Valley 20 years ago. 

“Before, it was just okay that kids just got through high school. It was somewhat acceptable for kids to just drop out of high school. In the Rio Grande Valley we have been relentless about building a community of peers and making sure our kids are on a trajectory to a life changing pathway. That just means we have had to do school differently at varying degrees and it has taken all of us to do that together. I think that is why we are seeing the outcomes we are seeing now.”

Ten years ago, King named Gonzalez principal of PSJA’s T-STEM Early College High School in PSJA. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering & Math.

“Back then, the early college high school concept was fairly new. It had already started in Hidalgo with Dr. King,” Gonzalez said. “But the STEM blueprint was a totally different ball game. Let me tell you, I was very terrified to begin to think about what it would take to make sure kids were graduating high school not only with their diploma but with a minimum of 12 college hours or an associate degree in the STEM fields.”

King pointed out he had been on the frontline in education for about 42 years.

“We have come a long way. We have to continue to work hard. Where we are is not where we want to be,” King said. “I can remember when the initial attempts at accountability started coming out in the 1980s. The Valley came out very low on the rankings. I can remember the sense of determination within the myself and within my peers, that our schools would not remain at the bottom.”

King pointed to a study that came out a few years back that said if a student was Hispanic and from a low-income family, there was no better place to receive an education than the Valley.

King said the Valley is unique in a lot of different ways. 

“It is something of an advantage, the isolation of the Valley, in terms of not always picking up some of the negative connotations, whether it be minority status or low socio-economic status. I think in the Valley there is a can-do attitude. I think there are a lot of partnerships. There is a lot of strength in the culture, the family ties and family connections. More and more, families see the doors are open.”

Another unique aspect of life in the Valley is that the region is continually refreshed with new immigrants, King explained.

“We always have a percentage of the population that is on that first rung of the ladder to the American Dream. So, I think there is an energy in the Valley, I think there are a lot of partnerships, and a can-do attitude. I also think there are a lot of innovators in the Valley, innovators who have grown up here and lived here all their lives, and innovators that have come here from other places. Here in the Valley we are not afraid to experiment, trying new things, trying different ways.”

And King stressed the importance of partnerships. 

“Working across sectors, both public and private sector and non-profit sector, public schools and charters, K-12 and Higher Ed, there are probably very few places where all that takes place.”

Referencing the TEA rankings, RGV Focus’ Canales pointed out that five of the ten Valley school districts that received an “A” for accountability are in the five poorest communities in the state. She highlighted Roma ISD in isolated western Starr County.

“I agree with Dr. King. I think it is all about partnerships and collaboration. But there is one unique thing in the Valley that you don’t see in other parts of the state or the country: the majority of our leaders, whether they are at the district level or campus leaders, were born and bred in the community they serve. They are leaders in the districts they went through.”

Canales said it has taken two or three decades of “really hard work” for the Valley’s education system to get to where it is today, pointing out that prior to 1993, Starr and Hidalgo counties did not even have a two-year higher education institution.

“The Valley has a huge commitment to scale things that work. Most communities will have one or two early college high schools. The Valley owns 20 percent of the early college high schools. We have two or three that are wall-to-wall. That means the whole district is committed to creating an early college experience for students,” Canales said.

“And, we deliver 20 percent of the dual credits in the state of Texas. You can never, deny, that an early access to a college experience is good.”

Noting that RGV Focus is data-driven, Canales said: “We use data as a flashlight not a hammer and we have leaders who are totally, totally, committed at the board level, at the administration level, and the campus level.”

RGV Focus, a collective impact group featuring public and higher education leaders as well as community groups, has been collecting and collating education data since 2012. It latest report shows the Valley is matching or outpacing the state in nine out of 11 matrixes. 

Canales pointed out that Putegnat Elementary School in Brownsville, which is 100 percent low-income and 100 percent Latino, is No. 1 in the nation for third grade reading. She also mentioned Faulk Middle School in Brownsville, which is in the top three for 8th grade math. “People in the Valley are shocked. I am not shocked. I expect our kids to do well,” she said. 

The two areas where the Valley is “really struggling” is college readiness, Canales said. The Valley is below the state average in four year graduation rates. She urged critics to wait until 2021 when the first “true” graduation rates of UT-Rio Grande Valley are posted.

“Shame on us when we allow folks from other parts of the state and country to talk bad about our school system because the data does not support that. Our data shows we are leaders and we have been leaders from a long time,” Canales added.

Asked about the data coming out on the Valley’s education system, Teach for America’s Gonzalez said: 

“The data is telling us that when we have teachers in classrooms who mirror the identity of our students, who look like them, who speak like them, who have lived similar experiences. They understand what it takes to change a student’s lives trajectory.”

Challenges


The three panelists were asked what challenges lie ahead for the Valley’s education system.

Canales responded by saying: “We have done a really great job in bringing educators together, K-12, higher ed, community-based organizations. I think we need to bring our business partners along, whether it is an individual business owner, whether it is the economic development corporation, the chambers, to really understand the reality of what the education eco-system looks like.”

Canales referenced the work of Dr. Anthony P. Carnevale, professor and director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. She said that like Carnevale, she wants more from business and economic development leaders than lamenting about a lack of soft skills. “Dr. Carnevale said it is not enough to say kids need to communicate better, kids need to write better. What does that mean? What does communication mean, what skills sets and competencies are lacking that we need to build out?”

Gonzalez said she would like to see the Valley continue to have conversations similar to those aired at the LIVE at Bob’s event. 

“We need to keep asking really tough questions. What is working in education, what is not working. We have such a vibrant and familial culture in our region. We need to come together. We need to hash things out. We can disagree but at the end of the day we have each other’s back. We know we are going to be relentless in finding solutions that are keeping us at a very high bar for what needs to happen to our kids. As long as we are continuing these conversations we are going to continue making progress to impact the change that is already happening in the Rio Grande Valley,” Gonzalez said.

Dr. King said there are several things the Valley’s education system needs to focus on. He referenced special needs kids, students with “significant barriers” and adult education.

“We need to look at our adult community and take a two-generational approach. Overall, I think that while we are ahead in that aspect I think we really need to understand that education is economic development. We need to strengthen our partnerships.”

King suggested that cities or economic development corporations spend a percentage of the money they use to recruit companies on adult education.

“Adults that did not have an opportunity, if they can get re-engaged and accomplish something, that affects their children. There is a lot of research that shows that. There is something quite powerful… there is something about engaging with the adults in that home and helping them to achieve ESL, GED, job skills. It has a powerful impact on the children.”

King added: “In today’s world, human capital is what it is about. Education is the best economic development tool.”

One on One interview


In a one-on-one interview after the panel discussion ended, Teach for America’s Gonzalez was asked to elaborate on a point she had made about the Valley having a “no excuses” attitude when it comes to education.

“When I talk about no excuses in the Rio Grande Valley, that means we are not settling for anything sub-par for our students, and we are going to do our work at different levels to make sure that our kids are having success academically and that they are growing personally,” Gonzalez said.

“That they are having access to the best opportunities for the 21st Century in the Rio Grande Valley. And that we are teaching kids how to navigate through systems so that they can push against the status quo. That this is what I need in my community. This is the type of education that I am expecting. That I am the customer and I deserve to get those experiences that are going to take me on a different trajectory. So that whatever I choose to do in life, such as come back to the Rio Grande Valley and contribute as a community leader, that I am well-equipped to do so. So, when I talk about no excuses, I mean all those factors, and all of us coming together as one community to make sure that we doing right by kids.”

Gonzalez said she is a living testament to that. 

“The fact that I am the executive director at Teach for America is not very likely. I come from a poor economic background. I am Latina and I am a woman. I had all the odds stacked against me. Various people, when I was growing up, who were teachers and community leaders said, that is no excuse, we are are going to help kids like you achieve. If I can do it, other people can do it because we have more resources and we have more community leaders that are all pulling in the same direction for our kids.”