WESLACO, RGV – At a luncheon hosted by the Rio Grande Valley Society of Marketing Professional Services, Connie Lopez, deputy director for Region One’s Finance Advisory Council, spoke of the excellent achievements of Valley schools.
“Region One is the strongest region academically … We compete with every region across the state, and actually we beat them,” said Lopez.
In their 2017 accountability report, the Texas Education Agency did find Region One to be the highest performing in the state. To give some insight into exactly what some districts are doing to engage students, Dr. Priscilla Canales, Superintendent of Weslaco I.S.D., and Dr. Daniel Treviño, Jr., Superintendent of Mercedes I.S.D., shared about the current projects they are working on.
Weslaco I.S.D., in partnership with the city of Weslaco, is concentrating on a “lit for literacy” initiative. Canales says that after seeing the need in the district, they decided to launch “Weslaco Reads, Weslaco Succeeds” with an official proclamation by the city.
“As a school community, we believe that reading is a foundation of everything and so is writing,” said Canales. “There’s nothing like a great book that captures the imagination of children to be the gift we want to give all kids this school year.”
Canales said the district is focused on giving students a complete education that includes academics, the arts and athletics. Starting from elementary and going all the way to high school, they hope to prepare fully-rounded individuals.
“In Weslaco I.S.D., we have The Leader in Me program that’s based on [Stephen R.] Covey’s ‘7 Habits of [Highly] Effective People’ that we’re teaching kids from elementary to middle school to just use as they navigate school and later on in college and then life,” said Canales.
For Treviño, working with Ivy League schools is Mercedes I.S.D.’s proudest feat. For the past three years a select group of about two to six sophomores and juniors have been able to spend a week at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Cornell and, now, Stanford University during the summer.
“Not only have they asked for them to visit the campuses, we will have our first enrollee at Princeton and at Harvard this fall in 2018,” said Treviño. “To see youngsters from the Rio Grande Valley of Texas in Cambridge, Massachusetts at MIT or Princeton – these are huge accomplishments.”
Treviño also said that Mercedes teachers themselves are continuing their education at prestigious universities. In May, a teacher graduated from Harvard with a master’s in math, and another will graduate from Washington University with a master’s in biology next year. Trevino says their advanced education will directly benefit students by bringing a part of the Ivy League home.
Even with their successes, districts across the Valley still struggle with funding for facilities maintenance and other expenditures to retain up-to-date and modern classroom environments. Brian Godinez, board member of the Society of Marketing Professional Services, pointed out that since 2013, eight bond referendums have failed in Hidalgo County alone.
“It’s more challenging here because of the economy to raise property taxes than it is in the Houston area or the Dallas area,” said Treviño. “The household incomes are a little more limited in our area, therefore, it’s more influential on increasing property taxes, and that’s why it’s difficult to pass bond issues in our area.”
Treviño explained that property taxes in the Valley are almost at their peak for an allowable increase of the school districts’ maintenance and operations (M&O) tax or interest and sinking (I&S) tax to pay off debts. Because of this, they are limited in how many pennies they can increase on either side. And, with no bonds to rely on, districts are seeking funding elsewhere.
“Every district in Hidalgo County – all, but one – have passed a TRE [tax ratification election],” said Treviño. “We just passed a TRE this summer, and that will yield some dollars as far as being able to continue with our I&S … The district has been very conservative where we’re almost out of debt because it’s been so long since we passed a large bond.”
Financial hurdles aside, Canales reemphasized the work that the districts are doing in spite of everything.
“We’re getting things done in a region with a large number of minority students, … a lot of economically disadvantaged students, by creating environments where students feel known, valued and inspired,” said Canales. “And, that’s what we strive to do in Weslaco I.S.D. and, knowing my colleagues across Region One now, they strive to do that in every public school in the region.”