McALLEN, RGV – The Center for Public Policy Priorities held a workshop on Wednesday to highlight two new data tools that allow Rio Grande Valley communities to measure how well their residents are doing.

The workshop, co-sponsored by CPPP and RGV Focus was held at South Texas College’s Pecan Campus. Ann Beeson, CPPP’s new executive director, and Leslie Helmcamp, a CPPP policy analyst gave presentations.

A panel discussion moderated by Helmcamp included STC President Shirley Reed, McAllen ISD Superintendent James Ponce, and Valley Initiative for Development & Advancement Executive Director Myra Caridad Garcia.

“We have been doing a road show around Texas to highlight two data tools that bring local data to the communities to measure how well their residents are doing. Both in terms of good jobs and whether there are enough good jobs in the community and also on different indicators of success,” Helmcamp told the Guardian.

“We have community indicators on how well residents are accessing services, how well they are doing in college completion, those sorts of things. We want to make the connection between a family’s financial security and their ability to enroll and succeed in college. We want to talk about the need for more access points to college and support students while they are in college.”

Luzelma Canales of RGV Focus, Myra Caridad Garcia of VIDA, James Ponce of McAllen ISD, Leslie Helmcamp of CPPP, and Shirley Reed of STC participated in a 'Road to a Better Texas' workshop.
Luzelma Canales of RGV Focus, Myra Caridad Garcia of VIDA, James Ponce of McAllen ISD, Leslie Helmcamp of CPPP, and Shirley Reed of STC participated in a ‘Road to a Better Texas’ workshop.

Click here for the Family Budgets data tool from CPPP.

Click here for the Texas Regional Opportunity Index data tool from CPPP.

Helmcamp said the Texas Regional Opportunity Index is a community indicator portal that has about 60 different indicators on different types of services and measures of economic mobility in a community. “Folks can go in and find out how their county is doing compared to their neighboring county. Or, they can compare themselves to the state. But, the idea is they will use the tool to develop policy and programs and move those numbers in the right direction,” Helmcamp said.

“So, if you want greater college completion, what kind of programs can you promote in your community for that. Should we put funding in a different location?”

Helmcamp said that when it comes to educational attainment, the Valley is no different to the rest of the state. “We are falling behind in educational attainment, especially for our economically disadvantaged students. In Texas, only one in ten of economically disadvantaged 8th graders actually go on to complete a degree or a certificate. Those numbers are slightly higher for the Rio Grande Valley area. We have a lot of work to do to build those pipelines to college and to get low income students into and through college.”

Helmcamp said she would like to see more Valley community leaders make the trip to Austin to tell state legislators at the Capitol about the successes and challenges they face. She said CPPP can put evidence-based data in front of policymakers but it helps even more if legislators see and hear from Valley leaders.

“Hopefully, the community can take a close look at the data and see how much a family needs to get by in the community and really have a good conversation on the type of jobs that we are promoting and how well they pay, and whether or not our community can really get ahead. We need to start this conversation.”

Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV Focus, said the most alarming statistic in CPPP’s data toolbox was the one showing that the living wage is not enough to live on. She said this means a conversation needs to take place with economic development leaders in the Valley on what type of companies they are seeking to attract.

“For a single parent with a family with two kids, the living wage is not enough. The largest gain in jobs is the lower skilled, lower paying jobs. So, even though people are not unemployed, they are underemployed,” Canales told the Guardian.

“I think we now have to engage our business sector in a different conversation now about what it really takes to survive in the Rio Grande Valley. And what does that mean in hourly wages. What kind of jobs do we need to have? What kind of recruitment do we need to do with our business partners so that our families are surviving?”

It was put to Canales that the counter argument is that until the Valley produces a larger pool of high-skilled workers companies that provide better paying jobs will not come. Canales responded: “As our graduates are leaving they should not be under-employed. What is the plan to get them into those better paying jobs? There has to be a strategy not to import the higher level managers and supervisors because we are producing those graduates. How do we not import a workforce for the higher level? It is like a relay race, how do we find the handoff?”

Canales pointed to what Univision does in New York. A graduate comes in and shadows a senior employee for a year and then they move up in the company. “It is not that our EDCs are bringing the wrong employer, it is about how do you make the ask for these employers a little differently? For truly creating pathways for our home grown folks, to be able to grow with the organizations into jobs where they can survive and beyond survive, move into the middle class,” Canales said.

Canales had nothing but praise for Ponce and McAllen ISD’s recent project to connect parents with social service programs and community partners.

“In his presentation, Dr. Ponce was being very humble. He has done incredible work over a six to seven month period. He got all of these cross sector partners to be engaged. They literally now have a referral system with a form that all the partners now have in their offices. When a family comes in they now say, okay, you need a service from us but here is another service you are eligible for. And, do not just walk out of here, we are going to send you and we are going to refer you. It is a model that should be replicated,” Canales said.

In his remarks, Ponce said his focus is on the family.

“When a child is having an issue you can usually trace it back to the family. We need to find a way to bring the resources in the community to the family. There are niche industries within the community that take care of that better for us. We are trying to get better at partnering up with our resources in the community and passing that along in a soft transfer as best we can to our families,” Ponce said.

“Knowing pre-natal to pre-K is a big piece that most of the time is not talked about, we are very focused on that. It is a perfect setting because we have boundaries. McAllen is not growing. We have a lot of resources to bear in a very small square mileage. We have partnered up with many of our community partners. We have our Easter Seals, one of the biggest ones, they are like the catalyst. It allows us to look at some data and do some research with our kindergarten families.”

Ponce said McAllen ISD called upon all the CEOs for the local hospitals, as well as all the social service agencies, and all of the pre-school care groups. “We gave them permission to come and do whatever they needed to do with our families, especially in our pre-natal, pre-K, area. I think we had been closed to that. But we know the target audience is sitting in our schools. We needed to do a better job of opening our doors and being more open minded to some of the innovative practices that some of the social service agencies and hospitals are doing. I think the pre-natal, pre-K, part it is a big piece.”