EDINBURG, RGV – Rio Grande Valley leaders hope their region gets looked at in a different, much more positive, light following the success of the two-day Texas Lyceum conference.

The event, which took place at the McAllen Convention Center and the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance, drew experts from across the state. The conference was titled “The Changing Face of Texas: The Growing Number of Latinos in Public Education and the Workforce” and topic headings included, “Bold Leaders Doing Great Things for Texas,” “Rethinking Higher Ed,” and “New Health Science Opportunities in South Texas.”

“It is important that people from other parts of the state travel down to the Rio Grande Valley to see what our region is really about. There are a lot of misconceptions and a lot of focus on certain border security issues,” said state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, who spoke at the Texas Lyceum Conference.

“We need to showcase the Valley in terms of our growing economy and our strong sense of community. This conference did that. We do not get together too often to share ideas and talk about our perception and our vision for the future. This conference allowed us to do so.”

The Texas Lyceum has four main goals: 1) To identify and develop the next generation of top leadership in the State of Texas; 2) to educate its Directors by identifying and exploring the interrelationships of the major issues facing Texas; 3) to help bring a better understanding of these issues to the state’s key decision makers; and 4) to promote an appreciation of the responsibilities of stewardship of the values, traditions, and resources of Texas.

Susan Valverde, a director of the Texas Lyceum, led the Rio Grande Valley team that organized the group's two-day conference in McAllen and Edinburg.
Susan Valverde, a director of the Texas Lyceum, led the Rio Grande Valley team that organized the group’s two-day conference in McAllen and Edinburg.

In her program notes for the conference, Texas Lyceum President Roberta Schwartz said Texas stands at a population crossroads. She said experts predict that within the next couple of years, Hispanics will be the largest racial/ethnic group in Texas. She pointed out that Hispanics make up half of the students in Texas schools and a large portion of the workforce.

“Yet, statistics on educational advancement are not equal when comparing Hispanics to Whites. Why are we having such a hard time equalizing education, job opportunities, and pay between these two groups? And, if we cannot, does Texas face a crisis for our future workforce?” Schwartz wrote.

Seven emerging leaders from the Valley organized the Texas Lyceum conference: Susan Valverde, executive director of Sylvan Learning RGV, Edinburg City Manager Ramiro Garza, Lisa Cardoza, chief of staff and governmental relations officer at UT-Pan American, Sofia Hernandez, governmental affairs office for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, Erica de la Garza-Lopez, president of McAllen ISD, Alex Meade, president of Mission Economic Development Corporation, and Teclo Garcia, governmental affairs officer for the City of McAllen.

Cardoza told the Guardian that education was chosen as the main theme for the conference because of the “incredible” advances happening in the Valley right now.

“We just thought it was the perfect opportunity with UT-RGV coming on board, with the excitement of the new medical school, to focus on this important topic,” Cardoza said. “Sometimes, the Valley is in the news for negative reasons and this gives us an opportunity to showcase all the good and great things we are doing here. We are really leaders in the state in so many arenas, especially in education and workforce training and so this gives us an opportunity to really highlight all the wonderful things we are doing here.”

Asked what she hoped Texas Lyceum members from other parts of the state and other attendees of the conference would take away from the conference, Cardoza said: “That we are seen as being innovative and that we are doing our very best with the limited resources we have. We may be under-resourced but we are not under-privileged. We are very privileged to be on the border and to be able to take advantage of our bilingualism and biculturalism and so we want to highlight that.”

Cardoza said she really hoped the conference would start the process of changing the narrative of the Rio Grande Valley.

“I want people to take away what we are doing here in the Valley and see what the State of Texas can learn from what we are doing here. So many times we are not showcased. We are not necessarily forgotten but we are not the first region that comes to mind when it comes to innovation and I think we are doing some incredible things and I would like people to walk away with that.”

Among the speakers were South Texas College President Shirley Reed, El Paso Community College President William Serrata, Del Mar College President Mark Escamilla, UT-Rio Grande Valley President Guy Bailey, UT-Rio Grande Valley Medical School Dean Francisco Fernandez, PSJA ISD Superintendent Danny King, Harlingen CISD Superintendent Art Cavazos, McAllen ISD Superintendent James Ponce, IDEA Public Schools founder Tom Torkelson, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance CEO Israel Rocha, Valley Baptist Medical Center CEO Manny Vela, South Texas ISD President Marla Guerra, and UT System Regent Ernest Aliseda.

Former State Demographer Steve Murdock spoke about the demographic changes sweeping Texas. He said the bottom line is that Texas’ future is tied to the success of its minority population. In an interview with the Guardian after his speech, Murdock said that state leaders in Texas are aware of the implications if the educational attainment rates of minority students are not improved. He was also full of praise for what is happening in education in the Valley.

“I think there is more effort being made. I think it is a long term effort. We are in the third inning of a nine-inning stretch. The good thing is we are on the field and we are playing. We were not doing that 20 years ago. We thought everything was just fine and we did not need to worry about all this. Part of what is happening is a mobilization is occurring and it is beginning to make a difference,” Murdock said.

“In some areas it is greater than others. I see more activity in the Valley than I see in any other part of the state. I see a greater recognition. There are great programs in the Houston schools and the Austin schools but in terms of the communities being part of the process, rather than the educational establishment doing it alone, I see more community involvement. I do not find this everywhere. In some places, it is, well, ‘you are the school people, you go do this.’ Here in the Valley it is a common goal and common challenge.”

Murdock’s concern, however, is whether the improvements in “closing the gaps” are coming fast enough. “There are no places in Texas, at least in the areas I visit, where you do not have specialized programs that are helping kids at risk. We do have a long way to go and we will need a concerted effort on a continued basis for many years to do this,” Murdock said.

Asked why educating minorities is key, Murdock said: “Because they are the population for the future. By 2050, 21 percent will be non-Hispanic White and they will be disproportionately older. Seventy nine percent of the population will be minority, how well we are doing is not going to be dependent on that 21 percent.”

Paying tribute to the Valley, Murdock said: “You have an outstanding set of superintendents, many of whom were doing other things and said, my life is more important dedicated to education than anything else I can do if I want to make a difference. That was not always true. There are a lot of things that are positive but we have to keep pushing.”

Valverde led the RGV team that put on the Texas Lyceum conference. Valverde told the Guardian that other parts of Texas can learn from the successes of the Valley, such as leading the state in high school graduation rates.

“We have a lot of wonderful leaders in K-12 and higher education and they are helping to solve the problem that was talked about this morning. The statistics don’t lie. We have a lot of work to do when it comes to closing the gap with educational attainments for Latinos, both across the state and across the nation. I think what is unique about the Valley is that we have acknowledged this issue for a very long time and as such have been the test kitchen for a lot of things that have been tried and proven successful. They can be replicated and scaled across the state and across the nation. I think we can be the problem-solvers in this scenario,” Valverde said.

Valverde said she used to be involved in economic development before she became a specialist in education. She said one of the things that stands in the Valley is the level of interest the business community has in improving educational attainment levels.

“I get a chance to see what other communities are doing and it is one point of pride I have about the Valley – that the business community has always been engaged. When I was in economic development we were constantly talking about education in the region. That is unique and we are finding out that is necessary. I think it says a lot about the Valley. When you have an area that is under-resourced, you tend to be very creative and very resourceful. You tend to stretch and leverage some relationships to get the job done.”