MCALLEN, Texas – Dan Porterfield, the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, will give the keynote speech at Teach For America-RGV’s Honor Roll Gala.

The gala takes place at the McAllen Convention Center on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020, starting  at 6:30 p.m. It will be Porterfield’s first visit to the Rio Grande Valley. Click here to purchase a ticket.

Teach For America-RGV, a nonprofit that has been in the Valley for 29 years, is hoping to $150,000 from the gala. The proceeds will allow the group to grow its teaching and leadership force.

“We invite you to invest in the recruitment, training, and support of motivated leaders who will take up the torch and continue to lead education in our region to new heights,” said Teach For America-RGV’s managing director, Jon Stevens.

Although this is only Teach For America-RGV’s second annual awards gala, Stevens believes it is fast becoming the Valley’s main education awards show.

Stevens sat down for an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian in advance of the gala. In the attached podcast he discusses the history of Teach For America in the Rio Grande Valley and what its mission statement is. He also previews the gala and announces the two individuals and one education institution that will be honored at the event. He also expresses his delight that Porterfield will be giving the keynote address at the gala.

Jon Stevens, managing director of Teach For America-RGV.

“Dan Porterfield is CEO and president at the Aspen Institute, a very well-known think tank that is a thought leader on all sorts of topics, including education,” Stevens said.

“He is a lifelong educator and was formally the president of Franklin Marshall College in Pennsylvania.”

Stevens said Porterfield helped transform Franklin Marshall College from a small, liberal arts college to ensure more first generation college students were able to access and then be successful in the higher education setting.

“In his work now at the Aspen Institute, he is helping to bring together thought leaders from across the country. He has so much to contribute and connect to our story here in the region, where I think our community has been thinking about that as well,” Stevens said.

“So, we are excited that he is coming as a representative of, yes, Teach for America, but also as someone who is a well-respected leader in higher education access.”

Stevens said that while Porterfield can and will offer his viewpoint on access to higher education, he can also learn about the Valley. “He can take this back to the Aspen Institute and to everyone he comes in to communication with. We think this is a unique opportunity for all of our community to get to hear from this well-known national leader.”

Stevens said that while this is Porterfield’s first visit to the Valley he will know something about the region because of some of the programs the Aspen Institute runs. Most notably, he said, the Pahara-Aspen Fellowship, which a number of Valley educators have participated in.

“It is a serendipitous turn of events that both of our individual honorees, Luzelma Canales and JoAnn Gama are Pahara-Aspen Fellowship alumni. We are really excited that there is a tremendous synergy among all of this,” Stevens said.

“Dan is aware of this region and the great things that are going on in education but being here on the ground will give him much greater insight into that, something he can take back into all of his interactions.”

Teach For America-RGV’s headquarters is at the Center For Education & Economic Development (CEED) in Mission, Texas.

Stevens said he hopes the 2nd Annual Honor Roll Gala will help spread the word about the successes that are happening in education across the Valley.

“It is still a secret for many people, some of the successes that are happening here in the Valley. We think this honor roll event can tell our local community about some of the individuals and institutions who are helping to lead to some of these successes.”

Stevens explained why Canales, Gama, and South Texas College are being honored at the gala. He said their awards will help Teach For America-RGV will tell the story of educational progress in the Valley, noting that the Texas Education Agency last year gave A’s and B’s to every single school district in Region One Education Service Center, which covers the region.

Luzelma Canales

“Dr. Luzelma Canales will be awarded our Education Leadership Award. She was founding executive director of RGV Focus, a regional collective impact initiative in education, who brought together stakeholders in the Pre-K thru 12 system, the higher education system, community organizations and the business community to think, how can we align our systems to make it more likely that students are successfully going to attain higher levels of education, particularly some sort of educational attainment post high school.”

Stevens said Canales is now at UT-Rio Grande Valley, where her primary focus is helping the university realize its promise to students to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

“So, she is overseeing student success initiatives there. Throughout her career she has been committed to the students of this region and we have seen a lot of tremendous educational progress under her leadership.”

Stevens said the Institutional Catalyst Award will be presented to South Texas College.

“During its history, South Texas College has literally transformed the economy of Hidalgo and Starr counties, from 1993 to the current day. They have a real focus on how can they get more of our community to access community college courses which did not previously exist; to how do we think about job and workforce needs and how do we design and build training programs around that,” Stevens said.

“And, now that we have new university options, how do we link and stack on top of that credentials and coursework so that they can finish at different types of degrees along the way of their education journey.”

Stevens said South Texas College is a “tremendous” example of how, not just in Pre-K thru 12 schools, but also in higher education and workforce development, the Valley seeking out new and innovative ways of doing things.

“To some extent, because we started with virtually nothing in that area, you can make a lot of progress. But now we are moving beyond that and I think South Texas College is being honored with the recent Excelencia in Education award in Washington, D.C., and many other recognitions of community college peers across the country to come and learn about how they keep student success, access and community stakeholder engagement at the center of what they do.”

Stevens said the Alumni Leadership will be presented to JoAnn Gama.

JoAnn Gama

“We wanted to honor someone who has had a tremendous impact on our community over the term of her career. And so we are honoring JoAnn for her leadership. She is someone who grew up on the north side of Houston, was able to earn a scholarship, go to Boston for college and university as a first generation college student and still took up the call of Teach for America to come and teach and lead in the classroom.”

Stevens said Gama and was a highly successful teacher who earned teacher of the year from her peers, very, very, early on in her career.

“But she also saw that there were many other systems and supports that her students needed in order to be successful and so, out of that, with Tom Torkelson, they founded the first IDEA Academy, which has grown into so many schools.”

Stevens said Teach for America’s mission is leadership in the classroom, in the school building and in the community.

“We think about role models of leadership. JoAnn Gama is a role model of leadership for so many of her peers who are superintendents in all types of school districts here. She is a role model of leadership for people who have come in to education through Teach for America. And she is a role model of leadership for our community, for how we can come up with creative solutions and ways of ensuring that no students are denied educational opportunity because of circumstances or because of some of the challenges that they might have outside of school.”

Asked for a wrap-up remark about the gala, Stevens said: “This is going to be a celebration and a fun night. We are involving a lot of students from local school districts.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Dan Porterfield, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute.