HARLINGEN, RGV – Rio Grande Valley education leaders are no longer going to let so-called experts from other parts of the state or country tell the region’s academic story.

They say they do not need others to come in and study what is happening in Valley schools and colleges because they are quite capable of doing it themselves.

The fighting talk came at and after the unveiling of a new annual report from RGV FOCUS that shows the Valley matching or exceeding the statewide average in nine of 11 education measurements established by the group in 2012. The 2017 annual report is titled Changing the Story.

“Let us begin to tell our own story of the Valley. We don’t need for somebody else to come study us. We can study ourselves. We can tell our own story,” said Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV FOCUS, in an in-depth interview with the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Our story is one of family support, of institutional will for change. I mentioned to our leadership team earlier today what Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston told us: that it is only through vulnerability and courage that we can really change and transform. That is what our leaders are doing. They are vulnerable to criticism yet they are opening up their data, they are trying to problem solve together. That takes courage.”

Asked why Valley education leaders are so invested in their work and why they want to tell their story, Canales said:

“If you look at our superintendents, they are in the communities they grew up in. If you look at the administrators, we are from this community. We see ourselves in the eyes of our students. Most of them (RGV superintendents and administrators) were where our kids are. Education was their pathway to the middle class. Now, they have an opportunity to give back to their community. In the 80s, about half of our adults did not have a high school diploma. That is down to 38 percent. Only Singapore has done better than us. We are a microcosm for change. We are a microcosm for how to work together.”

Canales said her own story is representative of so many educators in the Valley.

“My own journey started in La Grulla in Starr County. I went from working in the fields to working in the field of dreams. I am making dreams happen. If a young girl from La Grulla could get a bachelor’s and a doctorate, all of our kids should be able to. But, I do not fool myself into thinking I can speak for those families anymore, because I am not there anymore. So, having partners like Equal Voice, and LUPE and others in RGV FOCUS is so important. They give us access to the family voice.”

Asked to elaborate on the “familial assets” theme, Canales said: “We have assets in the Valley that other communities don’t have. We don’t tell that story. We don’t tell the story of how, when you break bread with someone in the Valley, we give trust just because you are in our home. In other places, you have to earn trust. We are a very trusting community. Those are assets that many others do not have. We are excited to have such an asset.”

Continuing on this theme, Canales said: “I keep saying that this is one of the few areas in the country that is not trying to fix kids or families. We are trying to redesign and re-imagine what an educational pathway will look like to meet families and students where they are. You never hear our leaders talk about fixing kids or fixing families. We talk about the needs of our family and the assets of our families in order to be able to get them in and through (school and college). And so, I am really proud to be from the Valley.”

Elevating Success

RGV FOCUS is a collective impact initiative that was started in 2012 by Educate Texas and the Communities Foundation of Texas. The group measures educational outcomes in the four-county Valley area and has a leadership team that comprises school district, higher education, philanthropic, workforce and community leaders.

Canales said that when she goes to conferences around the country, she is often asked, how do you get your education leaders to work together. “I tell them, it is natural to us. I tell them, we just do. In a Latino family… I remember my Mom saying to us after we had an argument, no one is going to bed until you figure it out. Even after a disagreement you move on and have dinner together.”

Canales said an example of Valley education leaders working together is when the RGV FOCUS leadership meets and superintendents share their data. “This another great thing about the Valley – our superintendents allow their campus level data to be discussed in our meetings. To be able to compare ourselves, most communities are not courageous enough to do that. If they do, they take away the data when they leave the room.”

Canales is also grateful that the Valley has a local media that gives both sides of the story.

“We appreciate that our local media is unbiased and tell both sides of the story. You tell the story of need but you also tell the story of success. It is only through that we are going to be able to really elevate our success and remind everyone that our families really care about our kids and the future of our kids. I don’t know that we tell that story enough, the role of family in our successes.”

This, Canales said, was why this year’s report is called Changing the Story.

“We want the data to speak for itself. Today we revealed that the Valley is at or higher than the state in nine of the 11 outcomes. You will remember when we started (in 2012) we were ahead in six. If you look further, we are ahead in six of those. We believe that is through collaboration, all of our sectors coming together, that we are transforming this region. The tag line we have is Leaders United Change Lives. It is not about solving the problem for my school district, or my higher ed institution. It is about the Valley having the talent that it needs,” Canales explained.

Cledia Hernandez, interim provost at Texas State Technical College-Harlingen, liked the fact that RGV FOCUS’ new report is titled Changing the Story.

“More than anything else, it is about sharing the story. For many years, we have always heard about how Brownsville and the Valley is the poorest community, that we do not have the educational attainment that the rest of the country does, or that we do not have the skilled workforce. On the contrary, I think this data proves that we do have the right people, the right pipeline for employers to come in and bring their companies to the Rio Grande Valley,” Hernandez said.

“It is all about us working together to share that message and change that misconception of the Rio Grande Valley. Because, we are No. 1 in the nation for third-grade reading, in Brownsville, Texas. And in 8th grade math. We need to share that story with the rest of the world. It is very important. 

“It is being about telling our story, that it does not get overlooked. I, myself, come from a very poor community, I come from La Posada, and for many people that might seem, oh, there is no pathway. There is a pathway, for every one of our students. I think our educators are doing a phenomenal job of preparing us for the workforce of tomorrow.

Catching Up

Asked if Dr. Narciso Garcia, superintendent of Vanguard Academy was correct, when he said the Valley would catch up in the two education performance measurements where it lags the statewide average, RGV FOCUS’ Canales answered affirmatively. The two metrics are high school students being college-ready and university students completing a four-year degree on time.

“Absolutely, we will, because we went from 18 to 35 percent in college readiness. You will see a blank in our college readiness scorecard because the state changed the definition last year. They keep changing the definition. Every time we get better they keep changing it again. They move the target. And so, it is really hard to monitor college readiness but even 18 percent to 35 percent, the state only grew four percent. The state is at 38 or 39 percent. We are almost there. We are going to bypass (the statewide average) because we are being really intentional.”

Canales said an area RGV FOCUS will specialize in, during the next three years, is helping those that are not college ready. “How do we reduce the number of them that are in Dev Ed and how do we accelerate them into college level courses so they do not spend all their time there?” Canales asked. Dev Ed is education speak for developmental education, or, those students that need remediation.

Canales, like other RGV FOCUS leaders, praised the philanthropic groups that are helping the Valley.

“We have the best partners. As well as Educate Texas, we have the Communities Foundation, the Greater Texas Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation. They are very interested in what we are doing. We are the epicenter of how we prepare Latinos.”

Connecting with Businesses

Asked what the next step is, Canales said improving dialogue with the business community. RGV FOCUS specifically asked business leaders such as Janie Cavazos of McAllen Economic Development Corporation, Raudel Garza of Harlingen Economic Development Corporation, Sergio Contreras of Rio Grande Valley Partnership, and Matt Ruszczak of Rio South Texas Economic Council, to attend.

“We need our employers, we need our workforce boards, our chambers, to understand the data a little better so they know that the talent is here. We have another chart where we show that among our 18 to 24 year olds, they look exactly how the state of Texas and the U.S. looks. We have closed the gap – we have ten percent with associate degrees. We are only three percentage points behind Texas in bachelor degrees. And who is our future labor market – 18 to 24 year olds.”

Canales said another top goal for RGV FOCUS over the next few years is to build a “workplace-based experience model” for students.

“We have 20,700 seniors, add another 20,000 juniors, so we have about 80,000 high school students. Can we really put them in an internship? Do they all need an internship, or do they need a different kind of experience. Are we talking about shadowing, are we talking about mentors, internship, maybe simulation? I am looking forward to partnering with some workforce partners to help figure this out. Then we can scale this up. I just don’t think we can get internship and mentorships for 100 percent of our kids. And, I do not know they all need them.”

Canales also said she would like the business community to be a little more specific when it says that it needs students to have more and better “soft” skills.

“I keep hearing about soft skills. What does that mean? Employers need to be more specific. It is no longer acceptable to say soft skills. It is no long just acceptable to say communication. What is it exactly that our students need to know and do, so our education system can respond and help us prepare them. Our kids are competing. The challenges we have are the same challenges everybody else has.”

Concluding the interview, Canales said: “We need to replicate our collective impact framework with the business sector, to bring them in. But, we have had to work on our educational partners first, right. To make sure we are speaking the same language, that we are all on the same track. Bringing in other sectors will give us an opportunity to hit the labor market piece.

“We also know we are not there yet. We are doing very well. Could we be doing better? Absolutely. As Dr. Cavazos said, when we think we are there, it is time for us to go. That is when it is time for someone else. We are never there. It is about continuously revisiting and re-learning.”

Dr. Art Cavazos is superintendent of Harlingen CISD.

Editor’s Note: The above story is the second in a series of articles and podcasts about the new annual report by RGV FOCUS. Click here to read the first story.