McALLEN, RGV – A new scorecard published by RGV Focus shows Rio Grande Valley high schools and colleges doing better than the statewide average in some measurements but not in others.

The Valley is narrowly behind on four-year high school graduation rates, and more so on producing college ready graduates, and students graduating from universities.

But, the Valley is ahead on students with advanced placement/dual credit, graduates immediately enrolled in higher education, students graduating from community colleges, and community college graduates getting employed or enrolled in university.

“We do not want to be satisfied with being at the state level. We want to surpass it. We want to be the leader in the state,” Daniel King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, told the Rio Grande Guardian. King chairs the RGV Focus group. “With every passing year the demographics of the state look more and more like the Valley. We have the opportunity to be the laboratory to show that the demographic change in the state can be a great opportunity.”

South Texas College President Shirley A. Reed agreed.

“The economic growth of the region is going to depend on higher educational levels for everyone. That is often the statistic companies look at when deciding whether to relocate here. They look at it online for this information, they do not even visit. So, we simply have to change those numbers. That has been the driving force behind the work we have been doing with RGV Focus. We know that this dual enrollment works. It is affordable for families. It is highly effective and we are doing as much of it as we can and as fast as we can,” Reed told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“Our goal is to transform this four county region. To do that, we have to work together. We have to sustain the partnerships we are building. We have to outreach to parents so they understand this is available and possible for everyone in the Valley. With a shared commitment we can make this possible. We are having remarkable results and they are only going to increase in the future years. We will be the leader of the state of Texas in this area.”

King and Reed gave interviews to the Rio Grande Guardian at the conclusion of an RGV Focus event held at South Texas College’s technology campus. The event was held to unveil the 2014 Baseline Report and a 2014 Community Report, which was published in both English and Spanish. Educators and workforce developments leaders who spoke at the event gave their remarks in both English and Spanish. “Very purposefully, we had a dual language, bilingual event, because we wanted to honor our community, and honor our partners who are Spanish speaking,” said Dr. Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV Focus. “Many times our Spanish-speaking residents are spoken at instead of spoken with. It is very important our community understands the work we are doing.”

RGV Focus grew out of the Rio Grande Valley Collective Impact initiative that was started in 2012. It aims to transform college readiness, access, and success across the four-county region. It includes educators, non-profits, community groups, funders and business and civic leaders that are dedicated to making major, systematic improvements to educational and career attainment in the Valley.

In addition to PSJA’s King and STC’s Reed, the RGV Focus Leadership Team includes Alda Benavides, superintendent of La Joya ISD, William Fannin, interim president of UT-Brownsville, Eduardo Infante, superintendent of Lyford CISD, Havidan Rodriguez, interim president of UT-Pan American, Gonzalo Salazar, superintendent of Los Fresnos CISD, Tom Torkelson, CEO and co-founder of IDEA Public Schools, Judith Solis, superintendent of La Villa ISD, James Ponce, superintendent of McAllen ISD, Mike Seifert, network weaver for RGV Equal Voice Network, Juanita Valdez-Cox, executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero, Cornelio Gonzalez, CEO of Region 1 Education Service Center, Frank Almaraz, CEO of Workforce Solutions, Stella Garcia, president of Texas State Technical College-Harlingen, Lily Tercero, president of Texas Southmost College, Traci Wickett, CEO of United Way of Southern Cameron County, Arturo Cavazos, superintendent of Harlingen CISD, Carlos Guzman, superintendent of Roma ISD, Wynn Rosser, CEO of the Greater Texas Foundation, Pat Hobbs, CEO of Workforce Solutions Cameron County, Guy Bailey, president of UT-Rio Grande Valley, and Juliet Garcia, executive director of the UT Institute of the Americas.

Asked why the Baseline Report was being issued, Canales said: “The Rio Grande Valley has been at the forefront of education innovation for many years. In order to ensure that the region has a single voice for sharing our successes and measuring progress, RGV Focus is releasing its baseline report. The report shows how our students are performing from cradle-to-career and why each step along the way is important. In the coming years, these measures will tell us whether we are doing a good job of ensuring that every child in the Valley eventually has a career they can be proud of.”

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian at the end of the RGV Focus event, Canales said her group did not choose certain metrics to measure just because the Valley was ahead of the statewide average.

“The important thing to remember is what Dr. Steve Murdock, the former state demographer said, if you are going to be born poor and Hispanic, the best place to be born in the Rio Grande Valley. Why, because 86 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged. One third of our families live in poverty. So, what this says is that even with our demographics, or in spite of our demographics, look what we are doing through collaboration and innovation. I think that is the most important thing,” Canales said.

Canales said it is pretty sensational that RGV Focus has been able to bring five university and community college presidents together for the first time, not to mention 11 of the 39 school superintendents in the Valley and two workforce boards and a number of community-based groups. “How do we bring them all together and how do they all agree on nine outcomes? Imagine the task. I get two or three calls a month asking, how do you continue to get folks to show up? I have been doing this for two years and two years later I still have 85 to 90 percent of the CEOs showing up every month for a three hour meeting. They live and breathe this stuff.”

In the two years RGV Focus has been operating it has focused on five collaborative projects. “Everyone has left their egos at the door and taken off their organizational hat and put on a community hat. It is so powerful,” Canales said. “In addition to the baseline reports we created two community reports, one in English and one in Spanish. Groups like LUPE are taking 1,000 of them and saying to the parents, this is why it is important. We are making progress but we still have 39 percent of our adults without a high school diploma or GED. We still have a lot to do. It sends a message that we all care about the same thing and we are all listening to each other.”

Asked where RGV Focus gets its money, Canales said funders have become partners. “Dr. Wynn Rosser sits on our leadership team, from the Greater Texas Foundation. He comes every month from Bryan, Texas. We also have funding from the Ford Foundation and the Lumina Foundation. You have to ask yourself, why are all these state and national organizations interested? The reason is because we look like the rest of the nation is going to look soon. Who are the educators struggling with? It is Latino and African American students. If we can show them how to move the needle with Latino students then we are developing,” Canales said.

Canales said that, historically, some school districts have had a strong working relationship with a community college. He cited PSJA and STC, Harlingen CISD and TSTC-Harlingen. “The question now is how do we move it to the next level, how do we take it regional? I know we are doing our job well at RGV Focus when the superintendent from Harlingen cares about the outcomes of Rio Grande City and vice versa and when Tom Torkelson unselfishly opens up his door and teaches us how he got 89 percent of his kids to complete their FAFSA (federal student aid) by March.”

Asked why the Valley is doing well in the metrics being measured, Canales said: “We are all learning from each other. It is beautiful when I hear a superintendent say the Valley kids are my kids. Or when Dr. Cavazos says, I am one generation removed (from poverty). We do not want to be one generation removed. We more want to be more like Boston, where 90 percent of the folks have some sort of degree.”

Canales revealed she often gets asked, both at the state and national level, why the Valley is doing so much better with its educational attainment levels. “I always say it is because our leaders were born and bred in the Rio Grande Valley, the great majority, if you look at Gonzalo Salazar from Los Fresnos, he grew in that community – same thing at Lyford with Eduardo Infante. Our leaders care because they see themselves in their kids. It is pretty, pretty, cool work.”

Canales said funders to RGV Focus, such as Lumina and Ford, also tell the Valley’s story. “I spoke to a group from Denver last week. They wanted to know how I continue to get everyone engaged and for this to work? I told them I do not have the magic answer for that. They just do. Part of it is they, our leadership team, built this. This is grassroots. The leadership team is RGV Focus. We just manage the process. It is our leaders who are RGV Focus. They are focused on improving educational attainment.”

Canales said educators as far away as Vancouver are picking up on the Valley’s successes. “We have been invited to go up there and make a presentation on how we do this work. People are surprised we have been able to keep the momentum. I think part of it is because we are adding value. If we were not adding value people would not come. So, I think we are also pushing courageous conversations and we are opening the door for people to be candid with each other.”

Editor’s Note: In the main picture accompanying this story, RGV Focus Executive Director Luzelma Canales holds a copy of her group’s 2014 Baseline Report.