EDINBURG, RGV – In RGV FOCUS’ fourth annual report, findings show the Rio Grande Valley meets or exceeds the state of Texas average in nine out of 11 categories.

RGV FOCUS launched in 2012 as a collective impact initiative incorporating public and higher education institutions, community groups, and private entities such as Educate Texas and Communities Foundation of Texas to transform college readiness, access and success throughout the region.

The latest report will be released May 3 in Harlingen. The two categories the region falls behind the state in are college readiness and four-year graduation rates.

“Last year, the state changed the definition of college readiness and the entire state went down about 20 percent. By using the new definition, the state only increased by four percent from last year to this year, while the Valley almost doubled,” Canales said.

“We’re still a couple of percentage points behind the state but, we’ll be closing that one. For four-year graduation rates, we have to remember UTRGV hasn’t been in place for six years. This means they’re still working with old cohort data from UTPA and UTB so until we can get to their real cohorts we won’t really know what the true graduation rate is for the University.”

UTRGV stands for UT-Rio Grande Valley. UTPA stands for UT-Pan American. UTB stands for UT-Brownsville.

On a national level, data shows that out of 300 schools, 30 of the top performing schools for low-income kids’ third-grade reading are in the Valley. Canales told the Rio Grande Guardian there is an elementary school in Brownsville that will be highlighted in the upcoming report because the school is number one in the country for preparing students in third-grade reading.

“Not only is that school number one but, they are where you normally wouldn’t think to look,” Canales said. “They are a few blocks away from the international bridge, almost 100 percent Latino and almost 100 percent low socioeconomic status so, we’ve got to think to ourselves: what is that school doing well?”

RGV FOCUS has developed a new three-year plan for two different strategies, Canales said. The first is to share data and group the information by independent school districts (ISDs). This way officials can compare how well the campuses are doing internally and work on closing any existing gaps. The second strategy has to do with four-year graduation rates.

“We’re doing a lot better in credential preparing and degrees. However, students are dropping out with significant credits and not finishing,” Canales said. “We’re going to be working with our higher education partners in the next year to try and recover students with significant credits that are only two to three semesters away from graduating. Just for the last two years, that number can be anywhere between 7,000 to 12,000 students.”

Apart from looking at students who are two to three semesters away from obtaining their degree, RGV FOCUS will also look into the 40 percent of students who have significant dual credits, but never transitioned to a post-secondary institution.

“The Rio Grande Valley delivers about 20 percent of the dual credit for the state and we own about 20 percent of the early college high schools. So, who is in that 40 percent? That’s one of the things that we’re going to begin to work on with our higher education partners,” Canales said.

“It will probably mostly impact South Texas College because they have the largest numbers but, they’re very sophisticated in the way they use data. So they know who those students are.”

RGV FOCUS is also looking at ways to create an alternative to an internship, Canales said. One key factor employers look for in a young potential employee is whether or not the candidate has experience as it relates to work or an internship.

However, Canales and four other colleagues travelled to Singapore to learn about their integrated model for education, workforce development and economic development. One thing she says they learned is Singapore was very intentional in the way that they created workplace-based experiences for their students.

“They don’t hang their hats on everybody needing an internships. We almost have 400,000 K-thru-12 kids. How do you create an experience for all of them? We know that not every student needs to do an internship but, we do know there are frameworks,” Canales said.

“Maybe some of them need to shadow, visit, simulate or be a mentor. We’re going to have to think about the framework for a workplace. So let’s remove internships, and not just mentor but figure out how we can touch the most students. How do we create an experience that will give them an understanding of what they need?”

Canales told the Rio Grande Guardian that another thing the organization would like to do is to try and get more economic development corporations, more chambers of commerce, and more workforce development organizations to understand the data RGV FOCUS produces. Some of the organizations RGV FOCUS is communicating with include the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council and Rio South Texas Economic Council.

“This way, they can truly promote the Valley with the assets and if young people are the region’s greatest asset then that is a story to be told. But, how do we really get the word out? Because right now, I still think that part of the community works in isolation,” Canales said.

“They care about one municipality. They care about their one county. And we need for them to really care about the whole Valley. And you heard about these silos from employers at the summit. They’re still thinking about their needs, they’re still thinking about their sector.”

Canales gave her interview to the Rio Grande Guardian at the conclusion of a South Texas College summit on college and career readiness.