MISSION, RGV – High school students in the Rio Grande Valley are performing better than the statewide average in many areas, including 8th grade girls’ math scores.

Eugenio Longoria Saenz, deputy director of RGV Focus, announced some of the criteria being measured at South Texas College’s 14th Annual Summit on College and Career Readiness. The event was held at the Mission Event Center.

RGV Focus will present its annual report at the Rio Grande Valley ‘Contigo’ State of Education luncheon at Knapp Conference Center in Weslaco on May 10.

“For me, one of the most powerful narratives is the 8th grade girls and how they are outperforming the state in math achievement. I cannot image what that means if we fully support these girls, who are in 9th grade now, through the remainder of their high school and into successful college completion,” Longoria Saenz said, in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

“I cannot imagine what this region will look like when these young women become the next generation of leaders and professionals, across all industries. It is a powerful narrative when you think of how many girls in absolute numbers that make up that cohort.”

Longoria Saenz said it is “almost emotional on a certain level” because of the socio-economic profile of the Valley.

“You think of this region and its culture, its proximity to the Mexican border, the fact that it is binational, bicultural, bi-literate. The possibilities of what these young girls can achieve, who are already outperforming all other girls in the state, it is powerful.”

Longoria said that while the impact of this cohort of students will first be felt in the Valley, its ripple effect will be felt across the whole country. “To me, that is the most powerful thing.”

Asked if school superintendents and education administrators were expecting to find such success among 8th grade girls, Longoria Saenz said: “I don’t think we were.”

He said it was clear what has to happen next.

“What it becomes about now is building systems to support what the data demonstrates to us. Whether that system is to support girls through college, systems to support the achievement gap between our ELLs (English language learners) and non ELLs, SES (supplemental educational services) and non-SES, and between our SPED (special education) and non-SPED populations. What we do now is close our own equity gaps as they relate to the performance of our students in this region.”

Asked for other examples of Valley students outperforming the statewide averages, Longoria Saenz said:

“There are many examples but for me that (math scores for 8th grade girls) is the most powerful one right now. It is the one that pulls at my heartstrings. I come from a family of five sisters and an amazing mom. To think, they were young women in the Valley. To think, there is now an opportunity not just to give our girls a chance, but the girls have demonstrated what they can do with this opportunity. In one sense we feel proud but in another way, a sense of guilt that we did not do it sooner.”

Longoria Saenz said it could take another five years of analysis before educators fully understand why Valley students are outperforming their peers in other parts of the state.

“Our data has been confirmed by national evaluators, they have affirmed this data, so has TEA (Texas Education Agency). All of us are at the point of, how did we achieve that? We can speak about system redesigns and system innovations because that is happening but that is the easy thing to talk about. We see that more tangibly. When it comes to the outcomes of students, it is a much more difficult to answer. It will take the next five years to find the answer.”

Asked if the Valley’s collective decision to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) was the reason the 8th grade girls did so well, Longoria Saenz said:

“There was not a direct focus on girls as much as an opening of opportunities and removing barriers that have kept our students back. Girls are part of that population. To see that this kind of outcome as a result of a willing g collective want is very reassuring. It is celebratory.”

Longoria Saenz said there is another compelling piece of data, provided by TEA in its accountability ratings. “Twenty two percent of the high performing, high low-income districts are here in the Valley And that 22 percent makes up two thirds of our school districts. So, if we can just get that other third and lift them…”

In raw numbers, of the 510,000 students that attend the best high-performing, high low-income schools, the Valley educates 50 percent.

Longoria Saenz said he doesn’t like a phrase bandied about by some that the Valley is the best place for a child from a poor family to grow up.

“Is it ever a good time to be poor? No. But is is always a great time to be from the Valley. To me that phrase has gone out of style quickly. I get the well-intended meaning behind it but there is never a good time to be poor.”

Asked for a wrap-up comment, Longoria Saenz said: “Collectively, the people of the Valley should feel empowered to take ownership of their narrative and tell a different one, in contrast to the one that the national publications tell. We are at a time when fact becomes fiction more and more. No one seems to share our story on a national scale.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above news story shows Eugenio Longoria Saenz.

RGV State of Education Luncheon

Chris Coxon, is managing director of Educate Texas, which facilitates the RGV Focus. Under the RGV Focus umbrella, Educate Texas brought together 12 school districts, four higher education institutions, two workforce development boards, and three community groups back in 2012. The goal is get every student to and through college.

“RGV Focus has been working with school districts and non-profit partners and with our higher ed partners across the region for the last five years. Every year we have produced a report that talks about what progress we are making as a community,” Coxon said.

Chris Coxon

“It is important as we look across the Rio Grande Valley, that we look at how we as a whole community are doing. This is a growing community that is getting stronger and stronger. Education is going to be a key to making sure that all those young men and women coming through the ranks have really good jobs and contribute back to the community.”

Asked about the RGV Focus report, Coxon said: “Five years ago we settled on 11 indicators that school districts, colleges and industry are trying to improve. In well over the majority of those, the Rio Grande Valley is beating the State of Texas in outcomes. That is surprising to many families. We see the needs, we see a lot of poverty still, but those are not determinants to students being successful educationally. We see some great outcomes happening here. We want to leverage those so our students have good careers, good jobs, and give back to their communities.”

Coxon noted that the State of Education luncheon is being held on Dia de las Madre.

“We are thrilled to let everyone know that on May 10, we are going to be having a State of Education luncheon. We want to honor those women who have helped advance all the children of the Rio Grande Valley and to make sure they have all the skills necessary to be successful, to lift our community. The theme is Contigo (With You) because we know we could not do this without all the partners that we have in the Rio Grande Valley.”

In the flyer for the May 10 luncheon, one sentence says the future of the Valley rests of the shoulders those carrying backpacks. Asked about this, Coxon said:

“Our region is young, bi-lingual, bi-literate, bicultural. Too often those have not been seen as assets. In order to be successful we need a community that will think critically, that can speak both languages and can understand both cultures. Over the years the Valley has demonstrated a real spirit of innovation, especially when it comes to education. We have seen models like early college high schools, we have seen partnerships between school districts, and higher ed institutions, between businesses and industries and school districts and campuses and so I think what we see happening in the Rio Grande Valley is something we want to promote and increase so that more and more students are able to have these experiences and be successful.”

One of the speakers at the South Texas College summit was IBC Bank-McAllen President Adrian Villarreal. In his remarks, Villarreal noted how workers from IBC Bank’s McAllen and Brownsville markets often came top in company rankings. Villarreal put this done to the Valley’s culture and penchant for hard work.

Coxon said Villarreal was right to highlight this.

“I could not agree more with Mr. Villarreal’s comments. We have seen this time and time again. The Valley is very family oriented. Its students do well in order to honor their families. So many are the first in their family to get a college degree, that is opening doors and breaking cycles of poverty.”

Coxon told a story about how a multinational company insisted on partnering with the community of Progreso. Asked why, the head of the company said the Valley’s workers were hardworking and loyal, unlike in some other parts of the world.

Asked for a wrap-up comment about the State of Education luncheon, Coxon said:

“It is going to be a time of celebration, a time to highlight the progress we as a community have been making on all levels, up and down the four counties of the Valley. We will also highlight areas where more work needs to be done. We see the progress, we are happy about that but we also know the need is great and there is more we can all do. With this event, we really want to thank those unsung heroes, the moms and aunts and grandmothers who are there, side by side with us.”