MCALLEN, RGV – While the Rio Grande Valley has made tremendous strides in improving educational attainment levels, there is still a lot of work to do.

This was the message Teach For America CEO and Rio Grande Valley native Elisa Villanueva Beard gave in the keynote address at a gala hosted by Teach For America RGV at the McAllen Convention Center on Friday evening.

The Honor Roll Teach For America Homecoming Gala honored four local education leaders: South Texas College President Shirley A. Reed, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King, Harlingen CISD Superintendent Art Cavazos, and IDEA Public Schools Co-Founder and CEO Tom Torkelson.

Villanueva Beard received much applause when she said the Rio Grande Valley’s educational improvements were being recognized at Gates Foundation events.

“I travel all across this country and, in one of the highlights of my career, I was in Seattle right before the holidays at the Gates Foundation. I walked into a conversation with all these important people. You know what they were talking about? The Valley,” Villanueva Beard said, to much applause.

“They were yearning to know how a community with so many challenges is seeing this extraordinary progress. What I felt so much pride in was, of course, this community has always been filled with assets, has always had the solutions in it and now we get to tell the whole world that the whole country is studying the Rio Grande Valley because of your example and your leadership.”

Villanueva Beard pointed out that McAllen ISD recently earned top grade in a State of Texas report card. She said the RGV has also seen more progress in the number of high performing schools than any other part of Texas. 

Villanueva Beard said these are the truths that ground her. She asked if, as adults, Teach For America members, alum and supporters would have the courage to continue to make hard decisions.

“We see this progress and I pray we remain unsatisfied because we are not there yet. But, we certainly are on the path. There is no greater place than the Rio Grande Valley. We have always put our children first.”

Elisa Villanueva Beard

Villanueva Beard started her speech by recalling the emphasis her parents placed on education. She said the whole issue of educating those less fortunate was “deeply personal” to her because her mother emigrated from Mexico at the age of 17 with an 8th grade education. 

“She figured out that the pathway to opportunity was a great education. This is a true story. She, in fact, married my father because she met him when he was pursuing his college degree. She thought, if I marry a man with a college degree, my kids’ lives will be different. The good news is they are still married. They are truly my heroes.”

The Villanueva family was defined by a strong ethos for education, the Teach For America CEO said. “I was expected to go to college,” she said, recalling that at Nikki Rowe High School in McAllen she recored straight As, was student president and – Go Warriors – she once scored 42 points against the PSJA Bears in a Women’s Basketball game.

Villanueva Beard went to DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. It was an unusual choice, in part because only three percent of its student body was Hispanic. She had been steered there by the husband of one of her biology teachers. “He felt I needed to get uncomfortable to learn about myself. He was like a second father to me. He put me on a path that quite literally change my life.”

DePauw provided a quite a culture shock. It was three percent Latino and five percent Black. “I had never found myself in a predominately white, upper middle class, community. They had no idea what pozole, carne guisada, or migas were. Taco Bell was as good as it got. They were missing out on so much.”

At first, Villanueva Beard struggled mightily. Despite getting up at 4 in the morning to study she found herself getting grades she had never received before. “I had started to internalize that maybe I could not do it. That maybe kids like me did not belong here.” She recalled calling home to her mother to says she might not be able to make it through her first year at college. “She said no, you are not welcome home until you complete your task and get the college degree. This is very harsh to hear as an 18-year-old.”

With a lot of hard work Villanueva Beard figured out how to succeed with her studies. In fact, she thrived. “After my freshman year, of course I was able to compete with all the other kids on campus. I got to the other side of it and I was pretty mad. How is it possible that a kid with my profile struggled so much?”

Villanueva Beard thought she was going to go into law but was drawn to Teach For America. She came to realization she wanted to be “part of the solution” in making sure “every kid truly gets a great education.” She said was drawn to the group because it rejected the world as it is today and was committed to creating a different reality. “A reality that would live up to the American Dream, the promise that we make to every child of equal opportunity and justice for all.” She began her teaching career in Phoenix. 

Villanueva Beard then made the case for why Teach For America matters.

“Today, in our lowest income communities, 50 percent of children will graduate from high school, compared to 96 percent of their most affluent peers. Less than one in ten will go to and through college by the age of 25,” Villanueva Beard said.

“I want to be clear about one thing. We at Teach For America don’t believe that this is a failure of a bunch of individuals, teachers and principals and families. We believe we have a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions. We have kids who are coming to us with so many unmet needs, to schools that are not designed to support those needs or to deliver the academic rigor and all that a kid needs to met her full potential.”

After 20 years in education, Villanueva Beard said she has learned that “two big insights” anchor Teach For America’s work. 

“If you want to solve the problem, you have to get close to it. You have to get close and personal. You have to have close proximity to the issue. This guides our work.” She said that last year Teach For America had applications from 49,000 would be teachers looking to join the program. She said 16 percent were accepted, producing 3,700 new teachers. 

“We believe the classroom is like a microcosm where you watch all of the inequities play out that a kid is up against. If you fail to understand that you fail to understand the complexity of the problem and the solution that is required,” Villanueva Beard said.

“We also believe in the power of transformation through relationship. If you don’t get to know students and their families… that at the center of it is love, you miss the heart of the entire thing.”

It is by getting stuck in, by having a real impact, by developing relationships that Teach For America members build deeper knowledge, its CEO said. “Deep personal commitment and just this unrelenting conviction that it takes courage, it takes challenging the status quo, it takes working boldly alongside everybody else to create the change and the educational equity and excellence our children deserve,” Villanueva Beard said.

Villanueva Beard said she is really proud that Teach For America has 53,000 alumni that “chose to get proximate to this problem.” She said most joined at the ages 22, 23, or 24 years old. 

“Of the 53,000 alumni that we have, 84 percent have committed their lives to working either in education or having a career serving along continued ed. Most of the folks we are recruiting are on a career path to technology, consulting, to law, to banking and so forth. But, they meet their students and this becomes the work of a lifetime.”

Teach For America has alumni that are starting schools and leading systems, Villanueva Beard pointed out.

“We have 1,200 principals across this country, we have 500 system leaders, including seven state chiefs of education, we have folks sitting at incredibly important and critical policy positions. We have 14,000 alumni principals across the country, including a finalist for national teacher of the year. We have over 200 elected officials who are alumni. We have alumni who are working to generate the next set of solutions across our country as social entrepreneurs.”

To further applause, Villanueva Beard said that over the past seven years, 52 Teach For America alumni have made the Forbes Under 30 list.

“This problem is solvable. It was only 20 years ago when I first joined the corps when there was literally a debate whether children in low-income communities, children of color could do as well as others. The reason there was a debate is because we did not have enough data. But, immense progress was being made. In the Rio Grande Valley we see the incredible progress and promise being brought to life.”