LAS MILPAS, RGV – U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos this week recognized 349 schools as National Blue Ribbon Schools for 2018 and two of them are based in Las Milpas.

Carmen Anaya Elementary and Cesar Chavez Elementary are part of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. They were recognized based on their overall academic performance.

“I’m pleased to celebrate with you as your school is named a National Blue Ribbon School,” DeVoss said, in a video message to the honorees. 

“We recognize and honor your important work in preparing students for successful careers and meaningful lives. Congratulations on your students’ accomplishments and for your extraordinary commitment to meeting their unique needs.”

Now in its 36th year, the National Blue Ribbon Schools Program has bestowed recognition on more than 8,800 schools. Under the program’s criteria, schools are honored in one of two performance categories, based on all student scores, subgroup student scores and graduation rates:

  • Exemplary High Performing Schools are among their state’s highest performing schools as measured by state assessments or nationally normed tests.
  • Exemplary Achievement Gap Closing Schools are among their state’s highest performing schools in closing achievement gaps between a school’s student groups and all students over the past five years.

PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King said the coveted National Blue Ribbon Schools award affirms the hard work of educators, families and communities in creating safe and welcoming schools where students master challenging and engaging content.

King said both Anaya and Chavez Elementary, led by Principals Jose ‘Joe’ Garza and Roel Faz, respectively, have consistently excelled over the years in both academia and extracurricular activities. He said campus leadership, faculty and staff at both locations have become great examples of what working as a team toward a common goal can help you accomplish.

“We commend the hard work of our teachers, principals and staff at both schools,” King said. “This is a great day for the PSJA community. We are so proud of this accomplishment. Carmen Anaya and Cesar Chavez have been recognized as being among the best in the nation.”

Cesar Chavez Elementary School

Here is PSJA’s description of Cesar Chavez Elementary:

Located only seven miles north of the Mexican Border in deep South Texas, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD’s Cesar Chavez Elementary honors its school namesake by providing quality education and embracing his philosophies. Students are taught, at an early age, the values of integrity, humility, service, dedication, patriotism, and respect for humanity. It is the goal of the campus to produce 21st century learners that are ready for college and the real world.
The main practice that makes Cesar Chavez successful is not academic or assessment related, it is the social-emotional focus on providing a safe and nurturing environment for all children. Campus staff embrace the family culture and are committed to inspire and support each child who walks through their doors.
The school’s vision is to create a welcoming school environment based on collaboration, harmony, and mutual respect for students, parents and staff. Focusing on the philosophy of teamwork and collaboration, school leadership does not rest upon the shoulders of one, but upon a team of educators with a common goal. Staff never hesitate to help when the need arises and as a result, every member is responsible for the academic growth and well-being of all students.
Teachers flourish when they know they have support, and when they know their input is valued, sought out and appreciated. This creates an optimal teaching and learning environment, with less teacher turnover and a stable learning atmosphere for all students, lifting Cesar Chavez Elementary to become one of the top schools in the system.

Faz is in his tenth year as principal of Cesar Chavez. “I love it. I cannot wait for each morning because I never know what adventure will bestow me,” Faz told the Rio Grande Guardian. The school has about 450 students. 

Asked why Cesar Chavez Elementary has won a national award, Faz said:

“It is down to teamwork. If the teachers buy in to your way of thinking and philosophy and what you are trying to do; if they start thinking the same way, that it is not about you, it is about the kids and the community, you can do a lot of things.”

Faz started his career in Edinburg. He said he received numerous calls from his former colleagues to say they had seen him on the online broadcast of the awards ceremony. “They said, you have done an amazing job, we are very proud of you. It was a very good feeling.”

Asked what the students thought of winning the national award, Faz said: “We have been letting them know what the Blue Ribbon was about. We told them, you are not just one of the best in the Valley, or the best in Texas, you are one of the best in the nation. Every time we have an assembly with the parents, I tell them, you have one of the best schools in the nation. I tell them, you have a really good school and I need your support. I am only asking for your help attendance-wise, bring your kids. I know it is a cliche but these kids are our future. I want people to change their minds about how they feel about Las Milpas. That is my motivation. I was brought up in Donna, and we had the same thing.”

Cesar Chavez Elementary has a student population that is 97.6 percent economically challenged. Asked what is special about Las Milpas students, Faz said:

“We are very competitive but in a good way. It has always been about the kids. I tell the teachers, it is a success story when a child qualifies for Special Ed. It is a success story when a child gets proper accommodation, it is a success when a kid feels success in whatever they do. When the students see me at a volleyball game, they know I care and I am rooting for them.”

The best validation of the work Faz and his teachers do comes from middle school teachers who take Cesar Chavez Elementary students.

“It is an awesome feeling when the teachers from middle schools, say, your kids are the best students. They know if they come from Cesar Chavez, they are well-prepared kids. Your kids are the best. You take pride in that.”

Carmen Anaya Elementary School

Here is PSJA’s description of Cesar Chavez Elementary:

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD’s Carmen Anaya Elementary is located in one of the most disadvantaged areas of South Texas just five miles north of the border with Mexico, but it does not let demographics dictate their students’ success. The school has had a long-standing tradition of community service that has helped staff teach the “whole child” and challenge students to reach their fullest potential.
Through this work, students have excelled, and the school has risen to have the highest academic standing in the district. The school’s curriculum is designed to help students develop intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically, physically and socially. Carmen Anaya staff encourages students to become engaged learners and models of good citizenship through civic work. It is not uncommon to see students and staff beautifying community gardens and nearby parks. This work helps students fortify foundational skills, and contextualize vocabulary and key concepts they learn in their classrooms.
Carmen Anaya staff believe student support is crucial to their students’ academic, social and emotional growth. Through a Mentor & Mentee program, each teacher mentor’s specific children in need and help build their confidence to tackle any challenges they may encounter. The program gives students the safe space to express themselves and their concerns, ensuring they feel valued and supported. Carmen Anaya Elementary staff understands that when students succeed, the entire campus and community succeeds.

Garza has been principal of Carmen Anaya Elementary for six years. Asked to describe the reaction of students and staff to winning a prestigious national award, Garza told the Rio Grande Guardian:

“We are so excited and our kids are so excited. We are one of 26 in the State of Texas and just a few in the nation. It was thanks to a lot of hard work. My staff and I have worked long hours. Our kids have worked really hard to attain this as well as our parents. We have great parental support at Carmen Anaya. You have to have high academic achievement. You have to be in the 90s in every single subject area. We accomplished that.”

Asked what is special about Las Milpas kids, Garza said:

“They are just the best kids. They are very loving. They look out for you, they look out for one another. It is just a great big family. I love my family at Carmen Anaya. They are great.”

Hilda Hernandez is a 2nd grade teacher who has taught at Carmen Anaya Elementary from the very beginning. Hernandez teaches in a dual language setting, which means she teach in Spanish but supplements the instruction in English. Thus, when a student comes out of her class they are ready for English in 3rd grade.

“I have been here 11 years and today’s award is recognition for going above and beyond for our students and their educational success, academically and socially,” Hernandez told the Rio Grande Guardian.

“We have worked very hard, from administrators to custodians. We all work together very hard to get our children at a higher level, so they can succeed later. In this 21st Century we need children to be ready to take on the world. We tutor, we work one-on-one. We get together and plan as teachers so we can ensure their success.”

Asked if it is challenging to teach in an area categorized as socio-economically deprived, Hernandez said:

“It is very challenging. We have parents who are not able to help their children as much as they would like. They depend on teachers to help. Our parents are wonderful but because of their socio-economic background – some are single parents – there are so many circumstances to deal with. We are here to help all of the obstacles they have.”

Hernandez said overcoming the challenges is all the more rewarding because she came for a similar background.

“Being a teacher that came from that background, a lot of us teachers know exactly what it is like. It means a lot to me because I am that student that did not speak the language. We put the students first. We come last.”

On November 7-8, the Secretary and the Department of Education will celebrate the Blue Ribbon honorees at an awards ceremony in Washington, D.C.