WESLACO, RGV – High school seniors who may be struggling academically to get a post-secondary education will now be able to take courses in English and Math to alleviate this that have been developed by university professors.

Success with this curriculum will mean the students are accepted as being college ready by the five higher education institutions in the Rio Grande Valley.

A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by dozens of school districts and the five higher education institutions at a ceremony at South Texas College’s Mid-Valley campus in Weslaco on Friday. Coordinating the project with the colleges, universities and school districts are Region One Education Service Center and RGV Focus.

Participants at the MOU signing said the regional cooperation is unique in Texas. House Bill 5, a landmark education bill passed last legislative session, required every high school in Texas collaborate with at least one college to develop the English and Math courses. The Valley entities met and agreed the collaboration be regional, so that every high school offers the same curriculum.

After the MOU signing, the Guardian spoke with six top education leaders about the program. Here are their remarks:

Carl A. Montoya, superintendent of Brownsville ISD:

“We believe most of our students will be ready to move to a community college or a university. But, obviously, there are some that need a little extra help. Some of that help will be at the district level, doing tutoring in particular areas. It might be math. We may partner with a community college on a similar course that a student will take, in an accelerated way, helping kids with problems in the math area but they will also get credit at that level. It opens both sides, both doors.

“This new curriculum is going to allow our school district, the biggest in the Valley, have our high school students attend, be part of the university/ community college system, and get credit for certain courses. The great thing about this process is that it will allow our kids the opportunity to pick up some credit at the community college level that they can use for their future as they continue after high school. It is a very good system. It is a very good process.

“This year we will have quite a few that are taking these courses but it will open the door for even more. It is going to be a very positive thing. HB 5 requires us to have more of a career focus. It is not just straight academics as it used to be in the past. The State wants school districts to put a career Ed component in there, allowing our kids to focus on academics but also in some type of career. The third component is that we tie closer the community colleges and the universities. It was a good decision on the state’s part and the legislators’ part.

“This new curriculum is going to help all of our districts. In a way it is kind of historic because of the unity. We have always, in fragments, dealt with community colleges. Now it is going to be more formal with specific standards, directions and processes.

“It is going to help the community as well as the school district. It is a very positive thing. It is going to improve the level of our kids’ education. There are companies coming into the Valley saying what is the level of your education? The higher it is the better for business and industry.”

Judith Solis, superintendent of La Villa ISD:

“Aside from the unity of everybody in the Valley, I think the dynamics of giving children an opportunity to succeed in post-secondary education and giving us, the public schools, the tools to help is great. My district is a tiny district and without this we would be struggling to put things together as far as curriculum is concerned. They are making a mandate from the State become easier for us to follow through with. It is more than just a mandate for me, as a superintendent. It makes me real proud that we are going to offer the tools for the teachers, the opportunities for the kids to be able to get into college while they are in high school.

“We are going to set up in our daily schedule a class period to help the kids. We have to get the teachers trained and prepared. Having the partnership and having the curriculum to support that is important. And, it is coming from professors. Nobody can say it was watered down by the high school teachers, making it easier to get their kids into college. It was wonderful to see the collaboration. You see the input of our high school teachers and, of course, the input of the professors at the college level. So, there is no dumbing down of what we are doing. It is really a fantastic opportunity for our kids.

“It is going to sharpen the skills of our students in the language arts and the mathematics. They are really life skills; it is not just to go into post-secondary schools. It is beyond that. It is not just about getting into college and being successful, but also about helping those who choose to go into the workforce. This curriculum is the foundation to get them going.”

Daniel P. King, superintendent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD:

“This new curriculum does several things for us as a large school district. We have multiple high schools so it gives standardization and consistency. These courses are designed for students who are entering 12th grade and who might not be on track for college readiness. They may be behind on their math, their English language arts and reading, writing, and literature.

“The five colleges have come together with high school math and English teachers to design a college readiness course. They have agreed on the level of rigor, on the things that students need to master. If the students take this course and master these things, anyone of the five colleges will accept them. They will be ready for them. It really opens the door to higher education for our students. It is a great thing.

“It gives that second wave so that standardized testing is not the only way that a student can prove readiness. By achieving certain levels of success will be another way. There will be an annual evaluation. We will follow up to see how well those students do.

“I think the Valley districts and the higher Ed institutions are providing a lot of leadership to the state. We are already seeing dramatic changes in educational attainment of our Valley young people. The impact on the economy, on jobs, on families is, I believe, going to be tremendous. Around the nation it is not uncommon for higher Ed to point the finger and say you didn’t get them ready and for the school districts to say, well, they were fine when they left us and you dropped the ball. This is a really a different way. We are working hand in hand. What we are doing here in the Valley is taking joint responsibility between the public schools and the institutions of higher education. We are taking joint responsibility for student success both at the public school level and the higher education level.

“This is just the beginning of an era of teamwork and unity around the Valley in education and many other endeavors.”

Cornelio Gonzalez, executive director of Region One Education Service Center:

“We are so proud to get the collaboration of so many entities. It just does not happen like this very frequently. We are very proud because this is going to be for the benefit of all our students in Region 1. This is going to help the students in 37 school districts and ten charter schools. The students, all the way for Port Isabel to Laredo, will be using these courses.

“The courses are aligned to help the students prepare properly for access to higher education. When the kids go to college they will be better prepared. We know it because the courses were developed by the faculty professors from the universities. It is a high quality course, a high quality program that we will be offering our students. It is going to be of great benefit. That makes us very happy for all our kids, for all our families in the Valley.

“The reading and math courses are going to be rigorous, very demanding and focused on what a student will find at college. They will get used to the kind of rigor and demands that a college education expects from them. By offering it to them in high school their mind and expectation will be aligned to the expectation of the college.

“HB 5 required the development of college courses for instruction at the high school level. It specifically required a mathematics course and English course from the college level to be taught at the high school level. Region 1 has a duty to help state initiatives so it was our responsibility and we were very blessed to find the partnership of RGV Focus and the colleges. These courses will be available from Monday.

“I think this is historic because even though we have worked with many of the colleges, sometimes with two of them at a time, never have we worked with all of them together. So, this is a new reality for us that we can work in unity, with all the institutions. It is going to be very significant and very impactful to our superintendents and the job they do.”

“We are very proud. I hope our entire community realizes that education has to be our No. 1 priority in South Texas, if we are to become the community we want to be. We want to be a first class community and the only way we can do that is by making sure all our students graduate from high school and also obtain a higher education. Without that we cannot change and advance to the level we want our society to achieve.”

Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV Focus, and Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, are pictured at an MOU signing ceremony at STC's Mid-Valley campus.
Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV Focus, and Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, are pictured at an MOU signing ceremony at STC’s Mid-Valley campus.

Luzelma Canales, executive director of RGV Focus:

“A student goes in and takes their TSI in their junior year, to determine college readiness. If they don’t successfully reach the 350, they become eligible as seniors to take this year-long course. It will prepare them. The faculty in higher Ed designed in collaboration with the teachers the learning outcomes, the textbooks. They gave a lot of guidance on homework and they designed the final exam. Should the student get a 75 or higher, the colleges and universities will take that as evidence that the kids are college ready, without having to reassess them, which is an incredible thing.

“We are the only ones across the state doing this as a region. The collective impact we are doing is all about getting kids college ready, getting them into college within a year of high school graduation, and getting them to finish college on time and into jobs within six months. I believe this is going to help us reach that goal in much accelerated rate. Because, imagine if kids can start on their program of study curriculum immediately? And, with everything we are doing with dual credit, it gives the next level of kids an opportunity to get there quicker.

“The kids who are doing dual credit, they are ready; we do not have to worry about them. We have to worry about transitioning them for college life. But with these kids, this is the next bubble of kids. They need just a little bit more help. Now, we have gotten them ready so they can start on their journey. Imagine what it is going to do for kids’ self-esteem and their families. “

Dr. Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College:

“This will give an opportunity to a different group of students. The students who are already college ready and strong academically, they are flourishing in dual enrollment. They are doing really well. It is the other students that may not be college ready. If they are not college ready they cannot participate in dual enrollment. If they don’t get college ready, when they come to STC when they have graduated from high school, they are faced with taking remedial courses. Nobody wants that. So, let’s get them college ready. Even if they don’t go to college, they need to be career-ready because the employers are looking for the same skill sets as the colleges are looking for. It is a win-win for the students, their parents, the higher Ed, the economy of the Valley.

“I hope remedial education (STC) would just go away. I wish we did not have to do remedial. It is less and less and less. With dual enrollment we have seen a dramatic reduction. I sincerely believe it is because students are more motivated, they realize I can get two years of college free, I had better be college ready, I better pass those English classes, I better read well, I better get math. So, they are motivated. There was a time, when the college started, 70 percent of our students were taking remedial or developmental. Now, that has been completely reversed. Maybe we will see developmental go away.

“I do not know how many students will benefit from this. It will be a substantial number. It could differ dramatically from district to district. But, everyone has to do it, so why not do it together and why not do it well?

“All of this is woven together. The more students we can get going to college, the better lives they are going to have, the more people we are going to get out of poverty. Even if they choose not to go to college, they are going to have the skills sets to be able to work, to get better jobs.”