PHARR, RGV – Vanguard Academy is celebrating the award of a $10.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education under the GEAR UP program.

GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. It is a discretionary grant program that encourages eligible entities to provide support, and maintain a commitment to eligible low-income students, including students with disabilities, to assist the students in obtaining a secondary school diploma (or its recognized equivalent) and to prepare for and succeed in post-secondary education.

Dr. Narciso Garcia

The funding for Vanguard will be apportioned over a seven year period with $1,520,000 being allocated each year.

Narciso Garcia, superintendent of Vanguard, said that with matching in-kind contributions from community partners, students and teachers will actually benefit from a $21.2 million investment.

“I am so excited because this money goes back to our children. It is the biggest grant Vanguard Academy has ever received. It is a game changer for our community and a great way to help our students,” Garcia told the Rio Grande Guardian and RGV Public Radio 88 FM.

Vanguard Academy is a fine arts charter school that started in Pharr in 2001. Around 83 percent of its students are economically disadvantaged. In 2018, the school was recognized with district distinction designation for post secondary readiness, receiving an A-plus rating of 96 percent.

Vanguard was one of eight educational institutions in the state of Texas and one of only two charter schools in the nation to receive GEAR Up funding.

Garcia invited many of Vanguard’s community partners to a news conference to announce the GEAR UP grant. Among the VIPs present were Pharr Mayor Ambrosio Hernandez and South Texas College President Shirley Reed.

Among those partnering with Vanguard under the GEAR UP program are South Texas College, UT-Rio Grande Valley, the City of Pharr, Region 1 Education Service Center, Texas Instruments, Lone Star National Bank, FIRST RGV, South Texas Literacy Coalition, Sylvan Learning Center, College First, and the Rio Grande Guardian.

“These partners believed in Vanguard Academy’s vision. They provided a 10.6 million of in-kind match, so really, in all it is $21.2 million that is going back to students and staff,” Garcia said.

In remarks at the news conference, Garcia stressed that Vanguard augments STEM by adding an “A”. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math. The “A” is added for art.

“I believe that infusing our fine arts focus with STEM is going to produce quality individuals. Vanguard Academy will always be a fine arts institution. Always.”

He pointed out that the nation needs more Hispanics and more women to become engineers. For this reason, he said, a new collaboration with Texas Instruments is important. Students will have the opportunity of internships at the company, while teachers will shadow its IT professionals.

“We are known as a fine arts institution but our math and science classes are the highest in the region, from Laredo to Brownsville. We are already very strong competitors in FIRST robotics. Now, this grant is going to strengthen the engineering component of Vanguard Academy. It will take us to the next level in science and math and engineering,” Garcia said.

Garcia was full of praise for South Texas College.

“This grant is also going to allow our students to continue their education, not just after high school but during high school, where they will be able to take college courses for free at STC, working towards an associate’s degree. As soon as they complete their college hours at STC, they van transfer to UTRGV or any college of their choice,” Garcia said.

The superintendent joked that over the next seven years, STC will not just be a partner but family.

“This grant is going to allow for our staff to get trained on how to better connect students to pathways, not just for a better career but for a better life,” Garcia added.

Belinda Guzman

Editor’s Note: Vanguard Academy Superintendent Narciso Garcia pointed out that the American Association for the Advancement of Science has featured Belinda Guzman in its latest newsletter. Guzman teaches Science at Vanguard Academy’s Rembrandt Secondary School.

Click here to read the feature.