Equipping Students for Success in Life

South Texas ISD Superintendent Dr. Marla Guerra

By Anne Prado

South Texas ISD Superintendent Dr. Marla Guerra
South Texas ISD Superintendent Dr. Marla Guerra

Those in education have a responsibility to equip every single student for success in life – including college and career – according to Dr. Guerra.

It’s the unofficial motto at STISD – taking all students interested in stretching academically and providing them with the tools, experiences, and support needed to reach their highest potential.

Guerra appreciates the fact that students choose to come to their schools.  “It shows their parents want to get the best possible education for their child,” she praises, confident about their schools’ ability to fulfill high expectations.  “Our curriculum is college preparatory in that we expect every student leaving our system to not only go to college, but to complete it.”

This goal is most often achieved.  About 97 percent of STISD’s graduates go to college.  Completion then becomes harder to track, but Guerra estimates that at least 75 to 80 percent obtain a college diploma.  Former students also attest to feeling well prepared for college.  “That’s one of the things we hear when they come to visit,” Guerra points out.

When asked about the reason why they’re so effective, Guerra mentions their rigorous curriculum, as well as a strong support system for students.  “We purposely keep our schools small,” she emphasizes.  Their largest campus is Med High, at about 850 students, but according to Guerra, the intention is to reduce this number in order to keep no more than 700 to 800 students per campus.

“We combine academic preparation with real world experience,” Guerra adds.  “During senior year, students from our medical campuses do clinical rotations in pharmacies, hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors’ offices.  In our business academy, they gain work experience at local businesses.  Through the pre-engineering program at our science academy, students research a real-world problem and develop a solution.”

“All of these experiences,” she notes, “allow students to see the things they are learning in the classroom tie into real life – a practice that makes the curriculum more relevant and understandable.”

The result is what their system has set out to achieve—students armed with a resume.

South Texas ISD’s History Rooted in Helping Students with Special Needs

In a time when special needs children were barely expected to keep up, let alone succeed, South Texas Independent School District took a stand.  STISD served as a rehabilitation district from 1964 to 1983.

The focus of the district changed when U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa visited DeBakey High School for Health Professions in Houston and thought of bringing the vocational magnet school concept to the Valley.  The congressman mobilized legislators, superintendents, and people in the community, leading to the creation of South Texas High School for Health Professions (Med High) in Mercedes, the first campus in the district to offer a curriculum with a specialized career focus.

Although the mission of the district has expanded, it remains true to its roots by offering a career and technology half-day program through which special-ed students can get certified in a career of their choosing.  This program is a partnership between STISD and other school districts throughout the Valley.  Through the program, students with special needs can take the majority of their courses at their home high school and career and technology courses at STISD.  The Science Academy of South Texas (Sci Tech) offers automotive technology, construction management, and welding; Med High offers nursing assistant; South Texas Business, Education & Technology Academy (BETA) offers technology; and South Texas Academy for Medical Professions (Medical Academy) offers culinary arts.

“Through this program, students learn a trade and a skill,” Dr. Guerra said, making a point to say that while not every student might want to go to college, schools should prepare them for the workforce.  “Even if they decide not to attend college, they will still have the tools, experience, and confidence necessary to become successful, productive members of their communities.” 

These days, the District consists of four vocational, college preparatory magnet high schools – the original – Med High – and three others, including Medical Academy in San Benito, BETA in Edinburg, and Sci Tech in Mercedes.  The district also has one middle school – serving students in theseventh and eighth grades – South Texas Preparatory Academy (STPA) in Edinburg.

The district is close to initiating construction on a new building, to be located in Brownsville.  The current Medical Academy campus will relocate to this location, and at the same time, the district will open its second middle school in the current Medical Academy building in San Benito.



‘In the Right Direction’

Dr. Guerra’s passion for a better education comes from her own background.  Having graduated from a rural school in Falfurrias, she remembers how her transition into college wasn’t smooth.  Lacking in the essential math and science courses as an undergrad, she says she struggled greatly in college, which later influenced her approach to these subjects at STISD. 

“There continues to be a large push for science, technology, and math skills within the job market, and at STISD, we make it our goal to prepare our students to meet that demand.  The STEM focus areas are prevalent throughout our curriculum,” Guerra shares. 

Although their academic programs are rigorous, Guerra notes that the faculty is not alone in this endeavor.  “At STISD, parents are viewed as partners, as their interest and support in their child’s education is crucial to ensuring success.”

“In retrospect, I can see that my parents were well-intentioned, but they didn’t know any better,” she says.  “Our district aims to ensure that parents are part of the educational process and know what is expected.”

To her, this parent-student-district relationship is part of what makes their programs a success.  “We have a compact,” Guerra shares.  “We call it a compact because it’s a mutual agreement between three parties – the parents, the children, and us.”  She explains that just as students are expected to apply themselves, parents are to support them in this endeavor, and the district is to do its best to equip them with what they need.

Standards must be set in order to be able to measure success.  “One thing I’m excited about is the development of a personal success system for each of our students,” she says.  “We’ll use our technology to facilitate students creating goals for themselves as they enter our schools.  Students and their mentors will be able to track progress toward these goals to ensure they are attained.” 

In this process, their support won’t be limited to their schools.  “We’ll also make sure that we continue addressing the transition between high school and college,” Guerra announces, guaranteeing that their work toward this has already begun.  “We have a number of different university partnerships through which students are able to experience college firsthand (even at the middle school level), participate in college-level presentations and academic enrichment programs, and earn college credit for courses taken during high school.

In fact, STISD’s goal is to have 100 percent of its student population not only take Advanced Placement (AP) and college-level courses while in high school, but sit for the exams and score well.  The district encourages all of its students to participate.  As a testament to these efforts, in 2012, STISD had 170 AP Scholars, including 116 AP Scholars, 15 AP Scholars with Honor, 32 AP Scholars with Distinction, and 7 National AP Scholars. 

To Guerra, having a vision for the future is key not only for students, but for educational organizations as well.  “All the demands and expectations of our jobs can keep us from being proactive enough,” she analyzes.  “But it’s important to set goals to remain focused and directed.”

Guerra argues that this becomes a special necessity in the Rio Grande Valley location.

“We are quite isolated,” she points out.  “Distance from other states in itself brings its own set of issues.  Not that they’re unbeatable or unattainable, but it’s a reality we have to deal with.  This, coupled with the fact that we have so many students coming in from Mexico without the proper academic background, makes our work as leaders and teachers more challenging.”

Another factor Guerra brings up is their increase in students of low socioeconomic standing.  “What a lot of people don’t know about us is that we have open enrollment,” she reveals.  “We take everyone that wants to come based on the number of seats we have available.  The process works on a first-come, first-served basis.”

STISD facilitates this type of enrollment through an online system.  They hold an ‘Enrollment Week’ in mid-January of each year, during which they open a particular number of spots for each campus for the upcoming school year on a different day throughout the week.  This schedule is posted on the district website and announced through different media leading up to enrollment to ensure an equal opportunity for all students in Cameron, Hidalgo, and Willacy counties who are interested in enrolling.  As soon as all of the seats are reserved for a campus, enrollment closes.

For those families who do not have access to a computer or Internet at home to complete the enrollment process, the district invites the public to use the computers within their facilities.

“Parents are beginning to see the light in terms of wanting the very best preparation for their students,” Guerra celebrates.  “They’re looking at us and charter schools as alternatives for their children.”

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” she says.  “But my role as superintendent, as a leader, and especially as a person who cares, is to continue to have that passion, and to continue moving forward all the time.”

But Guerra makes it clear that they’re not the only ones accepting a great responsibility.  “We are all in this together.  We’ll take care of their children as if they were our own,” she promises.  “We’re going to support them, nurture them, and have high expectations for them; we are never going to let them fall.”

To that end, Guerra reiterates their focus on creating a challenging and inviting environment and giving students everything they need to be successful.  “As I’m walking the schools at noon, I see students and teachers who have given up their lunch periods.  Some with poor academic record have come to us and turned out to be strong,” she says.  “Our high expectations, specialized curriculum, and amazing teachers have allowed us to do great things.”