Publisher’s note: As RGVision Magazine celebrates its 10-year anniversary, we reflect on a decade of coverage and service while commemorating remarkable education growth in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. During a Feb. 1 fundraising gala with Teach for America, RGVision will honor several local leaders in education who have been innovators in this progress not just locally, but across the state and country: Dr. Art Cavazos of Harlingen Consolidated School District, Dr. Daniel King of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District, Dr. Shirley A. Reed of South Texas College, and Tom Torkelson of IDEA Public Schools.
The Rio Grande Valley is a region in the midst of dynamic growth. In the last decade, one of the most palpable areas of progress has been in education.
“I think education over the last decade, last decade-and-a-half, has just gone from zero to 60 in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Tom Torkelson, CEO of IDEA Public Schools. “We have a medical school now where we didn’t before. We have one of the largest and most successful community colleges in the United States with South Texas College. We have one of the best magnet school systems in South Texas ISD. Our school districts are doing a really wonderful job.”
In some cases, RGV school districts are serving as pacesetters for the rest of the state and country.
“I think the Valley now is seen as one of the bright spots in education in the state of Texas,” said Dr. Daniel King, PSJA ISD superintendent. “The Valley has kind of become the hotbed of early college work in the nation.”
Educational development has a ripple effect on the region. In 1993, when South Texas College was founded, the Hidalgo County unemployment rate clocked in at 24 percent. Now, it’s just over 6 percent.
“I’m absolutely convinced the reason those statistics have changed is because we have been able to prepare a skilled workforce,” said Dr. Shirley A. Reed, STC president. “The only path out of poverty is a job, and the only way you get a job is having some skill sets to sell to an employer. We will continue to serve as the catalyst for what we call regional economic prosperity.”
Sometimes, it all comes down to establishing the right foundation as early as possible.
“I believe we are equipping students with the skills to take on and solve global issues that exist today,” said Dr. Art Cavazos, Harlingen CISD superintendent. “We see the success of authentic learning experiences, and we know the demand for choices and opportunities in public education.”
HARLINGEN: ‘PLAN THE WORK AND WORK THE PLAN’
Dr. Art Cavazos knows that even when change is necessary, the motivation must come from within.
Take, for example, Harlingen CISD’s flourishing robotics programs.
“We had one campus that had adopted robotics as an after-school program,” said Cavazos, HCISD’s superintendent. “A year-and-a-half later, we have it to scale at every campus in the school district. A year later, we’re looking for a specialty school for kids who love the space of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.”
The district opened STEM2 Preparatory Academy for middle schoolers in 2018.
And it all started with a few robots.
“We created some pressure for change and that pressure then led to innovation because then people are the ones asking, ‘well, we want more and we want more,’” Cavazos said. “I tell people, oftentimes, you’ll find us in Harlingen creating the plan and then working the plan. So you have to plan the work and work the plan — that’s the whole idea.”
Districtwide robotics are just a single facet of HCISD’s approach to cultivate educational experiences for its students. Additional opportunities include construction camps, news station internships, working with firefighters, and being able to step foot in surgical procedure rooms, among others, Cavazos said.
“The past 10 years have been filled with immense innovation through technological and workforce advancements, causing a need to keep up with and be on par with schools around the world,” he said. “As we pay more attention to workforce needs, we have shifted our focus in not only how students learn, but also how they engage when learning.”
For HCISD, this looks like a dedicated effort to broaden course offerings and ordinary paths of study. A push for early childhood literacy readiness has resulted in 96 percent of HCISD pre-K students being kindergarten ready. Two district elementary schools are candidates to become international baccalaureate schools. HCISD is creating more dual language opportunities for middle schools. And in addition to STEM2 Preparatory Academy, the district is home to Lee H. Means Fine Arts Academy and Harlingen School of Health Professions.
“As the medical hub of the Rio Grande Valley, we know that every student has the potential to impact health care,” Cavazos said. “We are providing opportunities to ensure students are meeting their maximum potential in the spaces they most desire.”
The Career and Technical Education Department has also grown to give students more practical learning opportunities. Now, more than half of the program’s students are graduating with an industry certification, Cavazos said.
“While we can’t predict all the careers of the future, we can put our students in the best position possible by setting them up for the future,” he said. “Our goal is that they graduate college, career, and community ready.”
PSJA’S ‘TREMENDOUS’ TRANSFORMATION
When Dr. Daniel King began his tenure as superintendent at PSJA ISD in 2007, the district was at a low point, grappling with poor graduation rates, struggling to meet federal standards, and facing the possibility of closing and reconstituting PSJA High School.
Now, the district hosts an annual conference attended by over 300 visitors interested in exactly what it takes to have a success story like the one King has written for PSJA.
It’s a remarkable turnaround.
“We tackled the dropout situation immediately. We started going out to the home of every student who had dropped out and invited them back to school,” King said. “We also opened that year a dual-enrollment high school for dropouts ages 18 to 26. We invited students to come back to school in an adult setting where they could start their coursework at South Texas College while they finished up their last requirements for their high school diploma.”
In 2008, PSJA also opened the district’s first STEM-focused early college campus in a collection of portable buildings in Alamo. Now located at the renovated site of the district’s first high school on Business 83 in Pharr, PSJA Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School has served as a model to connect students to higher education experiences. This year, close to 2,200 seniors are in an early college setting — every 12th-grader in the district.
Change in PSJA has been measurable — and significant.
“We moved from having a dropout rate twice as bad as the state average to more than twice as good,” King said. “It’s been tremendous. It’s changed what high school education is all about in PSJA.”
The district is in the process of opening a college and university center that will function as an academy setting for PSJA students from different campuses to connect with specialized higher education programs. PSJA already graduates students with their associate degree in nursing in a career pathway partnership with STC, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, and the Region One Education Service Center.
It all represents a renewed focus on the promise the future holds.
“There’s a strong belief among our students that they can succeed in college,” King said. “There’s a strong hunger for higher education and for really making their way in life and becoming leaders in our community, leaders in the state of Texas, and leaders in this country.”
The next 10 years look even brighter for PSJA.
“I think that each cohort and each generation is building on and surpassing what the ones before them did,” King said.
STC A ‘CATALYST’ FOR REGIONAL CHANGE
South Texas College also has inspired and experienced positive change over the last decade — though as a founding president, Dr. Shirley A. Reed has overseen that progress for the past 25 years. STC facilitates the opportunity for high schoolers to earn college credit — some even earning associate degrees before high school diplomas. STC students also can now earn four-year baccalaureate degrees.
It’s a matter of seeing both what the Rio Grande Valley needs to grow, and what Rio Grande Valley residents need to fulfill that growth.
“We’re developing new degrees and certificates in direct response to what employers tell us is needed,” Reed said. “We don’t develop a program just to develop a program. We will talk to employers — ‘what are the skillsets you need?’ — and they will help us design a program.”
Recognizing a need for registered nurses in the region, STC shaped a career ladder for licensed vocational nurses, EMTs, paramedics, and others. The college also tailored diesel and welding technology training programs to prepare students for high-paying jobs that could lead to even more lucrative supervisory positions. The new Regional Center for Public Safety Excellence in Pharr fits another need STC identified: rapidly changing demands for law enforcement, as well as a goal to offer degrees for future officers.
But there are always challenges to every success story — even STC’s. Securing funding can be a struggle, which is why legislative sessions like the one starting this month are so important. Another issue Reed faces is emphasizing the importance of college degrees — and the positive impact they have.
“If you really want a better life for your child, it does have to involve going to college,” Reed said. “Not everybody wants a four-year baccalaureate degree, but we do have to have skill sets so we can be gainfully employed. Somehow, families don’t fully understand the importance of getting at least two years of college and how transformative it will be for future generations.”
That transformative power happens both within RGV families and in the RGV itself.
“If one student can finish college, be gainfully employed, the brothers, the sisters, the parents — they’ll seriously consider going to college. We see it every day,” Reed said. “And that’s what drives our economy. That’s what leads to regional economic prosperity and social mobility for people in our community.”
In the next 10 years, Reed sees STC doubling in size. The college is currently at 32,000 students, but that doesn’t count the 23,000 students taking non-credit courses — or individuals enrolled in customized training requested by their employers.
Because as STC grows, so does the RGV’s skilled workforce. The Valley, too.
“If a company is considering coming to the region, they go to a website, they look at the educational profile, they look at the economy, they look at the diversity of the workforce and they make a decision as to whether this region is feasible for their consideration,” Reed said. “We want those educational statistics to show we have a young, educated, highly skilled workforce. Come on down and join us.”
IDEA PUBLIC SCHOOLS: ‘FROM ZERO TO SIXTY’
When Tom Torkelson started teaching RGV fourth-graders in 1997 through Teach for America, he didn’t like what he saw. From his experience, government-run public schools weren’t adequately preparing children for higher education. So in 2000, he created IDEA Public Schools’ first charter school.
“We worked really hard for four or five years with this really basic bargain,” Torkelson said. “We told parents, ‘you stick with us, we’ll stick with you. I promise I will get your son, I will get your daughter into a college or university.’”
The bargain worked, and people took notice. A phone call from Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates telling Torkelson that no one was outperforming his charter school within the demographic led to the first expansion of IDEA.
“We’ve gone from 150 students on the second floor of the First Baptist Church in downtown Donna, Texas, to 45,000 students across 79 campus in Austin, San Antonio, El Paso — Louisiana and obviously our biggest region is right here in the Rio Grande Valley,” Torkelson said. “Our goal is to reach 100,000 students by the year 2022, and with the current trajectory, we are definitely on pace to be able to achieve that.”
That success and growth comes from developing a plan for students — and sticking to it. By the time students graduate from an IDEA high school, they’ll have taken the ACT four or more times, passed around 11 advanced placement or international baccalaureate courses, and visited about 30 college campuses, Torkelson said. Parents are included in this plan from the beginning.
“The very first thing we do when we’re signing up parents and they come to their first orientations, we ask them to draft their vision for their child as an adult,” Torkelson said. “Then we have moms and dads read it to each other, and you just have these strangers who are just meeting for the first time and they are literally weeping. Nobody has ever asked them what their vision is of their child.”
IDEA’s scope reaches beyond a traditional 12 years of public education. Torkelson highlights the schools’ efforts in ensuring IDEA alumni continue to receive guidance, counseling, and financial support throughout their college experience — including career services to help them obtain gainful employment after earning their degrees.
“What I’m most proud of is for every year for the past 10 years, 100 percent of our seniors have applied to college, 100 percent have been accepted to college, and every year but one, 100 percent of our students stepped foot on a college campus for the first day of their freshman year, which I just think is very historic,” Torkelson said. “Once they’re in college, they are graduating at five times the national average for similar demographics. I think that just shows the potential of young people in the RGV is limitless.”
There are even resources for students who don’t initially thrive in college.
“We’ve launched IDEA University — IDEA-U — to recapture our students who have dropped out of the traditional university system,” he said. “We’re re-matriculating them, and we’re going to make sure they get that degree with minimal to zero debt.”
There have been some growing pains for IDEA, though.
“Over the past decade, our biggest challenge has been keeping up with the demand,” Torkelson said. “Last year, 70,000 students applied to IDEA. We opened up 18 schools last year, but it wasn’t nearly enough to meet the really pent-up demand that families all across the region have for high quality public education for their children.”
To keep up, IDEA is slated to open 18 new campuses in August, 22 in 2020, and 28 in 2021, Torkelson said. And in 10 years, he projects IDEA serving a quarter of a million students with campuses in Ohio and Florida.
“My goal is to make sure that every single family who wants a high-quality, tuition-free public education can get it, and it’s my mission to bring that to as many families as we possibly can,” he said.