RGV LEAD: The Valley’s Connection Between Academics and Economics

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For over 25 years, RGV LEAD has built up the intellectual capital and economic growth of the Rio Grande Valley. Formerly known as Tech Prep, LEAD stands for Linking Economic and Academic Development. RGV LEAD is a partnership between students, the business community, and educational institutions in the Rio Grande Valley.

Originally established with federal grants, the program evolved six years ago into a community-funded enterprise through partnerships, memberships, and other local funding solutions. RGV LEAD works with schools, organizations, and employers from Brownsville to Rio Grande City. According to Dr. Norma Salaiz, RGV LEAD director, the organization facilitates collaboration between local educators and local employers.

“We partner with every single school district in the Rio Grande Valley,” she said. “And we also partner with the four post-secondary institutions.”

As a way of showcasing opportunities to Valley students, RGV LEAD sponsors an Education & Career Expo each year to bring students into contact with local employers and the educational institutions in the area that can provide them with the skills and certifications they would need to excel at the jobs those businesses offer. Events like these allow the students to see firsthand how they can chart a path to their own success.

One of the student-centered programs the organization has implemented is RGV LEAD Student Ambassadors. As ambassadors, student leaders work together in teams at the regional level and within their communities. During their annual summit, they are given opportunities to learn leadership skills, like how to engage an audience, that they can then use when promoting the program in their communities.

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Another initiative facilitated by RGV LEAD includes a mentorship program that matches successful community professionals with aspiring high school students to ensure that all participating students graduate from high school with a college-and-career-ready mindset. The mentoring is split between both the school and the community, but the ultimate goal is to develop the personal qualities necessary for success in school, work, and life.

RGV LEAD also seeks to enrich educators through Educator Summer Externships so participants can better prepare their students for tomorrow’s job markets. Within this program, teachers work as employees at various sites and businesses throughout the Valley and engage in activities demonstrating the skills employers seek. This gives educators a better idea of what local employers are looking for in their future workforce. During the externship, the teachers develop instructional materials they will use the following year, giving their students relevant learning experiences as a result.  

“Some of the employees that are vying for a job may not have the entry-level skills that are needed and so some employers struggle to find qualified employees,” Salaiz said.

The partnership between the Academies of the Rio Grande Valley and Ford Next Generation Learning (Ford NGL) is fundamentally changing the structure of some high schools throughout the Valley. RGV LEAD designed a regional plan for the Academies of the Rio Grande Valley that supports the economic development of the area by strengthening the connection between education and business. The Ford NGL Academy model provides the links to occupations and industries in the local market with work-based learning opportunities and invaluable insight into the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in the workforce.

Both the Brownsville and Mission Economic Development Corporations have contracted with RGV LEAD for Career Center Project activities, which allows RGV LEAD to customize a regional approach to fit community needs. The focus is to develop the “human capital” — the students within the local school districts — through various initiatives, including the creation and distribution of a targeted occupations handbook, multiple career forums, and student internships.

Students who participate in the RGV LEAD Scholar program also earn special recognition for themselves. The students who receive the graduation honor have met program requirements including completion of advanced technical credit or college-and-career focused programs, or earning college credit while in high school. Each of these RGV LEAD Scholars also has a chance to apply for the $5,000 scholarship awarded by the RGV LEAD Board.

RGV LEAD also recognizes outstanding educators who are giving their all to make sure their students are ready for the challenges of higher education and entering the workforce. Each year, a couple of RGV LEAD Student Ambassadors present an award to the RGV LEAD Teacher of the Year and the Counselor of the Year. Their ability to motivate and engage their students and work tirelessly on their behalf does not go unnoticed by the students themselves, and the organization as a whole.

Developing a higher level of competence in the Rio Grande Valley’s workforce, which, in turn, contributes to the economic growth of the entire region, is a mission that everyone at RGV LEAD takes seriously.

“It is important that we talk about what employers are looking for and what it’s going to take to help develop the economy of South Texas,” Salaiz said.