Seeing a Better Future for Education in South Texas

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In the Rio Grande Valley, Teach for America alumni are helping to open students’ eyes to the demands—and rewards—of college.

Rob Garza (Rio Grande Valley ’02) always knew he wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps and go to college. But only a few of his friends at McAllen High School, in the southernmost tip of Texas, felt the same way. Some were unsure they could hack college courses, some needed to get jobs to support their families, and two had children while still teenagers. It was the early 1990s and going to college was far from the norm.

Now, as an award-winning video production teacher at his old high school, Garza is doing all he can to make college a reality for his students. He encourages them to apply to their dream schools, connects them with admissions officers, provides tutoring, and even helps with their application essays. He also takes his students to visit colleges and enters them in video production competitions in places such as Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C.

edweek-landscapergvgarza“I want to give them the opportunity to see what the world is like outside of the Valley,” he said. “For some of our kids, it’s the first time they’re traveling, the first time they’ve been on a plane.”

Garza is one of 184 TFA alumni in the Rio Grande Valley (R.G.V.) working in education, 96 of them as teachers, in addition to 125 corps members.

A Growing, Diverse Economy

The Rio Grande Valley, known to locals as the Valley, is 43,000 square miles of sagebrush-dotted floodplain bounded by the Rio Grande River to the west and south, and the Gulf of Mexico to the east. Three out of four children are growing up in poverty. Forty percent of the adults in the area do not have a high school diploma, twice the statewide percentage. In 2015, Brownsville, the region’s largest city, ranked as the poorest metropolitan area in the nation; McAllen, the region’s second-largest city, was the third poorest.

At the same time, the region’s economy is growing fast and diversifying beyond trade and agriculture, creating a need for more skilled workers. Growth in manufacturing over the border in Mexico has boosted management jobs to the north of the border. Entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk has built the first-ever commercial rocket-launching facility, creating hundreds of jobs. Local community colleges, trade schools, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley are all trying to train the workers whom businesses need. But many of the Valley’s students will not be able to compete for those jobs, as only 12 percent of children who start school in the Valley earn a postsecondary degree or credential within six years of graduating from high school.

Teachers like Garza, who won a TFA Alumni Excellence in Teaching Award in 2013, are working to push that number higher. “TFA opened my eyes to the realization that if we don’t push the idea onto kids that they’re capable of going to college, then it’s not going to happen,” said Garza, whose father earned an engineering degree and whose mother studied dentistry in Mexico. “With me, [because of my background] it came naturally.”

Most of his students would be the first in their families to go beyond high school. Brianna Medina, one of Garza’s students, had planned to go to college on an unusual athletic scholarship, as a female wrestler. But after she broke her arm in the fall of her junior year, the daughter of a welder on an offshore oil rig and a trucking company owner realized that she “needed to go above and beyond in my grades” if she was going to be able to attend college.

Garza has been there to help. “He always says that he’s all about college and that he can help with essays and that he’s willing to stay after school and that it doesn’t matter what hours,” she said. “This is my first year in his class, but he’s pushed me so much and has so many great connections with colleges. If I graduated from college, it would be like ‘Wow.’”

Student outcomes have improved significantly since TFA began placing corps members in the Rio Grande Valley in 1991. The high school graduation rate regionwide has risen from 78 percent to 87 percent since 2001, nearly matching the rate for the rest of the state. The graduation rate in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA ISD), where many corps members and alumni work, rose from 72.5 percent in 1998 to more than 90 percent today. Students in the Valley are more likely than their peers elsewhere in Texas to take Advanced Placement courses or earn an International Baccalaureate diploma. Nearly 60 percent of the region’s students have earned some college credit by the time they graduate from high school through 37 early college classes offered through high school and other programs.

But expectations for most students are still too low and so, even though they graduate from high school, only 47 percent are ready to succeed in college.

An IDEA for Achieving Equity

IDEA Public Schools, a charter school management organization founded by TFA alumni JoAnn Gama and Tom Torkelson (both Rio Grande Valley ’97), is helping change that. IDEA, which stands for “Individuals Dedicated to Excellence and Achievement,” started as an after-school program at the elementary school in Donna, Texas, where Gama and Torkelson taught as corps members. It now operates 44 pre-K to 12th grade campuses serving 23,000 students in low-income communities across Texas, 30 of them in the Valley.

Six of IDEA’s high schools in the Valley were ranked by U.S. News & World Report in 2015 as among the nation’s best. Over the past nine years, nearly every student who graduated was accepted into college. More than 1,900 IDEA graduates from the Valley are currently in, or have graduated from, 134 colleges and universities across the country. Students from the class of 2015 were accepted at Brown, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, MIT, Notre Dame, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Chicago.

Many corps members and alumni serve as teachers in IDEA schools in the Valley; 14 alumni are assistant principals and two are principals. They push their students hard. Days are longer than at traditional schools, the homework load is heavy, and students are expected to attend study sessions on Saturdays. Students begin visiting colleges in third grade, and middle schools prepare students for the 11 Advanced Placement classes they’re expected to complete before graduation.

Gama’s high school experience wasn’t anything like that. She grew up on the north side of Houston and attended a high school once considered among the worst in the United States. Gama, however, sought out help and finished high school, while her three siblings did not. She graduated from Boston University with a major in international relations. After college, she joined TFA, planning to eventually go to graduate school or join the Foreign Service. However, her experience as a corps member gave her a new perspective on her own good fortune. It was only after joining TFA, she said, that she began to understand that “it’s not the norm to be a family of six and only one of you graduate from high school.”

Were it not for TFA, “I don’t think I would be teaching and leading with the same passion I am now around the achievement gap,” she said, “[and] there wouldn’t be IDEA Public Schools in the Valley.”

Committing to College Readiness

Gama said IDEA shows that Valley students will rise to meet academic expectations. Other districts noticed. Local schools began requiring uniforms, lengthening the school day, seeking certification as International Baccalaureate schools, and arranging for students to earn college credits before graduating.

IDEA has contributed to what is, today, a strong college-going culture in the Valley. “Part of the reason the R.G.V. is on the cutting edge of education reform is that TFA helped get that conversation started over 20 years ago,” Torkelson said.

An important milestone came in 2012, when the superintendents of 11 of 39 Valley school districts, college presidents, nonprofits, community groups, philanthropies, and business leaders agreed to work together to boost college readiness, college-going and completion, and career success.

They formed an organization called RGV Focus to coordinate the efforts and keep track of progress. Paula Garcia (Rio Grande Valley ’98), who now heads up TFA’s regional office, helped recruit the organization’s executive director. Garcia has remained involved and Torkelson is a member of the organization’s leadership team.

Luzelma Canales, RGV Focus’ executive director, agreed that TFA and its alumni are contributing to the systemic improvement of education in the region. In 2010, IDEA and PSJA ISD, a longtime TFA partner, won a $5 million federal grant to work together to provide first-year teachers, teacher leaders, and aspiring and current principals with more support and training. A 2015 evaluation by SRI International showed that teachers who received the additional support were almost four times more likely than new teachers in previous years to remain in the classroom. After the grant ended, IDEA and a number of school districts began meeting to keep the collaboration going.

In the past, Canales said, TFA was seen as strictly a source of short-term teachers. IDEA was not engaged with the Valley’s broader educational issues. But now, both are seen as partners and integral to improving educational outcomes in the Valley. The grant is but one piece of evidence of that. “Ten or 15 years ago, our public school districts and IDEA would not have partnered,” Canales said. “In the new spirit of authentic collaboration, they’re running a multimillion-dollar grant together.”

Recruiting Locally to Boost Retention

In recent years, TFA’s RGV regional office has worked hard to recruit more corps members who have strong connections to the Valley. Jonathan Stevens (Rio Grande Valley ‘06), director of TFA’s partnerships for the region, said that in 2006 only 4 percent of corps members came from local communities. Today, about 40 percent of corps members are from the Valley and 50 percent are from Texas.

Perhaps as important, more and more incoming corps members have backgrounds similar to their students. In 2013, 40 percent of corps members were persons of color; in 2015, that percentage had risen to 60 percent, and almost 50 percent had grown up in poverty. To increase these numbers even more, TFA has begun recruiting future corps members in area high schools and local colleges. TFA also works with recruiters in other states to identify candidates from the Valley and persuade them to return to teach.

“At the end of the day, if they’re from the Valley and they’re at Brown or the University of Texas at Austin or Texas A&M, we want them to come back to the RGV,” Garcia said.

Homegrown Alumni

Personifying those efforts is Andrea Gutierrez (Rio Grande Valley ’12), who was born in Harlingen, Texas, not far from the border with Mexico. Her family lived in San Antonio and Mexico before settling in McAllen when she was in middle school. She attended the International Baccalaureate program in the McAllen ISD and then the University of Texas at Austin, where she majored in government. After joining TFA, she was assigned to her alma mater, along with three other corps members, two of whom are now teaching their fourth year at the campus.

Gutierrez taught AP U.S. history during 2014-15. Twenty-nine of her students passed the exam, compared with nine the year before. Gutierrez also served as the Student Council adviser and organized a student trip to Italy. In the spring, her fellow teachers voted her Teacher of the Year.

“The reason I succeeded,” she said, “is the support [TFA] gave us and the community you have as a TFA teacher.”

Marcela Fernández (Rio Grande Valley ’02), assistant principal at Bonham Elementary School in Harlingen, also made a long-term commitment to the Valley. Fernández grew up in Fort Worth and studied psychology at Tulane University in New Orleans, where she volunteered in public schools. She saw buildings in disarray, textbooks falling apart, and an unspoken understanding between teachers and their students that some of them weren’t going to make it.

As a corps member, she worked with students with disabilities at a San Benito, Texas, elementary school. The relationships she established with her students inspired her to become a school counselor and then an administrator.

“I saw that I could impact more kids as a school counselor, and that some of the challenges [students] faced needed to be addressed outside of the classroom,” she said.

Christopher Sandoval (Rio Grande Valley ’14), a first-generation Mexican American and the first person in his family to graduate from college, is a fourth grade teacher at Francisca Alvarez Elementary School in McAllen. More than 90 percent of the school’s students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, 95 percent of them are Latino, and more than 55 percent are English language learners. One of the school’s graduates is Elisa Villanueva Beard (Phoenix ’98), TFA’s CEO.

In his first year, Sandoval founded the Alvarez Elementary Folklorico Dance Academy to preserve the traditional Mexican style of dance and instill in his students pride in their culture. He says he has been humbled by the experience and has already decided to continue teaching at the school when his two-year commitment ends.

“I feel everything’s at stake when I’m in that classroom,” Sandoval said. “TFA has helped me understand that I’m not just a teacher but a leader—a leader who helps facilitate a different trajectory for students and one who works with parents to ask the right kinds of questions, such as, ‘Are our kids getting enough?’”