South Texas Preparatory Academy, commonly referred to as STPA, has a very special mission for students in the Rio Grande Valley. As the word “preparatory” in the name suggests, the South Texas Independent School District (STISD) junior high is committed to providing an engaging curriculum for students to prepare them for future learning. The way they approach this is what sets them apart from other junior high schools in the Valley. Ana Castro, principal at STPA, shares that what differentiates STPA’s strategy is “a smaller learning community of students, and individualized education. The curriculum is developed through collaborative efforts by STPA faculty based on the students’ needs.”
This strategy has definitely proven to be successful. Teachers and staff are responsible for planning a rigorous and engaging curriculum that is responsive to the students’ needs and allows for them to be challenged. A mindset of going above and beyond expected performance is instilled in students very early on. “Students are given the opportunity to go as far as they can. We do not believe in ‘hurry up and wait.’ If they are ready to move on, then we will support them. We will create and offer challenging coursework that allows opportunities for growth,” shares Daniel Rodriguez, STPA Science Department Leader. The school always has options available for students that are prepared to tackle more advanced coursework. Similar to what students will experience in the STISD high schools and later in college, the STPA course sequence is set up on an A/B block schedule, with four longer courses each day. They also provide the option of double block classes for students that need additional support. High expectations and commitment from the teachers and students have paid off. STPA students are excelling in coursework that is above their grade level. Ninety percent of seventh-graders obtained a passing rate on eighth-grade math on the STAAR math assessment, which is higher than the state average. In fact, STPA students outscored the state in all STAAR and End of Course exams. The exceptional curriculum has earned STPA the Exemplary School Award from 2009-2012, Southern Association of Colleges & Schools (SACS) Accreditation from 2010-2011, Texas School to Watch recognition in 2012, and a spot on the Texas Business & Education Coalition (TBEC) Honor Roll.
Flexibility and receptivity are at the core of STPA’s successful curriculum. Although STPA has an accelerated academic program, teachers and staff at South Texas Preparatory Academy are not afraid of change. “In the last few years, all our core content subjects have implemented new coursework to accommodate students who are ready for additional challenges. In Science, for example, we saw that many of our students were ready for more. So we taught seventh- and eighth-grade science to all of our seventh-graders last year,” said Rodriguez. Students have demonstrated to be more interested and engaged when they are allowed to push their limits. Even students who were greatly challenged by the advanced coursework achieved success due to the support systems in place at STPA. One of the new initiatives STPA implemented this year was offering biology to eighth grade students. Seventh grade students took a credit by exam for eighth grade science, and students who received a passing score will take high school biology. This innovative approach ensures students are constantly challenged.
At STPA, excellence is not only promoted in the classroom. Teachers and staff understand that well-rounded students have to develop strong social skills and leadership. The school has many different academic- and leadership-oriented clubs and extracurricular activities, such as the Robotics Club, Technology Student Association (TSA), Gateway to Technology class, science camps, and the National Honor Society. These activities allow for students to translate the learning that takes place in the classroom into real life settings. STPA also provides programs focused on the emotional and social development of its diverse student body. First-time students participate in New Scholar Academies, three-day summer camps hosted by former and current students, that allow them to become familiarized with the campus and begin establishing relationships with their future classmates before the school year officially begins. Students who are meeting academic expectations are also able to participate in “enrichment time.” “This is a time where teachers get to teach things like culinary arts, sculpting, guitar, sewing, kite-making, ping pong, soccer, training, crocheting, ethnic arts, and chess,” says Rodriguez. None of these activities would be possible without STPA’s outstanding and experienced teachers. Rodriguez is a veteran of STPA and is greatly involved in science camps, the Cycling Club, and other extracurricular activities. The teachers, like the students, all go above and beyond expectations. All of the faculty members are not only certified to teach junior high courses, but many are also qualified to teach high school courses. In addition, several are National Board Certified teachers.
South Texas Preparatory Academy owes a big part of its success to the involvement of the parents. They are always very active in supporting their children with their schoolwork, hosting fundraisers for extracurricular activities, and leading some of the clubs. Parents develop good connections with each other and with the school’s faculty and staff. “The thing that I really appreciate is the environment. It’s a close-knit environment. Everybody knows everybody. The teachers are amazing. They work with the students very well and understand the students’ needs. The administration is very open to the parents’ opinions, which is not often the case in many schools where the programs are so rigid, where they are not working to meet each other’s needs,” shares Suzan Aldairi Daghestani. Suzan Aldairi Daghestani has been a part of the STPA community for quite a few years now. Her two eldest daughters graduated from the school, and her younger daughter is starting this coming school year. She was very impressed by the school’s administration and how supportive they were when she requested more challenging coursework for her eldest daughter. “I wanted my daughter to be challenged in math, and the administration all came together to provide an opportunity for more advanced learning,” said Suzan Aldairi Daghestani. “I was amazed at how accommodating and open they are to the childrens’ needs. Their approach is if you believe in your child why not give it a try.”
The commitment from the administration, staff, and parents definitely has an impact on the students. A survey conducted in 2013 obtained very positive feedback about the student body’s experience at STPA. Ninety-seven percent of the students felt that the school was a pleasant place for them. The students seem to like being challenged by the curriculum and having the option of advanced courses. Over 90 percent of the students reported being happy with instruction at their school. Sumaya Daghestani, a former student at South Texas Preparatory Academy, shared that there is an environment of learning in the school where everyone is focused on academic achievement and all extracurricular activities are learning-centered. Although Sumaya Daghestani recently completed her junior high school education at South Texas Preparatory Academy and will be The Science Academy of South Texas (Sci Tech), one of STISD’s four high schools, she still feels connected to STPA and will continue visiting whenever she can. Her family loves STPA so much that when her youngest sister was entering junior high school, it was automatically assumed that she would attend STPA. The students’ love for the school and its staff is evident in their strong school pride. In the 2013 survey, 95 percent of the students reported pride in being part of this school.
Anyone you talk to that has ties to STPA – whether it’s a faculty member, a student, or a parent – has many positive things to say about the school. The tuition-free magnet school has been serving students along the Texas-Mexico border for over six years, and although it is located in the Edinburg area, it has students commuting from three counties in the Valley (Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy) to attend. “A lot of children from Brownsville make the commute to the school. It is phenomenal to see that. It is an hour drive each way, and for them to make that sacrifice and decision, it says a lot about what the school has to offer,” says Suzan Aldairi Daghestani.