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Building a college-ready culture in the Rio Grande Valley

Educate Texas
March 27, 2014

Posted by Catherine Pena, Interim Project Manager, Educate Texas

In February 2013, two school districts in the Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA), received a $5.6 million federal grant to expand the early college high school (ECHS) model in the region as part of the Early College Expansion Partnership. The Partnership includes the two districts as well as Educate Texas and Jobs for the Future (JFF), a national nonprofit based in Boston.

The grant, funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, is part of a national $15 million effort to scale the early college model, and the Early College Expansion Partnership was selected as one of 20 national i3 recipients out of a highly competitive pool of more than 700 applicants. The early college model is a bold approach that provides students with the opportunity to earn up to two years of college credit, tuition free, while obtaining their high school diploma.

In July of 2008 I said, “YES!” I said yes to an opportunity to teach Algebra I at the new Achieve Early College High School in McAllen, Texas.  Little did I know that this teaching opportunity would be the spark that re-ignited my passion in education. 

On February 24, 2014 the Texas Education Agency announced that an additional forty-three high schools would receive early college designation for the 2014-2015 school year. With that announcement, five out of six of Brownsville ISD’s comprehensive high schools would receive this designation. That is the most for any district awarded this year. Pharr - San Juan - Alamo ISD also received an additional two designations making the school district, a “College for All” district.  Each high school in PSJA now has an Early College High School model.

As the Interim Project Manager, for the Early College Expansion Partnership (ECEP), i3 grant, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that the expansion of the Early College High School (ECHS) model in the Rio Grande Valley has sparked and sustained new opportunities for students. These students may have never been given the opportunity otherwise: 20,094 students, 10 middle schools and 5 high schools are currently being impacted by this grant. PSJA Superintendent — Dr. Daniel King, and Brownsville ISD Superintendent, Dr. Carl A. Montoya — are working together to bring college opportunities to more RGV students.

The ECEP goals are for at least 90% of students to receive at least 12 transferable college credit hours upon high school graduation, to increase graduation rates, and to have a long term increase in student enrollment and success in postsecondary education.  Now with the Early College designation, these students have a greater opportunity to receive 60 hours of college credit, earning an associate’s degree along with their high school diploma on graduation day!

A colleague once shared a story of growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, having a mother that always said, “You are going to college,”, but “You have to figure that out on your own.”  Just like her mom, parents in the Rio Grande Valley have something in common.  They want a better life for their children. Having lived in the valley for 23 years, I have witnessed a culture of communities that know hard work, perseverance, and the virtues of a close family.

This is where the collaboration between Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD and Brownsville ISD is bringing opportunities for higher education right to the hands of high school students. Both districts are working to improve their academic program by using a coherent common instructional framework aligned to college-ready standards. This means teaching with a framework focused on six instructional strategies and receiving support from instructional coaches working directly with the teachers and administrative staff.

I believe in providing an opportunity for all, bringing engagement to the classroom environment, and improving instruction. My passion for education was ignited as an educator in the ECHS model, as a project manager my passion continues as my team of ten external coaches help teachers improve instruction giving students college ready skills.

With the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley and a new medical school on the horizon, the RGV is ready for this college ready culture to be enhanced. This involvement and work is helping to mold the college ready culture in the Rio Grande Valley. Thanks to the work of PSJA ISD, Brownsville ISD, Educate Texas, Jobs for the Future, and the U.S. Department of Education a vision is set to become a reality.