• by Josie Danini Supik, M.A. and Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • May 1996 • 

Dr. Albert CortezJosie Cortez Josie Danini Supik, M.A.

The Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative (TIEC) began its work in the spring of 1994 with the vision that U.S. schools with significant populations of immigrant students provide a collaborative environment where all students are prepared to become productive citizens capable of making significant contributions to our emerging global community. Created in response to the urgent needs of recent immigrant students, the Texas collaborative, led by the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), is one of four projects in the United States funded for four years by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Program in Immigrant Education and coordinated with the Center for Applied Linguistics (CAL).

Our goal was clear: Create schools that work for recent immigrants by accelerating their mastery of literacy, expanding access to the content areas, and strengthening the connections to work and post-secondary opportunities. In the final analysis, our work would result in schools:

  • becoming acutely aware of immigrant student needs;
  • creating more effective strategies and programs in schools;
  • restructuring campuses with improved services to students and families; and
  • creating new or stronger relationships between elementary and secondary schools, secondary schools and post-secondary schools, central office administrations and campuses, and schools and the community.

With IDRA’s 20-plus years of experience in immigrant education and advocacy of children, coupled with our vanguard professional development and technical assistance and tremendous commitment from our partner schools, extraordinary results are already evident:

  • New linkages between the secondary schools, universities and world of work;
  • Increased awareness among school participants of the needs, characteristics, and potential of recent immigrant students;
  • New structures within schools that support recent immigrant students;
  • Decision-makers and stakeholders within schools connecting with each other in new ways, seeking mechanisms to ensure the success of recent immigrant students through their school system;
  • New identification and placement systems for recent immigrant students that take into account all that they bring rather than what they lack;
  • A peer support network of English as a second language (ESL) teachers that promotes interdependence and leadership; and
  • New opportunities for immigrant students. In one of the participating schools, 25 students were placed in the gifted and talented program this year, that is 25 more than the previous year.

The partner schools are in El Paso, Texas (Bowie High School, Guillen Middle School and the University of Texas at El Paso) and in Houston, Texas (Jane Long Middle School and the University of Houston-Downtown).

The Project’s Organizational Structure

In the spring of 1994, IDRA began a deliberate and careful process of increasing awareness, building linkages and creating ownership among the different groups involved in the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation project collaborative. In order to maximize the potential for local ownership, IDRA created a two tier organizational structure that allowed it to oversee all aspects of program activities while at the same time maximizing local participation in decision making and implementation of project initiatives.

Activities at each of the two school districts were designed and coordinated by a campus implementation team that included the local liaison, members of the school faculty, representatives from the campus administration, a representative from the local college or university project partners, and at least one representative from a community-based organization.

During the project’s first 18 months, the implementation teams at each site chose to sub-divide their efforts among various task forces that included members of the implementation team and other school or community-based persons. Once assembled, each team identified the recent immigrant student needs on their campuses with an eye to their future in the university and workforce. With IDRA facilitating, each team created a site-specific work plan for meeting needs in areas such as the school’s:

  • placement and monitoring system,
  • Spanish literacy course,
  • intensive ESL training,
  • organizational structure,
  • support services,
  • parental involvement and leadership,
  • counseling,
  • feeder school relations,
  • vocational programs, and
  • business partnerships.

It is important to note that IDRA facilitated the conceptualization and development process of each work plan. We did not dictate or give expert “pronouncements.” Our effectiveness with schools comes from shared ownership and negotiating our environment in such a way that all members contribute and are valued.

The Context

Each of the two project school districts and their cities is unique and remarkable in their character.

El Paso, Texas: Bowie High School

El Paso, like other cities along the U.S.-Mexico border, felt the aftershocks of the Mexican peso devaluation in mid-December of 1994. Everything from a quart of milk to diapers costs much more, 40 percent more. The devaluation impacted everyone and everything. And the impact continues. Merchants estimate that business has dropped as much as 80 percent and say this is because shoppers from Juarez cannot afford US goods (Sciences, 1995). Only two months after the devaluation, more than 20 stores had gone out of business, and hundreds of employees were laid off or had their hours substantially reduced.

As if to make matters worse for businesses, immigration laws and regulations are being stepped up. Closer scrutiny of those wishing to cross from Juarez to El Paso has greatly reduced the number of undocumented Mexicans entering El Paso to shop.

The devaluation of the Mexican peso and its subsequent effects on the regional economy have tightened the job market even further for immigrant students.

Bowie High School is located just a few yards away from the barbed wire fence that separates the United States and Mexico. Along the fence, in clear view of the students and staff, are fully staffed border patrol cars. Border patrol helicopters sweep overhead.

The principal is dynamic, forceful and renowned (see also article on Page 1). It was only two years ago that he and Bowie High School made the front page of The Wall Street Journal with the headline: “Matter of Principle – High School in El Paso Gives the Border Patrol A Civil Rights Lesson” (1993). It was then that US District Judge Lucius Bunton issued a restraining order barring the US Border Patrol from unwarranted searches of Bowie High School students and staff.

Houston, Texas: Jane Long Middle School

Ten years ago, children from affluent families attended Jane Long Middle School in Houston. Located on the edge of Bellair where the governor of Texas has a home, and many of the city’s power brokers live, it was a school of choice for those who had choices.

When the bottom fell out of the Texas economy, many of the newly affluent families lost their shirts, their houses and condominiums. As they moved out, the domino effect continued: Exclusive retailers closed their shops, and land prices plummeted. Apartments were scooped up by new landlords for cents on the dollar.

At almost the same time, newly arrived immigrants, most of them Hispanic, were settling in the area. They knew little about the city, much less about the infrastructure, and they began to send their children to Jane Long Middle School. In only a few years, the school that was built in the 1950s would be reeling from change and uncertainty. Two out of three students were now recent immigrants. The teachers had known for many years that the student population was changing, and faculty needed to figure out what to do.

Fortunately for the school, the former principal returned after a short time serving at central office administration (see also article on Page 1). He knew that restructuring and renewal for Jane Long Middle School was needed. He already had the trust and respect from the staff who had known him for many years. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation project had come at exactly the right juncture for directed change.

The University of El Paso and The University of Houston – Downtown

The two university partners are as different as their school district counterparts are to each other. The University of El Paso (UTEP) is a comparatively new, up and coming university. It is fast becoming a major player in border initiatives with funding from the National Science Foundation and the Pew Foundation. Historically, the UTEP staff have a tenuous connection to school districts through consulting; there is little in the way of institutional change or broad-based connections. UTEP students are primarily middle-class, upwardly mobile immigrants giving the university little exposure to the realities and struggles of many poor immigrants.

In contrast, the University of Houston-Downtown is an older, established university with an iconoclastic air to it. It is right in the middle of downtown Houston and has adapted itself to the needs of its students, most of whom are immigrants. Read what one of its students (the project’s ethnographer for the Houston site) writes about the university, calling it a “second home”:

“Located in the downtown area of the city of Houston, this 10-story [university] building opens its doors every day to probably the largest number of recent immigrants and international students in the state of Texas. Well known for the extreme diversity of its student body, the University of Houston – Downtown is a world in itself. With a student population of almost 8000, this university offers not only a learning environment, but also a second home for hundreds of students coming to the United States from all over the world; students who come to this country dreaming of a good education and a better future” (IDRA, 1996).

Initiatives, Activities and Outcomes

Perhaps the most important Houston initiative with immediate and direct results was the creation of an ESL component in the campus’ Gifted and Talented Vanguard Program. It involved the development of alternative “definitions” and criteria for gifted and talented students, the development of strategies for monitoring ESL students’ progress for eventual inclusion into the regular gifted and talented program, and the collection of process and outcome data to facilitate replication of the program in other sites.

Because of these Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-supported activities, 25 LEP recent immigrant students have participated in the more challenging courses that are part of the pre-International Baccalaureate curriculum, one version of the campus’ gifted and talented program. Teachers are more receptive to identifying gifted and talented characteristics in recent immigrant students. The campus is pre-disposed and ready to have the gifted and talented program expand to include LEP students.

IDRA’s role in this initiative included providing the initial “suggestion” that inclusion of immigrant students in gifted and talented programs be considered as a project of the local implementation team and bringing together the gifted and talented program representatives and ESL specialist to explore strategies for identifying the gifts and talents of students who speak a language other than English.

In the El Paso project site, one program initiative involved the entire faculty of the Guillen Middle School and the University of Texas at El Paso’s (UTEP) department of education faculty. The Guillen Middle School campus was added to the El Paso collaborative. Because Guillen Middle School is a feeder school for Bowie High School, IDRA determined that its inclusion in the project would serve to strengthen and provide greater instructional support and continuity in the educational pipeline serving recent immigrants in El Paso.

The Guillen Middle School site also provided a unique opportunity to work in a re-constituted school setting and to pilot strategies for ensuring attention to immigrant related issues. One of the first initiatives was a staff development effort focusing on school renewal. A three-day renewal retreat included teachers, administrators, support personnel, students, parents and community representatives. IDRA provided the initial impetus for the retreat concept as it explored options for creating a collaborative relationship between Guillen Middle School and UTEP, and it assisted in the planning and documentation of the retreat. IDRA has extensive experience in renewal given our teacher renewal institute and Educator’s Perspective Inventory (EPI), an instrument measuring the need for personal and professional renewal.

The involvement of teachers and administrators in the renewal activity has brought renewed vigor in meeting the needs of recent immigrant students. The impact of this should not be underestimated given the fact that the vast majority of Guillen Middle School students are immigrants. The retreat also provided a rare opportunity for school personnel to interact with students and parents in a unique context that fostered mutual understanding and frank exchanges. Already evident is a notable shift in the participants’ mindsets and creation of a positive collective consciousness that will move the school forward in positive new directions. This is based on a commitment to having all students, including those who are new arrivals to this country, be successful.

Emergent Findings and Lessons Learned

You do not become a leader in cutting-edge educational policies and practices without gaining some insights along the way. When IDRA began the Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative, we had 20 years of firsthand, “in the trenches” experience with schools, parents, communities and policy makers. We were experienced leaders in immigrant issues. It also helped that many IDRA staff are children of immigrants and had their own educational experiences as such. The children for whom we speak were once us.

As we began our work with the collaborative, we knew the importance of context. We knew that schools in Texas have been undergoing dramatic changes in the relationships between central office staff and campus personnel with local schools asserting greater control over campus-based initiatives as a result of legislatively-mandated site-based decision making authority. We also knew that, though Texas schools have had a long history of dealing with immigrant issues, some educators are somewhat reluctant to deal with students who have recently arrived in the United States, in part because of an emerging state emphasis on school outcomes and an increased public and community focus on school and student accountability for results. Though not gripped in the anti-immigrant mania reflected in California, Texas’ lack of funding for facilities, coupled with growing enrollments in some South Texas and urban areas, has created stresses in local district operations.

In addition to our existing insights about Texas schools, IDRA’s long history of actively supporting community involvement provided a base for understanding an array of community issues. We knew that schools had traditionally struggled in their attempts to expand communication with parents and have struggled even more so with immigrant parents. We also recognized that communications between schools and the private sector have been limited, and minimal linkages existed between our target schools and the local colleges and universities.

Because of the long-standing involvement of the state and the region in serving immigrant pupils, the participating sites in El Paso and Houston were not new to immigrant education issues.

In the 18 months that the Texas Immigrant Education Collaborative has existed and become part of the educational landscapes in El Paso and Houston, we and our partners have gained insight into the process of change. Some of what we uncovered was anticipated based on our knowledge and past experiences. But there were a few surprises along the way. We knew the path going in; we now know where the “landmines” are. What we have learned is summarized in the box on the left.

The literature is replete with “projects” created and sustained from external sources whose skeletons litter the educational landscapes, victims of the “Let me show you how its done” syndrome. While the research has clearly pointed to the shortcomings of externally posed reform, there is limited information on what constitutes the necessary balance between external catalysts and internal transformation. Around the issue of immigrant education reform at the secondary level, there are no models. We, therefore, struggle to define the parameters on an ongoing basis, documenting our paths as we proceed.

While much has already occurred in the first 18 months of this project including the emergence of new structures, linkages and instructional practices, much remains to be done. Confounding factors such as school staff turnover, anti-immigrant sentiment and the natural resistance to change have the potential of eroding the progress made to date. Counteracting these factors is the commitment of the project participants to their students, particularly recent immigrant students and their families. This project has heightened their awareness of the need for change and validated their belief that change is both possible and sustainable.


Intercultural Development Research Association. (unpublished report) (1996).

Sciences, S. “Mexico: Peso’s Drop Means Dollar Buys More. But Ciudad Juarez’ Gain is El Paso’s Loss,” USA Today (January 27, 1995), p. 1.

The Wall Street Journal (February 23, 1993) Southwest Edition.

Josie D. Supik is director of the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Dr. Albert Cortez is director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership and acting director of the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be sent via e-mail to feedback@idra.org.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the May 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]