• by Hector Bojorquez • IDRA Newsletter • April 2014 •Hector Bojorquez

Community members from the Rio Grande Valley gathered recently to discuss shared educational visions and goals for Valley students. As described in an article last month, the convening was aptly named Mesa Comunitaria Educativa – Educational Community Board (Bojorquez & Montemayor, 2014). The meeting was the culmination of months of smaller meetings with community members focusing on the Valley’s assets and the impact of the newly-enacted House Bill 5, which lowers educational expectations and establishes a de facto tracking system destined to worsen already low college-going and success rates among Texas youth.

Across the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas efforts are reshaping what is possible for children, including dropout prevention; graduation planning; supports for students who will be the first in their family to attend college; amplification of community, family and youth leadership; a press for more equitable local, regional and state policy; development of quality bilingual early childhood education curricula and materials; strengthening of K-12 mathematics, science and language learning; and professional development, teacher preparation and placement to meet teacher shortages and gaps. The Valley is fertile ground for a variety of positive solutions to challenges encountered by public education. In this region, we find entire school districts raising expectations for all students and, in actuality, graduating and sending more students to college. We find community-based organizations collaborating with school districts to improve educational outcomes for all Valley students. Much of the Valley is transforming public education at a time when trends across the country point to increased privatization, shirking responsibility for equitable education funding, and, tragically, abandoning college as a goal for all students.

For several years, IDRA has been providing technical assistance to community groups to create PTA Comunitarios, community-based PTAs, where families and schools collaborate on addressing educational challenges in the area. It is in this context of abundant positive solutions in an increasingly despairing environment that Mesa Comunitaria Educativa was conceived.

Through Mesa Comunitaria Educativa, community, school, family and youth leaders came together for a series community-led planning meetings to examine the latest graduation, attrition and college readiness data along with a community scan of assets and strategies underway for raising graduation rates. The purpose of these gatherings has been to identify, spotlight and leverage what is working and to strengthen and forge strategic connections to graduate and prepare every child in the Rio Grande Valley for success in college and career. IDRA provided policy updates, facilitated discussions and assisted in designing the process at every step. Through these meetings attended by community leaders from ARISE, Mano a Mano, Proyecto Juan Diego and others, it was evident that groups and schools in the Valley bring many assets to the table, among them, years of experience in community organizing, a history of providing educational services when schools were unable, and a sophisticated understanding of educational policy.

Of great concern to many of the leaders present in the meetings was the looming implementation of HB5 and its dumbing down of curricula. The potentially disastrous effects of such a system were not lost on the majority of community members. After much discussion, it was decided that HB5 would be the predominant and overarching issue at the January event. Additionally, during the final meeting, a process was designed by community members to facilitate discussions to result in collaborative efforts between the community, school districts and institutions of higher education.

On January 25 at the South Texas College Cooper Center in McAllen, more than 70 people met to discuss educational issues in the context of college readiness for all. They included representatives from community-based organizations, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district, La Joya school district, Donna school district and the president of University of Texas at Pan American, Dr. Robert Nelsen.

After sharing data from a variety of sources, that illustrated gains and areas of concern in the Valley, the conversation proceeded to the challenge presented by HB5. Dr. Nelsen was quick to point out that the measure potentially lowers educational standards and could cause fewer students to be prepared for college. As the meeting progressed, Lourdes Flores, the current president of ARISE, stated in no uncertain words, “We want all our children to go to college.” During the course of the meeting, IDRA released College Bound and Determined, which documents how PSJA ISD is transforming itself into an early college district by making “high school like college” (see Principles for Transforming a School District). In effect, a shared vision became clear to all – college readiness for all children in the Valley. What followed were rich discussions about possible collaborations between schools concerning many different issues, including early childhood education, adult education, financial aid information and more. But the overriding concern was House Bill 5. The following concerns were stated plainly and unequivocally by all groups.

  • Families were concerned that the lowering of standards by the legislature was tied to previously-reduced funding. The community was immediately struck by the fact that the full amount of funding taken away during the 2011 legislature would not come back. The critical need for equitable funding was a recurring theme during the conversations.
  • Across the state, students with average or below average academic performance will not be supported or encouraged by schools to go to college.
  • Students from economically distressed neighborhoods will be disproportionately targeted for vocational training.
  • Many parents will be blind-sided by schools rushing to implement the new Endorsement curricula without effective counseling on implications. Anecdotal evidence was shared by several parents who are already seeing this occur.
  • Schools will, in effect, be in charge of making decisions for families and students.
  • Average or below average students will be steered away from graduation plans that do not require Algebra II – since Algebra II is no longer a graduation requirement – which will make it more difficult for them to get into college.

As a result of the meeting, a core group of leaders decided to take on the task of monitoring the effects of HB5 on college access and success rates in the Valley. This will require collaboration among community groups, school districts and colleges to share data as needed. Communities will set college access and success goals and monitor the outcomes of state policies as they are implemented. IDRA will facilitate Mesa Comunitaria Educativa’s efforts. Ultimately, however, it is the community’s vision that will further drive change in the Valley.

Hector Bojorquez is an education associate in IDRA’s Field Services. Comments and questions may be directed to him via email at feedback@idra.org

[©2014, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 2014 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.]