The Rio Grande Valley has a number of independent and consolidated school districts, ranging from large to very small and located in seven different counties. Twenty-nine of these districts lie in the three main counties that make up the Valley proper, Willacy, Cameron, and Hidalgo. While home to some of the poorest districts in Texas, the Valley also has some nationally rated schools.
All fall under the purview of the Texas Region One Education Service Center in Edinburg, Texas, with a total Region One enrollment, Pre-K through twelfth grade, of 363,270 students in the 2005-2006 school year. It is a diverse region, with several larger cities with big school districts, such as Brownsville, McAllen and Harlingen, and many small districts, including Hidalgo, Los Fresnos and Port Isabel. The student body overall is 96% Hispanic, with 27% of the total being bilingual, 10% taking English as a Second Language, and 8% (29,161) students participating in Gifted and Talented Programs.
The largest district in the Valley is Brownsville ISD, with 47,248 students overall under the direction of Superintendent Hector Gonzales. The district has 33 elementary schools that range in age from brand new to venerable. The newest is Brite Elementary, named for beloved Brownsville educator Ben L. Brite who began teaching there in 1932 and went on to various roles as coach, teacher and superintendent. The school opened as scheduled in January 2007 and has a computer lab, full internet connectivity, a library reading kiva, and a music room next to the cafetorium, a blend of cafeteria and auditorium.
On the other hand, a school doesn’t have to be new to excel. BISD’s Putegnat Elementary is located on the site of one of the oldest schools in Texas, Washington Park Grammar School, built in 1890. It was replaced in 1923 with the present school that was built using some of the bricks from the old building. Putegnat was named for Annie Scanlon Putegnat, one of the principals of the “Old Grammar School” and was granted Texas Historical Site designation in 1984.
Putegnat is still making its mark today. Fifth grade teacher Robert Rivera was named BISD Teacher of the Year for 2006 and went on to make a national splash by becoming one of only 100 teachers that year to be awarded the Miliken National Educator Award. Putegnat, Paredes and Resaca elementary schools were all placed on the 2006 TEBC (Texas Education and Business Coalition) Honor Roll, meaning that they have achieved high academic standards for three full years preceding the award.
Another large district, McAllen ISD, headed by Superintendent Yolanda Chapa, has now been awarded a Superior Achievement rating in school finance by the Texas Education Agency for the fourth year in a row. It has 19 elementary schools, including Bonham Elementary which has been recognized for the 2006-2007 school year as a Distinguished Performance School by the Texas Education Agency. In addition, Bonham and Houston Elementaries are both rated as Exemplary. Castaneda , Escandon , Garza, Gonzalez, Jackson, Milam, Navarro, Rayburn, Seguin, Thigpen and Wilson Elementary Schools are all ranked as Recognized.
McAllen ISD is an innovative district. During 2003 fifth grade students participated in a real-time, interactive educational session with NASA live by teleconference from the Johnson Space Center near Houston. Now, working with Region I Education Service Center's Adult Education Program, the district is offering evening classes for both students and their parents every Tuesday and Thursday from 6-8 p.m. during the spring semester. All students of the district can take advantage of homework help and tutoring assistance. Their parents can improve themselves through Literacy classes, ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, assistance in preparing to take the GED examinations, and training in employment skills.
Harlingen CISD, run by Dr. Linda Wade, is slightly smaller with 16 elementary schools, 12 of which have attained Recognized status. One of the more interesting schools architecturally in a town noted for its murals is Bowie Elementary. It was built as the South Ward School in 1928 when several new schools were constructed by a bond issue. The facade is one-of-a-kind, a cast concrete frieze depicting colorful Toltec and Aztec designs. Created by Luis Lopez Sanchez, the images include a number of snakes that represent the ancient belief that they encompass wisdom and knowledge. This was the source of the school’s long-time nickname, La Escuela de Vibores, or School of Snakes.
Bowie is one of the 12 Recognized campuses in Harlingen CISD, although it is now known for the Bowie Bobcats rather than for the snakes on its façade. Other Recognized campuses include Austin, Bonham, Crockett, Dishman, Houston, Jefferson, Lamar, Stuart, Travis, Treasure Hills and Wilson. A number of these schools also have TEA Gold Performance status, with commended performance by the students in reading and math. In addition, Bonham, Dishman and Lamar Elementary Schools all received a Governor’s Texas Educator Excellence Award, a program that awards funds to campuses that have high percentages of economically disadvantaged students and have demonstrated high levels of student achievement or marked improvement in student performance.
Los Fresnos CISD is well-regarded locally and is one of the small districts in the Valley. It offers seven elementary schools with a total enrollment of slightly more than 4,000 elementary students. Los Fresnos Elementary is a Recognized campus, as is Lopez Riggins Elementary. The various elementary schools in Los Fresnos offer extracurricular activities such as chess, dance teams, even a Junior Master Gardener program at one school. For example, Lopez Riggins offerings include their Wranglerettes dance team, the Orff Ensemble choir, and the Chess Club which made it to the State Tournament this year and came home as winners. Based on reviews on GreatSchools.com, this is a good district, ably run by Superintendent Mr. Gonzalo Salazar, one where children learn happily.
Port Isabel CISD serves the sea-side community of Port Isabel, of course, but also South Padre Island, Laguna Vista, Laguna Heights and Boca-Chica. The district is unusual for the Valley, being comprised of only 85% Hispanic students. At 11% the percentage of Gifted and Talented students runs above the Valley average of 8%. It is a small district, run by superintendent is Dr. Estella Piñeda, which has only two elementary schools that are better described as one school in two buildings. This is very beneficial to students as the teachers get to know the entire district student body as individuals as they see them pass through each grade and it makes for easy parent-teacher communication.
Garriga Elementary is the lower elementary, for grades PK-2, and named for Port Isabel native and former Bishop of the Diocese of Corpus Christi Mariano Simon Garriga. Garriga Elementary is a Project PUENTE ((Port Isabel United in Educating Neighborhoods Toward Equity) site, an after school and summer school program funded by a federal 21st Century Grant.
The upper elementary is Derry Elementary, for grades 3-5, and is also a Project PUENTE site. The school has a very active literacy program and an award-winning dance/drill team. In fact, four students did so well in the recent Showtime International Dance/Drill Competition that they were invited to perform in the 2007 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade in New York.
Limited grade levels makes for a wonderful atmosphere for students because each school can focus more specifically on the needs of the students in their care. There is less diversity in developmental levels and teachers find it easier to keep abreast of the latest educational innovations. Education for the lower grades focuses on learning to read, while students in the upper half of the elementary grades are reading to learn, requiring different educational approaches. Highly motivated students do well in this sort of atmosphere, but so do those who learn a little differently than the average.
Then there is Hidalgo ISD, a poor district next door to McAllen that serves several small towns. It has been named nine years in a row as either a Recognized or Exemplary District, with at least one year where every single school in the district was rated as Exemplary, the highest level granted by the Texas Education Agency. It was listed this year as one of the top 100 districts in the United States for music education according to the results of the eighth annual survey of top musical communities. The district also won the 2006 H-E-B Excellence in Education Award, making it the best school district in all of Texas.
This is a small district, with only four elementary schools, Hidalgo Elementary (1960), Kelly Elementary (1980’s), Salinas Elementary (1999), and Hidalgo Park Elementary (2004). The district has one middle school and one high school, with a total district enrollment that finally surpassed 3000 in 2002-2003. Actually, for some twenty plus years it didn’t have a high school at all because it couldn’t afford one but the present high school is now a college preparatory school, getting every student in the district ready to go on to university.
It is also a most parsimonious organization. HISD is still using the first permanent school house that was built shortly after 1852, but no longer as a teaching facility. Its two rooms function now as the Administration Annex. The second school was built in 1890 and is also still in use, currently serving as the district’s administrative headquarters and the meeting room for the Board of Trustees.
Despite a relatively poor economic base, the district is dedicated to making all their students college-ready. Thanks to a series of bond issues, grant funds, and money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, this small district, under the leadership of brand new Superintendent Eduardo Cancino, will only improve. Representatives from other districts all across the U.S. come to visit to find out the secret of their success.
Although it contains no elementary schools at all there is one district in the Rio Grande Valley that needs to be mentioned whenever one looks at education in South Texas. That is the South Texas Independent School District led by Superintendent Dr. Marla Guerra and located in Mercedes, Texas. It contains three schools for grades 9 to 12 only and one for grades 7-12. However, these are all very special magnet schools that are open to application by all students in any of the school districts in Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy Counties. The two of the schools are physically located in Mercedes, with one in San Benito and one in Edinburg. All have national reputations for producing high-quality scholars.
BETA, the South Texas Business, Education & Technology Academy, offers career oriented training for students in grades 7 to 12, including internships for juniors and seniors, with partnerships with Ford Motor Company, University of Texas at Austin, University of Texas-Pan American, Stephen F. Austin University, South Texas College and Texas A&M University.
Med High, the South Texas High School for Health Professions., has a rigorous academic program preparing students for careers in the medical field and also offers clinical experience. Students can graduate with certifications as pharmacy technicians, nursing assistants and dental x-ray licensure. Med High has partnerships with Baylor College of Medicine, University of Texas-Pan American, the Regional Academic Health Center and the Valley Baptist Medical Center.
Med Tech, the South Texas Academy of Medical Technology (Med Tech) focuses on careers of medicine and medical technology, with hands-on clinical experience in area hospitals and doctors' offices. The curriculum leads to certification programs and is coordinated with the Baylor College of Medicine, Harlingen Medical Center, Regional Academic Health Center, Texas State Technical College, Valley Baptist Medical Center and University of Texas at Brownsville.
The fourth school, Sci Tech or the Science Academy of South Texas, is in partnership with Project Lead the Way, Inc., a national pre-engineering program, and includes work on real-world problems in architecture, engineering or computer science. Rice University, Rochester Institute of Technology, University of Texas-Pan American and South Texas College all partner with Sci Tech.
The Rio Grande Valley has many educational challenges. Outsiders see the poverty of the area and the difficulties that result from a high number of students requiring bilingual education. Residents however see the cultural richness of South Texas and have focused their efforts in providing the best learning environments possible. Innovative districts like McAllen, Hidalgo and South Texas ISD bring national attention to the area and make it possible to find world-class education for our children.
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