Stories From Our Community

The Rio Grande Valley is a place where English and Spanish are beautifully blended, and where language and culture are celebrated in our communities, in our homes, in our schools and on college and university campuses. Here, business leaders, leaders of community organizations and community leaders are working side by side with parents and education leaders to give our children the academic foundation they need to succeed in the classroom, in their careers and in life. Below, you can read the latest stories about our work, including efforts to address the digital divide, improve teacher quality and retention, and increase associate degrees earned in high school.

 

Policy Impact: House Bill 3 – Teacher Incentive Allotment and Outcomes Bonus Funding in the RGV  

Passed by the Texas Legislature in 2019, House Bill 3 (HB3) is a landmark education reform bill that aims to improve public education funding through key levers, including Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA) and College, Career, and Military Ready (CCMR) Outcomes Bonus Funding (OBF). RGV FOCUS has been working closely with partner school systems in the Rio Grande Valley to ensure that our K-12 partners have the tools and resources to leverage HB3 to benefit our region.   
 
Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA)  
HB 3 allocates state funding to support the implementation of TIA, which recognizes and rewards the important work of teachers in high-needs schools and subject areas, with the goal of improving educational outcomes for all students in Texas. In the Rio Grande Valley, TIA implementation has increased dramatically over the last few years, not in small part because of the strong commitment of our region’s districts to acknowledge the talented and effective teachers in the RGV. RGV FOCUS and Educate Texas have also intentionally invested in connecting Valley districts to opportunities for learning to scale TIA work.   
 
2024-05-14-11_22_26-ETX003-RGVF-Annual-Scorecard_r4-(003)-pdf-Adobe-Acrobat-Pro.pngThe Texas Impact Network (TIN), a collaboration between Educate Texas and the Commit Partnership, has been a key part of this work. TIN’s mission is to “turn good public policy into strong implementation across the state to move student outcomes forward. “We do this work through strong, locally connected intermediary partners, and RGV FOCUS is our stellar partner in the Rio Grande Valley,” says TIN Executive Director Ben Mackey.  

In partnership with RGV FOCUS and TIN, Dr. Socorro Espinoza has provided technical assistance to Valley districts, both through one-on-one coaching and through an engaging community of practice. The Educator Effectiveness Community of Practice provides a space for RGV districts implementing, designing, expanding, or planning their TIA systems. Colleagues across districts are able to leverage expertise and collaborate to solve common problems of practice.   

Over the last two years, the TIA allotment in the Rio Grande Valley has impacted the salaries of more than 1,300 teachers and tens of thousands of students in the region. “Through the Teacher Incentive Allotment, most school systems in the RGV have not only been able to recognize and reward teacher effectiveness but also to increase the retention of effective teachers, which directly impacts student outcomes,” says Dr. Socorro Espinoza, TIA Technical Assistance Consultant. 

College, Career, Military Readiness (CCMR)  
RGV FOCUS also launched the Rio Grande Valley CCMR Professional Learning Community (PLC) in Spring 2023. Through the PLC, RGV FOCUS has provided a platform for collaboration across districts, data-driven decision-making, and sharing of best practices and strategies for enhancing CCMR initiatives and increasing post-secondary education and workforce opportunities for the region’s students. The CCMR PLC has become a supportive environment conducive to continuous improvement in college and career readiness efforts. By expanding opportunities for students to achieve CCM readiness, Valley districts stand to receive additional Outcomes Bonus Funding through House Bill 3.  
According to Mackey, “Through and alongside RGV FOCUS, the Valley continues to be an exemplary region for innovation and outcomes. For example, for the Class of 2022, the Rio Grande Valley stands out as a bright spot for statewide OBF, drawing down 22% of total possible OBF, compared to 14% for the state of Texas." The result is an estimated OBF drawdown of approximately $28.5 million for districts across the Rio Grande Valley.  
 
The implementation of HB3 in the Rio Grande Valley underscores the significance of strategic partnerships in advancing educational equity and excellence. By harnessing the expertise of Educate Texas and the Texas Impact Network and leaning on RGV school districts to identify and share best practices, RGV FOCUS hopes to leverage local and statewide relationships and resources to catalyze positive change for students and educators across the Rio Grande Valley.  
 

College Access Network Helps RGV College Access Professionals Navigate the Better FAFSA  

Despite challenges posed by the delayed rollout of the Better FAFSA application in December 2023 and technical glitches persisting into the first quarter of 2024, RGV FOCUS has leveraged our relationship with the Texas College Access Network (TxCAN) and the National College Attainment Network (NCAN) to gather and disseminate timely updates to practitioners, addressing the various hurdles encountered during the FAFSA completion process.  

rgv-2023-2.jpgThrough the RGV FOCUS College Access and Enrollment Action Network, practitioners from diverse backgrounds have come together, pooling their time, expertise, passions, and lived experiences to develop and implement strategies to enhance post-secondary access in the region. “RGV Focus is committed to promoting collective leadership, which strengthens our joint efforts to provide significant impact and opportunities for all students in our community,” says Network Chair Nicole Saenz, Region One Director, GEAR UP Programs. “I am thankful for the privilege of partnering with them to encourage cooperation among district, college, and community leaders to enhance student achievement throughout the region.”  
 
The Network has facilitated access to FAFSA/TASFA trainings and updates throughout the 2023-2024 school year that has been crucial in equipping Valley college access professionals with the necessary knowledge and tactics to support their students with completion of the “Better FAFSA” and the new online TASFA. One notable obstacle faced by many has been the difficulty in processing forms for mixed-status families, underscoring the need for targeted assistance and guidance in navigating complex financial aid scenarios. As RGV FOCUS continues to navigate the evolving landscape of post-secondary access, our efforts remain rooted in the belief that every student in the RGV deserves equitable access to educational opportunities. 
   

Partner Spotlight: Region One Education Service Center  

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Visionary leadership and a powerhouse team at the Region One Education Service Center (ESC 1) have facilitated increased partnerships with RGV FOCUS this year. We have strengthened our relationship with the service center to maximize opportunities for professional learning and collaboration and help design innovative approaches to our region’s challenges.  

TxNSI Project – RGV FOCUS brought the Texas Network for School Improvement to Region One, in collaboration with the University of Texas Charles A. Dana Center, for a pilot Rural Middle School Math Matters program impacting math instruction practices at five RGV school districts. 

Education-to-Career Pathways – Together with Region One’s Office of College, Career, and Life Readiness, as well as regional community colleges, RGV FOCUS is partnering towards ensuring the effective design and execution of dual credit programs in Valley districts. 

Tri-Agency Regional Convener Grant – RGV FOCUS has the privilege of sitting on Region One’s Advisory Board, helping to promote collaboration among education, workforce, and economic development organizations to enhance regional alignment and drive economic growth. 
 

TxNSI & Middle School Math Matters
  
RGV FOCUS invited the Office of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment at Region One to partner with the Educate Texas TxNSI project and the UT Charles A. Dana Center to pilot a Rural Middle School Math Matters program to improve student outcomes in middle school math during the 2023–2024 school year. The pilot included expert-led math professional learning focused on evidence-based math instructional practices, a continuous improvement implementation process to test and refine new practices, and​ a network model to accelerate change.​ Participating districts included Lyford CISD, La Villa ISD, Lasara ISD, Rio Hondo ISD, and Donna ISD. Reflections from the Classroom Practices Study revealed significant changes from May 2023 to January 2024, including teachers talking less and students speaking more, change in the kinds of tasks used, and greater focus on classroom culture and instructional data. This was a successful pilot program, as well as a model for future opportunities to engage educators in professional learning. 
 
Education-to-Career Pathways Grant Project  
RGV FOCUS and Educate Texas are partnering with the Region One ESC Office of College, Career, and Life Readiness (OCCLR) towards ensuring the effective design and execution of dual credit programs and expanding dual credit offerings in healthcare and education fields in the Rio Grande Valley. For the first time in the RGV, this grant project brings together the region’s community colleges to identify gaps and opportunities in existing educational pathways, foster better alignment between school districts and IHEs, remove barriers to dual credit access for RGV students, and ultimately help in the design and expansion of seamless pathways in healthcare and education fields from secondary to postsecondary to career. At the core of this initiative lies the commitment to provide students with early and equitable access to college-level coursework, allowing them to earn credits while still in high school and paving the way for smooth transitions into higher education or the workforce.   
 
Tri-Agency Regional Convener Grant 
RGV FOCUS sits on the Region One Tri-Agency Regional Convener Grant Advisory Board, supporting Region One (WDA 23) and helping to promote collaboration among education, workforce, and economic development organizations to enhance regional alignment and drive economic growth.  
 
 

Texas Philanthropy Leadership Circle: Educational Grantmakers Visit the RGV 

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In April 2024, Educate Texas hosted the Texas Philanthropy Leadership Circle (TPLC) in the Rio Grande Valley for the first time since 2018. The event gave 15 state and national funders a glimpse into the immense cultural wealth and assets unique to the RGV through presentations, panel discussions, and site visits to ARISE Adelante and the PSJA ISD Dr. Daniel P. King College & University Center. Dr. Kevin Peek, Economics Professor at South Texas College, used data to highlight the transformational economic and educational change in the Valley over the last 25 years. Karina Chapa, Executive Director of the Texas Association for Bilingual Education, spoke to the needs of emergent bilingual students and the gap in bilingual educators in the Valley. A “Fireside Chat” with Manny Vela, Vice President and COO of the Texas A&M University Higher Education Center at McAllen, rounded out event programming. The TPLC fostered collaboration among educational grantmakers, took a deep dive into the gaps and opportunities of the region, and identified potential for impactful investment in the RGV. 
 

Educate Texas Managing Director Chris Coxon clearly remembers a call in late 2011 from RGV native and longtime educator Alma Garcia, who was making headway on implementing the early college high school model at scale in the Valley and felt that a collective impact initiative could support the model and advance the region. 

“She saw the pressing need for a systematic, region-wide approach - vs. district by district - to improve education from cradle to career in her home, the Valley,” said Coxon. “She was willing to do whatever it took to make it happen.” With the help of Educate Texas, anchor funding from the Greater Texas Foundation, and a hard-and-fast commitment by education, community, and business leaders across the four counties within the Rio Grande Valley, the RGV FOCUS initiative came to life. 

Traci Wickett, former President & CEO at United Way of Southern Cameron County and an early education and workforce trailblazer, recalls being part of the inaugural RGV FOCUS leadership team. “We quickly recognized that we were so much stronger together than we were separately - and the danger of working in silos,” said Wickett. She points to sharing accountability across organizational boundaries and normalizing the use of data “not as a weapon, but as a flashlight” as two of the most important practices the team learned and adopted.

Wickett, Coxon, current RGV FOCUS Director Rebeca Lopez, and many other involved leaders call out specific educational strategies and relationships that were core to raising up a region that, at the time, was the lowest performing in the state. However, all agree that progress wouldn’t have been possible without alignment and the “strategic glue” provided by RGV FOCUS. “Systemic change doesn’t happen without someone analyzing outcomes data and determining the strategies that will drive the most impact - and those strategies have to work at scale, from the smallest districts, like La Villa, to the largest, like Brownsville,” said Coxon.

Dr. Daniel King, Executive Director of the Region One Education Service Center and Former Superintendent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, was involved with RGV FOCUS from day one. He points to many “big wins” across the ten years, including markedly increasing FAFSA completion rates and a 4 county-wide agreement between high schools and higher education institutions about what would be deemed “college ready.”

While much progress has been made, Lopez says the focus is now on ensuring students in the Valley have exposure and access to career pathways, internships and work-based learning experiences, as well as supports for postsecondary persistence and completion, that will allow them to pursue a career with a living wage after high school. 

King agreed and said, “RGV FOCUS has definitely had a good impact. I think we all agree that now, post-COVID and with many leadership changes, it’s important to revisit, refresh, and reenergize the program. Should the program change in any way? Are we still measuring the right things? A decade in, it’s a good time to reflect.” 

Wickett adds, “The challenge now is to keep the fire burning with the same intensity it has been for a decade. We won’t be seeing the same degree of change and we’ll be going for the more difficult wins. But we’ll continue to move the needle if we use data as our guide and keep people working together.”

To help close the digital divide and enable more students to participate in educational and workforce opportunities, RGV FOCUS led a project in 2021 in partnership with Dell to deliver hardware and software to households experiencing broadband connectivity issues across the Rio Grande Valley. More than 2,000 laptops were distributed to individuals lacking access to internet devices, including students, their family members, and district employees. 

RGV FOCUS worked with education, business, and community partners to remove barriers for students struggling to access virtual classrooms and academic materials during the COVID-19 pandemic. As virtual learning became a necessity for many students and families nationwide in 2020 and 2021, Rio Grande Valley schools experienced difficulties in delivering quality virtual instruction to many students.  

Valley Initiative for Development and Advancement (VIDA) Compliance and Program Services Manager, Irma Garcia, reflected on the pandemic’s impact on student learning outcomes saying, “The transition from in-person learning to virtual became a barrier to so many of our VIDA participants” said Garcia. “Our goal is to help our participants to overcome the overwhelming barriers they continually face so that they can successfully graduate with a credential in an in-demand occupation from one of our local institutions of higher education. To support this goal, the donation from Dell through RGV FOCUS helped close the gap which many of our participants were struggling to meet.” 

RGV FOCUS has also worked with partners to identify areas with ongoing gaps in internet service and technology resources and, as an initiative of Educate Texas, has shared learnings from the Dell laptop project with the statewide Digital Texas team to inform their work. With the Rio Grande Valley experiencing some of the greatest technological gaps in accessing virtual schooling in the state, this investment in the region advanced the critical work of increasing equity and accessibility in the Texas education system, a primary objective of Educate Texas.

The Texas Impact Network, a joint venture between Educate Texas and the Commit Partnership, works with state and regional partners to help school districts make the most of Texas House Bill 3’s funding for evidence-backed programs, including the Teacher Incentive Allotment (TIA). RGV FOCUS serves as a regional backbone partner for the Texas Impact Network and, as such, has recruited districts across the Rio Grande Valley to participate in the Teacher Incentive Allotment strategy and receive technical assistance from Educate Texas.  

The TIA was designed to attract and retain highly effective educators at traditionally hard-to-staff schools by providing a realistic pathway for top teachers to earn six-figure salaries. In order to access TIA funding from the state, the school system must develop a rigorous plan, apply for approval from the TEA, and then implement the plan carefully and thoroughly. RGV FOCUS has provided technical assistance to local district leaders in every step of the process, providing blueprints for success and facilitating a network of peers to share best practices. 

In 2021, five districts received full approval for their applications and are now designating additional funding for recognized, exemplary, and master-level teachers as defined by the state. As of May 2022, another 20 districts have submitted applications. This means that 68% of all 37 school districts in the Rio Grande Valley are participating or have applied to participate in the initiative.

As a result of the partnership between RGV FOCUS and Texas Impact Network with the TIA initiative, 135 Rio Grande Valley teachers are now making more than they ever thought possible by going where they are needed most. These TIA-designated teachers are receiving salary increases for a period of 5 years, ranging from $3,000 to $32,000 depending on their designation and the student population they serve. As we move forward with the TIA work, Educate Texas and RGV FOCUS are committed to supporting districts as they redesign their performance appraisal processes, their human resource systems, and their staffing allocations in order to elevate and promote teacher effectiveness. 

Educate Texas and RGV FOCUS proudly support strategies that prepare students to succeed in school and the workforce — whether by earning a two-year degree, four-year degree, or a technical certificate. We work with state agencies, school districts, and higher education institutions to reduce barriers to success after high school. As part of our partnership with the Region One Education Service Center (ESC), we launched a pilot project in 2021 to expand their local GED program so that more adults could participate and earn their GED. 

This project started with the recognition that, for many adults in the Rio Grande Valley, a variety of challenges in their younger years made it very difficult to complete high school to graduate and earn a diploma.  Our work began with the Region One ESC by identifying K-12 schools with strong parental involvement on campus to conduct outreach to adult learners with a desire to complete the GED. Our program staff helped develop materials and share information about the GED program, and RGV FOCUS provided funds to cover the cost for the group of adults who could not afford the required fees to join. 

Teri Alarcon, Point Isabel ISD Superintendent and RGV FOCUS Leadership Team Chair, explained “We have a multi-pronged approach to increasing college readiness and immediate enrollment, including identifying seniors who are not likely to pursue education after high school and helping them to overcome challenges and to plan paths to higher education that are best for them. We have also partnered with school districts and colleges across the region to help students who have dropped out of school to complete a GED and begin earning stackable workforce credentials." 

As a result of this outreach project and funds provided by RGV FOCUS, 100 students participated in the GED program through Region One ESC, and 10 were able to complete the program and earn their GED. In order to connect these students with next steps towards higher education, all participants received information and resources from Region One ESC about workforce credentialing, 2-year degree, and 4-year degree programs available across the Rio Grande Valley. Additionally, as part of RGV FOCUS' work to address the digital divide after the COVID-19 pandemic made access to technological devices a necessity, hundreds of GED program participants received a laptop as part of our partnership with Dell (Read our story: “Addressing the Digital Divide). What matters most is the education and support of all students, and RGV FOCUS is committed to working with partners to increase access to higher education opportunities.

College- and career-ready high school graduates have the skills, knowledge and abilities needed to succeed in school and the workforce — whether by earning a two-year degree, four-year degree, or a technical certificate. Educate Texas and RGV FOCUS understand the urgency of transforming Texas classrooms and schools to meet the needs of 21st century student, especially as historically underserved students comprise the majority of our total student population across the state and in the Rio Grande Valley. 

To close opportunity gaps and equalize access to high-quality education, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) created the Texas College and Career Readiness School Models (CCRSM) Network more than a decade ago. This network, led by the TEA, brings together proven models – Early College High Schools (ECHS); Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH); and Texas Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (T-STEM) campuses - under a single umbrella of support.  

Educate Texas has provided technical assistance for the entire CCRSM network for several years and, in the Rio Grande Valley region, RGV FOCUS has recruited districts and provided information on the unique pathways to postsecondary education offered by each model. In the Rio Grande Valley, approximately 65 campuses were designated as implementing or planning one of the CCRSM network models by the Texas Education Agency in 2021, including five new campuses last school year. 

Through these models, and with technical assistance provided by Educate Texas, CCRSM campuses provide holistic, rigorous programming to help students develop college and career skills, accumulate college credit hours, and become top candidates for recruitment in high-demand fields. For many students in the Rio Grande Valley for whom cost and potential time away from family are barriers to accessing higher education, the opportunity to graduate from one of these campuses with an associate degree at the same time as earning a high school diploma is critical for being able to pursue next steps by going to college or earning a higher wage in a job. 

With 29% of RGV Latino residents living in poverty, compared to 20% in the state, RGV FOCUS’ efforts to expand the CCRSM network in the Rio Grande Valley have helped to advance educational equity and create pathways for more students to earn a living wage. Rio Grande Valley Latino high school graduates exceed the college-readiness average for their peers across the state (46% in the RGV compared to 37% in Texas), and they are exceeding the immediate college enrollment rate as well (57% in the RGV compared to 49% in the state). With approximately 14% of all 471 College and Career Readiness Models located in the Rio Grande Valley, RGV FOCUS is proud to support and share best practices from our schools in order to promote college and career efforts readiness for all our students.