Side By Side Stories

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.
 
In Spanish, this idea of working “side by side” is expressed by the word contigo — with you. Contigo is what RGV FOCUS is all about.

 
Contigo, We're The Backbone That Guides The Work Forward

Contigo, We're The Backbone That Guides The Work Forward

RGV FOCUS’ Chis Coxon, Eugenio Longoria Sáenz and Katherine Díaz

back·bone (bakˌbōn/) noun
  • The chief support of a system or organization; the mainstay
  • synonyms: mainstay, cornerstone, foundation, chief support, buttress, pillar
  • "these firms are the backbone of our industrial sector"

The success of RGV FOCUS is based on the simple idea that together we can achieve more,” said Chris Coxon, managing director of Educate Texas and interim director of RGV FOCUS. “Working together is key, and we are proud to be the ‘backbone’ that connects, supports and guides the work.”
 
Chris is referring to the RGV FOCUS Backbone — the small and mighty team of three, made up of himself and deputy directors Eugenio Longoria Sáenz and Katherine Díaz.
 
As part of an official collective impact initiative, the RGV FOCUS support staff is known as the Backbone. They are a team of passionate, experienced and dedicated individuals who work side by side and alongside the other RGV FOCUS members — the leadership team, work groups, councils and community partners — to create ideas, strategies and actions to achieve the initiative’s shared goals.   
           
Individually, Chris, Eugenio and Katherine have their own special reasons why this work is important to them, but together, their combined passion and commitment to all students across the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) form a dependable and motivating support system that helps to guide the work forward.
 
Katherine Díaz
Katherine’s passion is helping students get into and complete college. She knows “that higher education can change the future. It will help students secure meaningful careers, which will lead to happy lives, happy families, and a thriving community.” She works side by side with her fellow Backbone members and RGV FOCUS partners to identify obstacles and present solutions so students can pursue their dreams.
 
Since her participation in RGV FOCUS began, first as a community partner representing Lyford CISD, and now as a Backbone member, Katherine has helped to clear students’ paths to college by addressing issues related to financial aid, course credit transfers and accessing advice and resources.
 
Eugenio Longoria Sáenz
As an RGV native, Eugenio’s passion for this work has deep roots; “I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley. Having done so built and shaped me in a way that growing up in any other community would not have. Doing this work often reminds me of where I’m from, where I’ve been, and how fortunate I am. The children of today deserve the same right to the ‘where I’ve been’ I have had, and to the good fortune that I have experienced.”
 
Eugenio’s passion is creating and supporting the best teachers. He feels strongly that “rethinking how we train teachers is critical to the educational success of the current and future generations of students.” Eugenio works side by side with his fellow Backbone members and RGV FOCUS partners to improve teacher training by helping to increase information sharing and other links between programs and practices across different colleges and universities, school districts, and groups of hopeful and current teachers.
 
Chris Coxon
As a founding member of RGV FOCUS, Chris’s passion is bringing people together to achieve transformation of the entire RGV education system. He guides the Backbone to actively connect and communicate with and among the RGV FOCUS partnership to identify processes, approaches and programs that work, and help to solve issues that don’t. He works side by side with his fellow Backbone members and RGV FOCUS partners to connect leaders from public schools and higher education institutions to business and workforce and to community-based organizations, all to increase student success throughout the RGV, and outward across Texas. He also brings learnings back to the RGV through statewide and national connections with thought leaders, partners and influencers.
 
RGV FOCUS is making a difference working side by side across sectors, across the RGV and out into the state. Those differences are building a transformed, stronger educational system which is leading to student success and strengthening the region as a whole. “The growth and innovation that is happening here is working. This is being noticed not only in Texas, but across the nation. What makes me passionate is that the Rio Grande Valley is serving as a beacon of hope for our state and our nation.”

Photo From Left to right: Chris Coxon, Katherine Díaz and Eugenio Longoria Sáenz, RGV FOCUS

Contigo, We're Using Data To Give More Students Access to College

Contigo, We're Using Data To Give More Students Access to College

United Way of Southern Cameron County's Traci Wickett and Brownsville ISD's Dahlia Aguilar with RGV FOCUS' Eugenio Longoria Sáenz

“We clearly saw the connection between academic success and the community’s workforce,” Traci Wickett, president and CEO of United Way of Southern Cameron County (UWSCC), said. “We also experienced first-hand that it works best when a community comes together around an issue in order to solve it.”
 
Traci was referring to 2010 facts showing that a significant number of young people in Brownsville did not have the skills they needed to fill job openings in the city, and that this insight is what fueled the launch of the All In program.
 
Led by the UWSCC, in partnership with Brownsville-based non-profits, businesses, community organizations, city officials and education leaders, “All In focused on the goal of ensuring that every child gets a strong start in life, teenagers have the tools to learn and grow, and young adults are prepared to thrive in the job market,” said Traci.
 
In 2012, when invited to join the Leadership Team of the newly-formed RGV FOCUS collective impact initiative, Traci didn’t hesitate to say yes. Her positive community collaboration experience in Brownsville through All In motivated her to be part of a team of RGV leaders, and previously unlikely allies, representing different areas (business, education, non-profit) who were willing to put aside their individual desires and work as one with a laser focus on strengthening the education systems for the entire RGV region. “Through RGV FOCUS, we choose collaboration over competition because it is in the best interest of each of our communities and of the region,” said Traci.
 
In the years since, Traci and the UWSCC team have been involved in and have experienced the benefits of many FOCUS initiatives. One benefit she highlights is access to the clear and thought-provoking data and data strategies provided by RGV FOCUS. “The RGV FOCUS facts and figures give us the opportunity to not only compare our RGV-based schools, but also make the comparison to schools across the state,” Traci said, “and the data strategies help us understand the best way to use that information to build plans.”
 
In fact, the use of this information is now a critical part of the success of the All In program. So much so that, in 2018, Traci and the All In team decided to measure and report on the same data as RGV FOCUS, and made it a point in the All In 2017-2018 Annual Report to “thank RGV FOCUS for their support in compiling and analyzing the data, and to applaud the spirit of partnership that drives their collective work.”
 
The All In partners continue to learn and use data. They tweak strategies along the way based on what the latest data reports reveal. “The partners have learned to stop using data as a weapon and begin using it as a flashlight to illuminate pathways,” said Traci, “to use it to move from chisme (the Spanish word for gossip), or what people 'think' the issues are, to using actual facts to guide their plans and measure outcomes.”  
 
For example, All In and RGV FOCUS partner Brownsville ISD (BISD) “is now a leader in the Valley when it comes to seniors completing and submitting their FAFSAs (Free Application for Federal Student Aid),” Traci said. “This success came about because data showed us that there is a clear link between FAFSA completion and going to college.”
 
BISD holds FAFSA Completion events, which are evening events where parents and students come together to learn about and receive help completing the FAFSA form. The district also created a required class for all seniors that focuses on getting ready for college, including FAFSA and college application completion.
 
For the graduating class of 2018, the plans BISD put in place to increase FAFSA completion resulted in 2456 (or 79%) of the FAFSA being completed. Dahlia Aguilar, principal of Lopez Early College High School in BISD, said “Students realize now that, when they complete the FAFSA, they will have the opportunity and the funds to go to college.”
 
Eugenio Longoria Saenz, deputy director of RGV FOCUS, believes that in our community receiving financial aid is critical to achieving a college education. “I am encouraged that so many people are coming together to make this happen, and to set a foundation for the type of support we will provide to all students. This shows them in real action that we are with them, side by side, through their entire journey.” 
 
Traci adds, “We all understand what the end game is. It is not just education. It is financial stability for families in our community. This is not only an education initiative. This is an economic-development initiative.”  The work done and the progress made toward this goal require strong partners. “For us, alignment with RGV FOCUS has been this fantastic gift.”

Photo From Left to right: Traci Wickett, United Way of Southern Cameron County; Eugenio Longoria Sáenz, RGV FOCUS; and Dahlia Aguilar, Lopez Early College High School in Brownsville ISD

Contigo, We're Discovering What It Means To Be A Hispanic-Serving College of Education

Contigo, We're Discovering What It Means To Be A Hispanic-Serving College of Education

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley's Patricia Alvarez McHatton and Janine Schall with RGV FOCUS' Eugenio Longoria Sáenz

“The RGV FOCUS Backbone team brings the right people to the table,” said Patricia Alvarez McHatton, PhD, executive vice president for academic affairs, student success and P-16 integration at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and 2018-2019 RGV FOCUS co-chair. Working side by side, teachers, school and district leaders, students and families, community-based leaders and college faculty are working together to develop new approaches for preparing teachers to provide all Rio Grande Valley (RGV) students — from early childhood through college — the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in school and achieve meaningful careers. “The leaders RGV FOCUS gathers share our vision, hopes and dreams for what we want to be,” said Patty.       
 
Building upon fresh ideas and a collaborative approach prompted by the RGV FOCUS team, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s (UTRGV) College of Education and P-16 Integration (CEP) launched a Special Interest Research Group (SIRG) initiative focused on discovering what it means to be a Hispanic-Serving College of Education (HSCOE), and how understanding this guides teacher training and higher education. “The SIRG research results were so rich and valuable to us that we realized sharing our work would benefit the broader HSCOE community, both inside and outside of the RGV,” said Janine Schall, Chair, UTRGV Bilingual and Literacy Studies.
 
Inspired by results of the SIRG initiative, UTRGV’s CEP and RGV FOCUS hosted a national HSCOE convening in the fall of 2018. Representatives from 12 universities and four professional education organizations from HSCOEs across the nation gathered in McAllen, among them Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity (BranchED). “The convening content was excellent,” said Cassandra Herring, PhD, president and CEO of BranchED. “And the conversation about what it means to be a Hispanic-Serving College of Education was powerful. We discussed how to move from enrolling students to truly serving them. The RGV FOCUS Backbone team was an incredible thought partner in the conversation,” said Cassandra. “They asked questions and pushed participants to think creatively.” Because of this success, the UTRGV HSCOE is making plans for an even larger event in the fall of 2019.
 
For Janine, it is important to also note that “Through these efforts, we will train the best teachers and do it in a way that builds on their cultural and linguistic identities. The partnership with RGV FOCUS has been really powerful to help us make these connections.”
 
Continuing to move the work forward, Patty, Janine and deputy director of RGV FOCUS, Eugenio Longoria Sáenz, are working side by side again as editors for a new book, Hispanic-Serving Colleges of Education: Exploring Identity, Practice and Culture, that is assembling key learnings from the Special Interest Research Groups. The book is expected to be released by early 2020. About the purpose of this book and the ongoing collaboration and research, Eugenio said, “Rethinking how we prepare teachers is so important for the academic success of current and future students at all points along their cradle to career journey. We can’t fail our students, so we must better understand, strengthen and support the identities of our current teacher candidates to transform the systems that train, hire and support them.”

Photo From Left to right: Patty Alvarez McHatton, UTRGV; Alma Rodriguez, UTRGV; Eugenio Longoria Sáenz, RGV FOCUS; and Janine Schall, UTRGV

Contigo, We're Improving Our Community And The Entire Region

Contigo, We're Improving Our Community And The Entire Region

Lyford CISD's Eduardo Infante and United Way of Southern Cameron County's Traci Wickett with RGV FOCUS' Katherine Díaz

“We are smarter together than we are apart," Eduardo Infante, superintendent of Lyford CISD (LCISD) and 2018-2019 RGV FOCUS co-chair, said about being asked six years ago to “sit at the RGV FOCUS table” with other Rio Grande Valley (RGV) leaders, including public school superintendents, college and university deans, and CEOs from community-based organizations and businesses. Since then, Eduardo has seen many benefits from working side by side as an RGV FOCUS partner.   
 
An overarching benefit he notes is the effort to eliminate the “silo” mentality. “In a rural community like Lyford, people know exactly what silos are. Literally, they are tall, round structures that usually stand alone and are used to store grain. In the world of education, business and nonprofits, the word 'silos' is used to describe an organization that works alone to solve a problem or to reach a goal.” RGV FOCUS has helped overcome this tendency. “We are true partners. Whether our individual focus is business, non-profit or education, RGV FOCUS has helped us come together to identify obstacles, share data and improve education not only in our own districts, but across the Rio Grande Valley.” To Eduardo, this is a major leap forward.
 
Katherine Díaz, deputy director of RGV FOCUS, agrees; “The culture of trust among RGV FOCUS partners helps us improve student success in the Rio Grande Valley.”

One of the benefits Eduardo and LCISD have seen through the RGV FOCUS partnership is the introduction of new approaches for using data to set goals and plans for student success. “We have learned to be intentional about how we look at data,” Eduardo said. “RGV FOCUS has given us the tools we need to see where our students need help and to set goals for doing better.”
 
LCISD district and campus leaders now regularly use data to improve teaching and student results. The data used includes grade-level STAAR* results, attendance rates, the number of high-school seniors who have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the number of students who have taken the TSIA** — which tests students in reading, writing and mathematics to see if they are ready for college-level work.
 
Another partnership benefit seen through Eduardo’s participation with RGV FOCUS is the result of LCISD’s direct work with the United Way of Southern Cameron County (UWSCC). UWSCC runs VITA, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance, a program that trains volunteers to help working families that earn less than $55,000 by preparing their income-tax returns for free.
 
This past year, UWSCC worked side by side with LCISD to make VITA available in the Lyford community and engaged LCISD students to join in as well. “Bringing VITA to our community has a two-fold benefit,” Eduardo said. Traci Wickett, president and CEO of United Way of Southern Cameron County (UWSCC), said, “Students benefit through participation in VITA because they become official IRS-certified tax preparers. The community benefits too, because it’s an opportunity to have income taxes prepared for free.” It builds student skill sets and saves money for individuals and the community.
 
“We have seen it in action. We can get so much more done when we work together,” Eduardo said. “We share what works, we challenge each other, and we encourage each other. We have learned the benefits of working together, and RGV FOCUS has been a big part of that. It’s not by chance. It’s by design.”
 
*State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness
**Texas Success Initiative Assessment

Photo From Left to right: Eduardo Infante, Lyford CISD; and Katherine Díaz, RGV FOCUS