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.

Related Documents

 
Contigo, We’re Helping Students Lead Their Peers.

Contigo, We’re Helping Students Lead Their Peers.

As anyone who works with high school students knows, a peer’s influence is often more powerful than that of a teacher or parent. One of the best predictors of 4-year college enrollment for low-income minority students is whether they have friends who plan on going.[1] In 2019, RGV FOCUS partnered with PeerForward, a nonprofit organization that leverages peer influence to promote a college-going culture at high schools, to send 12 students from three Rio Grande Valley high schools to a national leadership conference in Florida. The program was made possible through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as part of their P-16 initiative focused on student leadership development.

At the PeerForward conference, students learned leadership skills, wrote personal statements for college applications, completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and developed action plans for taking what they learned back to their schools to share with peers.

“I always knew college was something I wanted to pursue, but after participating in the PeerForward program, it changed from a far-off goal to something that felt attainable and realistic,” said Leslie Sanchez, a senior at Vanguard Rembrandt who plans to study Engineering after graduating. “I learned how to find schools where I can be happy, that align with what I want for my life, and how to make choices that will be practical for me and my family.”

Most of the students selected for the program had not traveled far from the Rio Grande Valley, and many had never been on an airplane before. At the PeerForward conference, they were able to meet other student leaders from across the United States.

“At first, I felt a huge culture shock,” says Viviana Marie Gonzalez, a senior at La Joya Palmview High School. “I’ve never been the minority before. At the PeerForward event, there were students from many different cultures, who had completely different experiences and hardships from my own. Meeting people from different backgrounds helps you grow, in every way.”

Students also had the opportunity to reflect on what they wanted to study in college, and think about which schools they might want to consider. Robert Perez, a senior from Port Isabel High School who plans to attend UT RGV or Texas A&M University, originally wanted to become an attorney — but after the conference, he changed his focus to Education. His goal is to become a high school social studies teacher, and eventually, a principal.

“Lots of my teachers have cared about me and wanted me to succeed, and I want to somehow repay that,” Perez says. “Even if it’s just by teaching a class, I will hopefully be making an impact on my community and the nation. You never know. I could be teaching the next president, or the next doctor that saves a kid’s life. I like to think about that.”

Upon returning to school, students were asked to track data, like how many of their peers applied to college, and check in regularly to share progress. They also chose four juniors to join their team and attend the next year’s seminar.

“In selecting juniors, we were looking for students who were taking initiative for their future, would have an impact on their classes, and would be passionate about encouraging their peers. I really see that in them, and it is exciting to go to our group meetings and see the new ideas they have,” says Sanchez.

Each student who attended the program has the ability to influence many more — and by recruiting new students to continue in the next year, the effect can be even greater.

“I want to come back to the Valley and help the matriculation rate, create that college-going culture, and break out of the cycle,” says Gonzalez. “It feels good to be part of that first step.”

By encouraging a college-going culture, the PeerForward program helps RGV FOCUS achieve its mission of increasing college readiness, access and success in the Rio Grande Valley, so that all RGV learners have the opportunity to achieve a degree or credential that leads to a meaningful career.

“The partnership with PeerForward has been a powerful lever for our strategic priority of promoting college readiness for all high school students,” said Katherine Díaz, Deputy Director, RGV FOCUS. “It also encourages a timely transition to higher education within one year of high school graduation. We are very proud of our student leaders and the example they are setting for their peers — in the Valley, and across the country.”

[1]Sokatch, A. (2006). Peer influences on the college-going decisions of low socioeconomic status of urban youth. Education and Urban Society 39(1). 128-146.

Contigo, We’re Re-engaging Students in Degree Completion.

Contigo, We’re Re-engaging Students in Degree Completion.

Students in the Rio Grande Valley are enrolling in college at a higher rate than the state of Texas overall—but too few are completing their degrees. An impressive 57 percent of Valley students enroll in postsecondary programs in the fall following high school graduation[1]. However, only 17 percent of residents aged 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 29 percent for Texas and 32 percent nationally[2]. To address this problem, RGV FOCUS is collaborating with three local higher education institutions (The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley [UTRGV], Texas Southmost College and South Texas College) to re-engage college “stopouts,” defined as students who enrolled in college, but did not earn a degree or certificate. The work is being funded through a 2018 grant from the Lumina Foundation, which recognizes the region as a Talent Hub.

“There are many barriers that might cause a student to stop out,” explains Debbie Gilchrist, Director of Student Service Centers for UTRGV. “They may have lost access to financial aid, or may owe a balance to the institution. There are personal reasons, too. Many of the students I speak with are already working full-time, and have started families, so it’s difficult for them to find classes that work with their schedules.”

RGV FOCUS has identified approximately 2,000 Valley students who have stopped out of college[3]. To reach these students, RGV FOCUS convenes monthly meetings between all three institutions, who are also now collaborating on the “Complete Your Degree RGV” outreach campaign to students.

“Obtaining an associate or bachelor’s degree is important to Texas students because it leads to higher paying jobs and greater economic stability,” Gilchrist says. “For our students considering going back to college, re-enrolling seems overwhelming, but it’s never been more important than it is now.”

To help students navigate re-enrollment, UTRGV provides them with a direct contact person who can walk them through application and admissions, and help answer questions about completed hours, transfer credits, financial aid, bills, and more.

“This program has allowed us to be more proactive and actually call students, instead of waiting for them to call us,” Gilchrist says. “We notice that when we send marketing pieces out, students do respond, but it may take several points of contact before they make a decision to return. We are hoping that if we can get them on the phone, they can decide a little sooner.” 

Another initiative targeted at stopouts that has produced excellent results is the Reverse Transfer program. Through this program, UTRGV identifies four-year college students who have some college credits but no associate degree, and asks if they would like to share their transcripts with a local community college, to determine if they can be awarded an associate degree at the institution. To date, South Texas College has awarded four degrees through this program, and Texas Southmost College has awarded 33[4].

By working together, the three education institutions are able to accomplish more than any one could alone. “All of our students face the same challenges—and we are all working toward the same goals,” Gilchrist says. “During our meetings, we talk about what we are doing to reach these students, share best practices and learn from each other. The meetings also help us become better informed about what each institution has to offer, so that if we talk to a student who might benefit from the resources of another institution, we can guide them to the right place.”

In addition to the college stopouts mentioned above, RGV FOCUS has also identified more than 9,000 “dual credit stopouts,” students who earned significant dual credit while in high school, but didn’t enroll in college after graduation[5]. Southwest South Texas College is providing outreach to these students, encouraging them to finish their credential or degree at community college. About 500 dual credit stopouts have re-enrolled since the program began[6].

“The Rio Grande Valley is a place of prosperity, and people are working together across the region to improve quality of life, and make sure our students are prepared educationally,” Katherine Diaz, deputy director of RGV FOCUS says. “It’s not just us—it’s everyone together, because prosperity for each student is prosperity for the region.”

[1] Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, "HS Graduates Enrolled in Higher Ed" report, HS grad class of 2019.

[2] U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Educational Attainment, 2018 (most recent data available as of February 2020)

[3] RGV FOCUS, UTRGV, South Texas College, Texas Southmost College. Stop Out Re-engagement Strategy Goals and Timeline / Talent Hub Targets and Actuals as of 12.1.1 All RGV IHEs. [Excel spreadsheet].1 December, 2019. 

[4]Texas Southmost College, South Texas College. RGV Talent Hub Expansion Meeting. [PowerPoint presentation]. 5 December, 2019.

[5] RGV FOCUS, UTRGV, South Texas College, Texas Southmost College. Stop Out Re-engagement Strategy Goals and Timeline / Talent Hub Targets and Actuals as of 12.1.1 All RGV IHEs. [Excel spreadsheet].1 December, 2019.

[6] RGV FOCUS, UTRGV, South Texas College, Texas Southmost College. Stop Out Re-engagement Strategy Goals and Timeline / Talent Hub Targets and Actuals as of 12.1.1 All RGV IHEs. [Excel spreadsheet].1 December, 2019.

Contigo, We’re Strengthening Equity and Advocacy in Our Community.

Contigo, We’re Strengthening Equity and Advocacy in Our Community.

RGV FOCUS brings together many diverse schools, businesses and organizations, which are represented on its leadership team, but all share the common goals of increasing educational opportunities and building prosperity in the Rio Grande Valley. Shared goals align our focus and propel us forward—and they are at the heart of our partnership with the Equal Voice Network (EVN), a group of nine community-based organizations committed to improving education. In 2019, RGV FOCUS worked with EVN to develop strong goals for its Education Working Group, through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as part of its Civil Rights and Equity Organizations (CREO) initiative. The collaboration helped EVN clarify its vision to promote dual language in schools and build community members’ capacity for leadership and advocacy.

“Before we approached RGV FOCUS, we were working very hard, but our vision wasn’t very clear. We were trying to address every problem at once, and it was overwhelming,” says Virginia Santana, Education Coordinator for ARISE, an EVN member organization that promotes the personal development, education and empowerment of the immigrant community. “Now, everyone has the same information, the same goals, and we are moving together.” 

RGV FOCUS helped EVN set goals that meet the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, assigned, realistic and time-related. Working together, the organization decided to focus on three SMART goals: 

  1. Increase the number of school districts offering translation services at board meetings.
  2. Advocate for the implementation of dual language programs as part of school board policy.
  3. Create a course or series of classes to develop leadership and advocacy skills for parents and community members.

“If we achieve these goals, we will know for sure that we have established a strong foundation for our children’s education,” says Lourdes Flores, ARISE President. “More community members will be able to participate in school board meetings. Parents will be able to understand and influence policies, instead of hearing about decisions after they are made. We will also have more trained leaders. Our goal is to train 20 community leaders using the ‘train the trainer’ model, so they can go out and teach others how to advocate for our community.”

Since partnering with RGV FOCUS, EVN meetings have become much more interactive, with members participating, speaking and sharing more often.

“As someone who usually doesn’t talk much, RGV FOCUS helped me feel more confident and comfortable speaking to the group,” said Oliva Ortega, a community leader. “It feels more like a family. We are able to speak out, embrace our voices and share our ideas.”

With strong goals and an aligned vision, EVN is strengthening equity and advocacy in the Rio Grande Valley—and they already have new ideas for what to do next.

“We are working toward the education of students. As parents and community leaders, we also have an eagerness to learn,” Flores says. “This has become an opportunity for us to grow personally and professionally, and now we want to learn even more.”

Contigo, We're Investing In Lasting Change Across The Region

Contigo, We're Investing In Lasting Change Across The Region

Senior Leaders from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visit The Rio Grande Valley

Working side by side with our partners to transform education in the Rio Grande Valley is what RGV FOCUS is all about, and our work would not be possible without the leadership and support of one partner in particular – the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In October, 2019, 15 executive leaders and representatives from the foundation visited the Rio Grande Valley, as guests of RGV FOCUS and our partners to learn about our region’s educational landscape and the work being done to measurably improve student supports and outcomes across our four counties. During visits within several communities over 3 days, the foundation’s representatives learned about how partners across public K-12 schools, higher education institutions, workforce organizations and employers, and philanthropy are working together to create opportunities for all Rio Grande Valley students to get the education they need and deserve to achieve meaningful careers and lives.

As original investors in the Texas High School Project, which later became Educate Texas, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was a critical partner in the creation and broad adoption of both the Early College High School and Texas-Science, Technology, Engineering and Math models which were particularly beneficial for low-income students of color in the Rio Grande Valley. Over the past 15 years, through thoughtful partnerships, the foundation has invested substantially to support promising initiatives in the region, and has helped shine a national spotlight on the incredible work being done in the Rio Grande Valley.

You can learn more about the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley in this article written by Allan Golston, president of the foundation’s United States Program, whose story was also featured in the latest Philanthropy Southwest newsletter. Educate Texas and RGV FOCUS appreciate Golston's recognition that "shared accountability is critical, but it’s equally important to have data that leaders can act on and use to learn from what’s working elsewhere." We are thrilled to continue to partner with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to drive our efforts in the Rio Grande Valley, which is significant step forward in shifting the educational and economic trajectory of the entire state.

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