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.


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.