RGV Focus marks another year of community engagement

HARLINGEN — Education and business leaders from throughout the Rio Grande Valley gathered Thursday to take the pulse of the region’s overall education health as part of the RGV Focus 2017 Annual Report.

For the last four years, RGV Focus, a branch of Educate Texas seeking to create regional collaboration to improve education outcomes, has been publishing the annual report showing how the Valley stands on test scores, college readiness and graduation rates, among other indicators.

The report is based on student outcomes from all 37 school districts throughout Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties, as well as their higher education institutions.

This year, the report highlighted the Valley matching or surpassing the state’s outcome in nine of 11 indicators. These include STAAR third-grade reading, eighth-grade math, four-year high school graduation, FAFSA completion, AP or dual credit completion, higher education immediate enrollment rate, public higher education graduation rate in two years, and higher education graduates employed or enrolled in two and four years.

But the challenge remains in the areas of college readiness and four-year college graduation rates. And even if some of these areas met or exceeded state’s mandate, the Valley didn’t see much growth or experienced slight decreases in other areas. This includes the two-year higher education graduate employment or enrollment rates, which decreased by 3 percent in comparison to 2011-12 — the baseline year when RGV Focus started tracking outcomes. Higher education immediate enrollment remained steady.

While the operations of RGV Focus are directed by a small team — Executive Director Luzelma Canales and Deputy Directors Katherine Diaz and Eugenio Longoria Saenz — the group gives a seat at the table to regional stakeholders to help determine ways to streamline initiatives that could benefit the entire Valley.

“We tell our own story, and we tell our own story of success through outcome,” Canales said. “In today’s society, it’s not enough to say ‘It’s K-through-12 responsibility. It’s postsecondary responsibility. It’s the workforce.’ It’s about how do we now connect pre-K to 12, to postsecondary, to labor market.”

Representatives of school districts, public higher education, community-based organizations and the business sector form part of the RGV Focus’ leadership team.

“We do work in so many school districts, so hearing where are the areas where we need to focus and where are the areas where we are seeing progress, allows us to know where (to) double down on in terms of training and support,” said Jon Stevens, managing director of development and strategy for Teach for America Rio Grande Valley.

Because TFA has corps members spread throughout the 32 school districts in the Valley, best practices and outcomes discussed by those involved in RGV Focus can be disseminated across the region by a larger network, he said.

The crossover of organizations for the sole purpose of improving education across all platforms is unique to the Valley, Stevens said, as well as needed.

While the group comes together representing their respective organization, institution or business, Tania Chavez, fund development and system strategist for La Unión del Pueblo Entero, said everyone at the table takes their organization hat off to make decisions as one. This is important, she said, because the region shares challenges and opportunities that they strive to learn from.

“The decisions that we have been working toward are not to be able to highlight a particular school district, rather to be able to learn from best practices and learn if that’s working at that district, how can we implement it all across, and how can we implement system-level change to increase education attainment for all kids in the Valley,” Chavez said.

An example of their collaboration is a financial aid toolkit developed in 2014 aimed at streamlining information that area school districts in the area and all higher education institutions give to undocumented students.

LUPE found many were being told they could not apply for financial assistance. Unable to tackle the problem throughout the region on their own, the group turned to RGV Focus about four years ago.

“Teachers in the classrooms did not know how to help their students,” Chavez said. “The moment the student self-disclosed they would say, ‘You can’t go to college,’ and the same through counselors. … (RGV Focus) was able to help us bring together the leadership of every single institution in higher education, some counselors from school districts, and ourselves. We were partners in the thought process.”

Together, they put together a toolkit for teachers and counselors about how to better guide these students. The toolkit has evolved throughout the years. They have also tackled other issues, such as streamlining the application process for local higher education institutions to keep students from becoming confused or discouraged during the process.

“This year has been about revamping the toolkit,” she said. “And now we get to see sort of the fruits of the toolkit, because now we get to see the reports and the numbers growing about the amount of students who are turning in their FAFSA applications.”