By HEATHER CATHLEEN COX
According to statistics provided by Teach for America, only 12 percent of students in the Rio Grande Valley will obtain any type of degree within six years of their high school graduation. Teach for America is an American nonprofit organization whose mission is to “eliminate educational inequity by enlisting high-achieving recent college graduates and professionals to teach” in low-income communities throughout the United States.
“As early as third grade, students in South Texas are performing behind their peers across the state,” say representatives of Teach for America, “and this gap persists through the grade levels and into college for those students who are able to further their education.”
San Benito educators and San Benito Consolidated Independent School District officials are not only aware of this issue plaguing our home, they are also taking action. SBCISD Board President Arnold Padilla said, “Most of the (school) districts in the Valley understand the predicament we are in. San Benito has taken full effort in trying to get students to earn dual enrollment credit while they are still in high school.”
In an educational capacity, dual enrollment occurs when a student is enrolled in two separate, academically related institutions, i.e. a high school student who concurrently takes college courses. “Whatever college hours they are able to pick up while still in high school,” said Padilla, “is beneficial … and it helps tremendously.”
Padilla further explained that SBCISD has partnered with several local colleges and universities, throughout the Valley and reaching into Kingsville, where qualified students may participate in dual enrollment.
“Not only is it a financial gain,” said Padilla of the fact that students do not have to pay for dual enrollment coursework, “but it’s proven that students who pick up those hours are more adamant (about) completing their education. They understand the college environment and they’re not scared of it.”
Earlier in February, nine-time Grammy award winner John Legend visited the Rio Grande Valley to talk education. Legend is not only a successful singer-songwriter but is also an activist who serves on the board of Teach for America, and he made his first trip to South Texas to take part in the University of Texas Pan American’s Distinguished Speaker program. “Education is the Civil Rights of our generation,” Legend said with conviction.
Legend continued, saying, “Any kid can achieve great things when they go to an excellent school, and every kid deserves to go to an excellent school.” Contritely, he also made mention of the fact that areas in South Texas continue to top national charts as being considered among the most impoverished in the country.
Padilla spoke to the fact that South Texas is “one of the poorest areas in the nation. That affordability is sometimes what keeps students from progressing … The cost of a secondary education … is probably the biggest hurdle and barrier,” said Padilla. “When kids are having to indebt themselves with personal loans, it’s hard for them.”
Echoing the board president’s enthusiasm for motivating San Benito children to continue their education is SBCISD Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marc A. Puig. In regard to preparing students for college, Puig said, “We have to cultivate the mindset that smart is not something you are. Smart is something you become through effort. Because some of our students come from impoverished backgrounds, they have a lot more to overcome … and the effort to obtaining that education is that much more challenging. But we have students and schools all over beating the odds. The odds being that your zip code doesn’t dictate your educational achievement.”
“We are helping create futures for kids,” said Puig of SBCISD. “Everyone is a career counselor. A teacher that I had in second grade, Mrs. Brown, was a career counselor. She taught me the value of learning. I think every teacher here needs to be a Mrs. Brown, who is encouraging, still admonishing when you have to, but still cultivating learning.”
SBCISD is reportedly making efforts to motivate students from an early age. Padilla said, “At many of our campuses, including many of the elementary schools, we’re posting posters … instilling that [education] isn’t over when high school ends … and getting to high school graduation is only the beginning of your further education.”
“Systems are in place,” Puig said with passion in his voice. “You can put all the structures in the world in place, but it’s people that move kids to the next level … folks that care and are passionate about education.” Although he stands behind programs such as dual enrollment, Puig said that he believes educators play a crucial role in the overall success of each child.
SBCISD is reportedly working to ensure that all SBHS students have an opportunity to visit a college campus before exiting high school. Padilla said, “Every year we have invitations for students to walk a (college) campus, to be taken to campuses and see what it (college life) is. We offer those opportunities to get students to be exposed to the college environment. For students who have never been able to travel, exposure is important.”
“Nothing stops an individual from being successful,” said Padilla, “but getting students to understand that at the elementary level is important … that it’s not only the rich kids that get to go to school.”
“If you really want to do right for kids and provide a future, this has to be real. Every day, I look up something to find evidence that we really are walking the walk. As a new superintendent, I come in going, ‘We’ve got work to do. Where’s the plan?’ We haven’t systematically planned since here,” said Puig as he pointed to a copy of SBCISD’s most recent Strategic Plan which was last updated in 1998, for a version stamped 1998-2003.
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