If you find yourself driving along the southern edge of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, you’re likely to see billboards promoting local colleges or educational partnerships with the word “Contigo.” I don’t remember much of the Spanish I learned in high school, but I do know that “contigo” means “with you” or “side-by-side.” And after my recent visit to the Rio Grande Valley, I can think of no better phrase to capture the spirit and promise of this community.
Over the course of a few days, I saw how business leaders, community organizations, parents, and education leaders are working side-by-side to create opportunities for students, starting as early as Pre-K and extending into college and the workforce. Their optimism and passion were infectious, and it had me thinking about how more communities across the U.S. could benefit from this kind of collective community effort.
The Rio Grande Valley, or RGV or the “Valley” as it is known locally, is a vibrant community. The population is younger than in most of the state (the median age in the RGV is 30, versus 34 statewide), and it’s bilingual and bicultural, with amazing food and national park land and wildlife refuges that attract tourists from around the world (especially bird watchers, I learned).
It also has its challenges. Roughly 32 percent of RGV residents live below the poverty threshold, compared to 16 percent statewide. The RGV is also home to some of the state’s highest concentrations of colonias — unincorporated residential areas along the border that often lack basics like electricity or sewer systems.
But as I was told by both community leaders and colonias residents during my trip, what makes RGV residents proud is that they are making gains as a community in spite of those challenges.
As the area transitions from a mostly agribusiness economy to more jobs in health care and advanced manufacturing, education is playing an increasingly important role in shaping its future. The Gates Foundation invested in the area as far back as 2004, supporting the creation of Early College High Schools that improved outcomes for students while also serving as an early bridge connecting many educators across the area’s K-12 and higher education systems.
But more recent efforts are far more comprehensive. One of our partners, RGV FOCUS (a collaboration with Educate Texas), serves as a “backbone” organization that helps bring together diverse partners in the area, ranging from K-12 school districts and public charter school providers, to local colleges and grassroots organizers (like La Union Del Pueblo Entero — or LUPE — which was founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta). They don’t always agree, and during my trip our partners acknowledged that sometimes the work is “messy.” But they are aligned on a vision for RGV students and families that is getting results.
The vision underpinning the work of RGV FOCUS and its partners starts with the statewide 60x30 attainment goal. Texas set a goal for the state to have at least 60 percent of Texans, ages 25 to 34, earn a degree or certificate by the year 2030. As Chris Coxon, Educate Texas’s managing director of programs, told me, “From there, we can do the math to figure out where students need to be as early as Pre-K.”
And RGV FOCUS has done the math. They’ve created an annual scorecard that lists how RGV students are performing on 12 key indicators compared to the state averages and a 2011–2012 baseline. The indicators track the education journey students take, starting with Pre-K enrollment, through 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, high school graduation, FAFSA completion, all the way to higher ed and post-graduation employment. This kind of shared accountability is critical to the partnership. And last year, RGV students outperformed their Texas peers in nine of the 12 indicators.
A shared vision needs concrete goals, and all invested parties in the RGV can also see where more effort is needed. For example, partners we spoke to talked about a renewed emphasis on college-ready graduation rates, which aren’t where they want them to be.
RGV FOCUS also created data dashboards that make it easy to identify and learn from “bright spots.” For example, a local principal might see in the data another area school that’s getting great results in 8th grade math. From there, they can reach out to that school and find out what they are doing to get those results. 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.
As a foundation, we believe that our systems need to do a better job of focusing on the critical milestones that indicate when students are on a path to opportunity, at risk of falling behind — or worse, falling through the cracks. RGV FOCUS’s data work has helped more partners to keep a close eye on how their students are doing. And since they are coming to the table together, dedicated to making a collective impact, I have no doubt any problems they find will be problems they will solve together — or, rather, contigo.