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The Brownsville Herald:

Educators, business leaders collaborate

October 15, 2011 10:09 PM
By GARY LONG/The Brownsville Herald

Rio Grande Valley business leaders and educators are joining forces to battle some discouraging numbers in the equation for success. Consider statistics cited by Pat Hobbs, executive director of Workforce Solutions – Cameron, at Wednesday’s State of Education luncheon in Brownsville. The focus was on how educators and economic development officials can collaborate to make Cameron County’s workforce more competitive and how that can improve the area’s economy:

  • The U.S. Department of Labor, Department of Education and Texas Workforce Commission now say the vast majority of tomorrow’s jobs — as many as 75 percent — will require a certificate or associate’s degree, and not a four-year degree.
  • At the same time, the bulk of Cameron County’s civilian work force of 160,000, while advantageously young and bilingual, also is uneducated and untrained. Half lack a high school diploma, and just 13 percent hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to the Texas average of 25.5 percent.

“Of the 185,000 high school students in the Valley right now, maybe 60 percent will complete high school with a diploma,” Hobbs said. “Of these, only about 50 percent will even attempt higher education. Of this number, only about 15 percent will ever complete a certificate or degree.”

Hobbs said Cameron County’s challenge “is to provide an educational system that produces students ready to compete in the global economy.” He said innovation in education is needed because “the way things have been done in the past evidently is not working.”

Representatives of Brownsville’s two main public school systems, the Brownsville Independent School District and the IDEA Public Schools charter district, offered differing perspectives on K-12 education in the Valley.

IDEA Public Schools

Tom Torkelson, IDEA’s founder and CEO, said his district has emerged as the state’s largest “exemplary” school district by Texas Education Agency standards. IDEA is on track to reach its goal 20 schools in the Valley by 2020, he said. The district currently has 10,000 students, a waiting list of 18,000 and is “on track to produce the largest number of college graduates of any school district in Texas,” he said.

At IDEA, admission to a four-year college is a high school graduation requirement, Torkelson said. Students take trips throughout their school careers to college campuses as part of an effort to instill belief in higher education as a core value.

Torkelson said the United States made the mistake of “coasting” after it won the Cold War and is now trying to catch up. He said the educational achievement gaps in the Valley are staggering and motivate IDEA’s efforts to reach more children.

“We don’t stack up well to districts like Plano and they don’t stack up well to the rest of the world,” he said.

“Everybody around the world is going forward and we’re standing still. ... BISD is not IDEA’s competition. China is,” he said.

Torkelson said IDEA is expanding because there is so much work to be done in the Valley to bring up the area’s educational at-tainment levels. He said the area’s jobs crisis is really an education crisis — but that the problem is fixable.

He said IDEA recently partnered with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district on teacher training and other initiatives. He said he foresees similar such collaborations with BISD, Texas Southmost College and others to build a “new, healthy K-12 school sys-tem.”

IDEA recently broke ground on a new Brownsville campus at 4395 Paredes Line Road.

BISD

Interim Superintendent Carl A. Montoya said that, unlike charter districts, BISD’s mission is to educate all children, from top stu-dents to those in special education to English-language learners.

“Our mission is to educate whatever child arrives on one of our campuses,” he said, adding that the district has 50,000 students and more than 7,300 employees.

Montoya maintains that the dropout picture at BISD is not as grim as the one painted by Hobbs.

He said BISD’s graduation rate had gone from 67.9 percent for the class of 2008 to 82.7 percent for the class of 2010, an increase of 14.8 percent.

“The overall dropout rate has gone from 2.1 percent in grades 7-12 for 2008 to 1.1 percent for 2010,” Montoya said. “Completion rates have also gone up from 83.5 percent for the class of 2008 to 92.3 percent for the class of 2010. These numbers indicate that we are in fact keeping more of our students in school and that our initiatives are working.”

Montoya touched on a key initiative launched in recent weeks to focus BISD’s magnet programs at Veterans Memorial High School.

In the fall, BISD plans to open the Science, Technology, Architecture and Medical Professions college preparatory program at Veterans Memorial, or STAMP. Montoya said the district realized that its magnet programs were turning away far too many qualified applicants. Most notably, the Hanna High School for Medical Professions has about 400 applicants each year and turns away most of them because it only has room for 140.

The Hanna medical magnet along with the Porter High School for Engineering Professions, which also has been turning away students, will be moved to Veterans.

“This will be a world class curriculum that promotes dual enrollment, Advanced Placement courses and SAT and ACT prepara-tion,” Montoya said. “We envision partnerships with the state’s top-tier universities and education foundations.”

He added that students currently zoned to Veterans would continue to attend there and that the school will continue to have the full range of extracurricular activities including athletics and enhanced fine arts.

Montoya said envisioning STAMP also resulted in BISD re-evaluating all of its career, technical and magnet programs. He said the district wants to make sure such programs are available at all high schools and for all students.

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