The fifth graders at Morningside Elementary School in Brownsville, Texas, are working through math problems in room 309, when muffled cries momentarily disrupt the class. A boy is telling the teacher, Lourdes Medrano, how his home in Port Arthur was destroyed by Hurricane Ike. "Mom went back to see what she could salvage, but everything got destroyed," he cries. Medrano does her best to console the boy, telling him, "But you know what? Now, you're going to get a prettier house." Despite the boy's troubles, he has thrived in Medrano's class since relocating to Brownsville. Whether they are children chased from their homes by disaster or children of migrant workers from Mexico, the students who enter Brownsville's public schools are all welcomed with the same challenge from the school system. "There is no pobrecito concept here," says the school's principal, Dolores Emerson, citing the Spanish term that loosely translates as "poor, unfortunate soul." "We don't allow students to fail."
Indeed, looking at the numbers, it might seem easier to give up than to try. Located on the southern tip of Texas along the Rio Grande, Brownsville has the highest child poverty rate in the United States. Nearly all of the 48,000 students attending the city's 52 public schools receive free breakfast and lunch. Nearly half of them are learning English as a second language.
In other school districts, these children would most likely be casualties of low expectations. But in Brownsville, where the bar is set high, they are soaring. Last school year, the district's Hispanic and low-income students outscored their statewide counterparts at all grade levels in math, and in reading in the elementary grades. Because of these promising results, the Brownsville Independent School District was presented today with the Broad Prize for Urban Education, an award that comes with $1 million in college scholarships for graduating seniors. The annual prize is given by the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles-based philanthropy group, to large urban school districts that have made significant gains in academic achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students. Four other finalists—Long Beach, Calif.; Aldine, Texas; Miami-Dade County; and Broward County, Fla.—will each receive $250,000 for scholarships.
This was the first year that Brownsville made the list of finalists. For Hector Gonzales, the district's superintendent of schools, winning the Broad Prize offers some vindication. Two years ago, four middle schools in Brownsville were accused of cheating on state tests after posting large single-year academic gains. The schools were eventually cleared in the controversy, but the sting of the allegations never completely went away. A week ago, Gonzales sat in his modest office and explained his district's credo: "Success is not an accident." "We believe that every child can learn," he says. "It's not that every child can learn except Juanito."
Defying the odds Nationwide, Latino students who come from low-income, immigrant families face steep academic challenges. Fewer than 4 in 10 Hispanic children participate in early-childhood education programs, and the high school dropout rate is highest among recent Hispanic immigrants. Latinos, like other minority groups, are also underrepresented in advanced math and science high school courses and in gifted-and-talented education programs.
It is against these statistical odds that Brownsville students are succeeding. Every year, new students arrive from Mexico, some with nothing but the clothes on their back. Most can't read or write fluently in either English or Spanish. Yet, 80 percent of Brownsville's students become proficient in English by the end of third grade. In fourth grade, most of them are taught primarily in English. At the district's five regular high schools, participation and scores on the SAT and Advanced Placement tests have risen steadily. (Two high schools made the U.S. News America's Best High Schools lists.) The number of graduating seniors who say they will attend a four-year college is growing; several recently have enrolled at highly selective schools including Harvard and MIT. Over the next five years, the district plans to give at least $637,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors who want to study science and math.
At Rivera High School, Tim Snyder has put to work strategies that he used as a successful elementary school principal: among them, a longer school day and a bigger emphasis on student and teacher relationships. "Sometimes teachers underestimate the power and influence they have on older students," he says. "Our teachers here take the attitude that they are second parents for these students." His colleague Teri Alarcon, principal of Hanna High School, says introducing more students to college-level work has also made a difference. "We're giving kids a jump-start on college," she says. "Some of them graduate with enough college credits to have an associate's degree." Thanks to partnerships with the Brownsville and Austin campuses of the University of Texas, the district's high school teachers receive training to teach college classes, and students can receive credit for high school classes they completed in Mexico. Besides offering a challenging academic program, Brownsville schools also have made a name for themselves on the national stage for their strong music and chess programs.