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.
Getting results A. S. Putegnat Elementary School, only a few blocks from the U.S.-Mexico border, is the first stop for many immigrants and children from families that cannot afford the rents in the city's north side, "where the rich people live" (the median annual household income is $26,000). Most principals in comparable districts would worry about these students hurting the school's academic standing, but the students at Putegnat score high on tests. Like their counterparts at other schools, administrators and teachers at Putegnat are relentless about reviewing test data and remedying any of the students' academic deficiencies.
Because Texas allows recent immigrant students and bilingual students to test in their native language, teachers in Brownsville give their students frequent assessments in English and Spanish in preparation for the state tests in March. Students who need to brush up on math or reading can attend after-school, hourlong tutorials three times a week, and many students do take advantage of the longer school day. "We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," says Rachel Ayala, an assistant superintendent who oversees the downtown area schools. "But we are consistent with our approach."
Like many educators in the district, Ayala was born and raised in Brownsville. She was only 19 years old when she started teaching at a school in the district and now has been with the district for 42 years. Unlike other school systems with high turnover, Brownsville teachers tend to stick around; the average teacher has 11 years of classroom experience in the district. Competitive teacher salaries and free health insurance go a long way to attract and retain teachers. Starting teachers in Brownsville make $39,000 annually, which is effectively worth more given the region's cost of living. State and federal dollars are crucial to the district. Local revenues cover only 14 percent of its annual expenses; the district has a $476 million budget.
But it's the connection with students and the community that seems to have the most value for Brownsville's teachers. During a tour of the school, Ayala spots an old college roommate in a fourth-grade classroom. Irma Garcia, 61, is giving a lesson on creative writing. Although she retired from the district in 2006 after 38 years teaching there, she comes by Putegnat every day to fill in for absent teachers. "She's fantastic," Ayala says. "Her students' writing scores are always in the 100th (percentile)."
In a separate wing of the school, Robert Rivera achieves similar results with his fifth-grade math students. A native of Brownsville, Rivera has taught for 11 years. In 2006, Rivera won the prestigious Milken Educator Award. "I always tell my kids about my dad," says Rivera, whose father worked as a custodian at the school. "I want them to have a choice just like I did." Principal Ernestina Treviño takes this idea further when she talks with students and staff members. "One day one of you will be standing in my position," she tells them. "You'll be taking over for me."