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.
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."
Parent support. When Maria Rosa Navarro's daughter, Nora, arrived at Morningside Elementary, the girl didn't speak any English. Now, in the fifth grade, Nora moves seamlessly between the two languages. Teachers say the transition for kids like Nora would be more difficult without the encouragement of parents.
Having a strong parent outreach program has been central to the district's success. Teachers and staff members go beyond making home visits and calling parents every time their child is absent. They're also educating adults. Every week, schools offer parenting classes on everything from how to prepare a healthful salad to how to help a child read. Threatening weather on a recent morning didn't dissuade some 300 parents from showing up for a morning rally called by the district to get families to exercise. After running laps around the track in the district's only football stadium, the parents, mostly stay-at-home moms, moved to a gymnasium, where they danced to salsa music and worked out with medicine balls and jump ropes. District staff members stressed the importance of regular physical activity so they can lower their risk of diabetes.
But like the parent classes and school meetings, the rally was about building trust and empowering parents. "The parents are very eager," says Nicolas Serrata, a veteran kindergarten teacher. "They're always asking, 'How's my kid doing? Does he have any homework?'" Those questions seem to be leading Brownsville schools to all the right answers.