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Reaching for the Dream

On the border of Texas and Mexico, an exceptional school.

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At Hidalgo High School, all 810 students are Hispanic. Half of them come from families with parents who never finished high school and now struggle in a border town where the poverty rate hovers at 38 percent. Despite these barriers, Hidalgo High has a 94 percent graduation rate, and its students outperform similar schools in the state. In the 2005-06 academic year, every student at the school took two Advanced Placement courses, and 44 percent passed at least one exam with a score of 3 or higher. "We never use poverty as an excuse," says Edward Blaha, Hidalgo's principal. The school is an example of how education can integrate a community into the mainstream national culture.
Not surprisingly, while students can choose from as many as 16 AP classes, the courses with the highest success rates are AP Spanish Language and AP Spanish Literature. "But just because you know Spanish doesn't mean you can pass the tests," says Beatriz Solis, a Spanish teacher at Hidalgo. Solis says native Spanish speakers in her class have trouble writing using formal language and proper grammar. And students struggle even more with the tougher AP Spanish Literature test.
For some Hidalgo students, the AP Spanish courses are a gateway to other college-level coursework. Sandra Valeria Martínez, who is ranked No. 2 in her junior class, passed the two AP Spanish tests last year. She is now taking AP classes in three other subjects; one is an AP English class that is taught by a professor from South Texas College. Sandra wants to go to a four-year college like her older brother, Ezau, a Hidalgo grad who is studying criminal justice at the University of Texas-Pan American. "I used to think we'd be lost in high school," Sandra says.
A four-year, $800,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ushered in a new era. That money has allowed the school, in partnership with local and state colleges, to offer students up to 60 hours of free college credits on the high school campus. The class of 2010 could graduate with high school diplomas as well as with two-year associate degrees. "By exposing them to the vocabulary and expectations of college," Blaha says, "that might make these kids say, 'You know what, I think I can do this,'...and give them the desire to go back for their bachelor's."
Working on deficiencies. But Hidalgo High still has room to improve. In 2006, the school failed to bring enough English learners to grade-level proficiency in math. Under the No Child Left Behind law, the school could face serious consequences if it continues to fall short. Blaha and his staff also know that they need more support from parents. The school has made outreach a centerpiece of its college-readiness campaign. Every week, the school invites parents to classes that teach them discipline tips and strategies to help their children with schoolwork.
The meetings, which are held in Spanish, draw about 80 parents. Sandra Martínez, who shares her daughter's name, says the school has made it easier for parents like her, who grew up with little education in a culture different from that of their children, to encourage their kids to pursue college. Martínez is taking computer and English classes through the high school's parental outreach program. Seeing her mother study has motivated 17-year-old Sandra. Her mother says: "Sometimes [she] tells me, 'Mom, I can't wait when the two of us are in college together.'"