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High-poverty schools struggle to earn Texas’ highest rating. Some in the Rio Grande Valley break that trend.

By Brian Lopez and Eric Lau, The Texas Tribune

High-poverty schools struggle to earn Texas’ highest rating. Some in the Rio Grande Valley break that trend.” was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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For years, critics of the state’s school rankings have complained that the system is rigged — that it favors schools in richer Texas neighborhoods where students may not suffer from the effects of housing and income instability.

The Texas Education Agency has dismissed this notion, pointing out that 18% of school districts with a high percentage of “economically disadvantaged” students earned an A rating when they released their first post-pandemic scores last month. Overall, 33.1% of school districts received an A, an 8% increase from 2019, the last time the TEA released these ratings.

And some districts that did well this year despite the fact that many of their students come from poorer neighborhoods were in eight counties in the Rio Grande Valley region: Brooks, Cameron, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg, Starr, Webb, Willacy and Zapata.

According to a new analysis, 95% of 38 school districts and 10 charter systems in what is known as the Region One Education Service Center area received rankings of either A or B, compared with 87% for school districts statewide. The region also had the most campuses receiving an A grade, according to the Region One Education Service Center, one of 20 such centers funded by state, federal and local governments that assist local school districts.

“This region punches above its weight when you look at student demographics,” said Daniel King, executive director of the Region One Education Service Center. “School districts [here] — pretty much across the board — have a ‘no excuses’ attitude.”

Last month, the TEA released its first school ratings since 2019, which showed some improvement despite the pandemic that forced schools to close. These letter grades, the state’s accountability ratings, are tied in large part to results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR test.

State officials say the ratings help parents decide on a school or a district and help hold those districts accountable to parents and taxpayers. But critics of the rankings have complained that Texas schools that serve poorer communities struggle to receive high marks on the state’s rating system.

What stands out about the Rio Grande Valley is that a majority of students in many school districts there are economically disadvantaged, meaning they qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In Region One, a student in a household of four people with a total income of $36,075 or less qualifies for free lunch at school. Districts such as the Brownsville, McAllen and Valley View districts received A ratings, and Harlingen missed an A ranking only by one point.

High-poverty school districts statewide had an average accountability score of 83, but in Region One, Rio Grande Valley districts received an average score of 87.9, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. The average for all school districts across the state was 86.3. The accountability ratings are on a 100-point scale.

Superintendents, teachers and public education experts have a hard time pointing to one reason for the higher rankings in some regions, especially since all Texas schools are required to teach the same curriculum and administer the same standardized tests.

But there is a consensus that higher student achievement comes from a mix of high-quality teaching, emotional connections and the consistent battle to remove outside factors that affect students — such as not having a meal. One metric of note: School districts in the Rio Grande Valley rank among the best in the state for getting meals to low-income students and families.

Edith Treviño, who taught in Region One for 25 years, said what makes the difference are the teachers who provide culturally relevant instruction. During her time as a teacher, Treviño said she and her peers would always try to incorporate a child’s culture or background into a lesson.

“It’s just this culture of family,” Treviño said. “That I’m here to support you. I know your struggles, I know your journey and I know your pain. And we’re gonna get through it together.”

Superintendents in the Rio Grande Valley say they spend as much time addressing students’ emotional and social needs as they do on academic progress.

J.A. Gonzalez, superintendent of the McAllen Independent School District, which received an A and is 73% economically disadvantaged and 93% Hispanic, said he believes success doesn’t come only from being able to teach reading, math, social studies and science at a high level. Children must be taught to be self-aware, build strong relationships and manage difficult situations appropriately, he said.

That’s why it recently became a graduation requirement in McAllen ISD to pass an emotional intelligence course, he said. By the end of the course, students have more insight and capacity to self-regulate their emotions, motivation, empathy and social skills.

“You start to talk about the capacity to self-regulate your emotions, you also start to have conversations about the fact that life isn’t fair,” Gonzalez said. “You’re going to have to put in the blood, sweat and tears, so I think our philosophy around our students is to keep them mentally tough.”

Another key for success is not putting limitations or lowering a child’s expectations just because of their socioeconomic status, Gonzalez said.

“We focus real hard on closing the opportunity gap, which means we’re going to give every child an opportunity to reach their full potential,” he said.

René Gutiérrez, superintendent of Brownsville ISD, said his district paid close attention to students’ well-being as they returned to school after pandemic closures.

Making sure students, especially high-needs students, are emotionally well before learning is key to higher academic outcomes, he said.

This year, TEA ratings were done differently than in previous years. Instead of the usual A-F ratings, which were last given in 2019, the agency gave only A-C ratings as COVID-19 continued to disrupt the last school year.

A district or school that would have received a D or F instead received a “Not Rated” label this year. Schools that ranked in those bottom tiers will also be spared possible TEA sanctions during the 2022-23 school year.

In past years, Texas public schools with high rates of economically disadvantaged students have struggled to receive the coveted A grade that makes schools competitive. Texas schools are funded based on the number of students enrolled and the daily attendance on campus. Schools receive a base allotment of $6,160 per student each year.

Across the state, data shows that only 18% of campuses labeled “high-poverty” received A ratings. In Region One, about 35% of school districts considered high poverty received A grades, among the highest percentage in the state, according to a Texas Tribune analysis.

The TEA labels schools as high poverty if more than 80% of their students are economically disadvantaged. Texas has about 5.4 million students in its public schools, and 60% of them are economically disadvantaged.

Out of the 8,451 schools rated this year, 564 campuses received the “Not Rated” label. Most of these campuses — 499 — serve students who live in some of the state’s poorest communities. Only one district Region One received a “Not Rated” label.

Last month, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath said there are challenges for high-poverty schools, but it is not impossible for them to rate higher.

“Poverty is definitely not destiny,” Morath said. “The idea that this is just some sort of rating of poverty is false. The question is how do we help spread what we identify as the most effective evidence-based practices in our schools.”

King, the Region One executive director, said he believes that because a significant number of school staff members in the region share the same background as the children, they can instantly connect with the kids, making it easier for the children to focus on learning.

In Region One, 96% of the student population is Hispanic. A lot of the school districts’ staff members in the Rio Grande Valley mirror the student population, are children of immigrants and have faced some of the same economic struggles, he said.

Chloe Latham Sikes, deputy director of policy at the Intercultural Development Research Association, said strong, diverse teachers play a big role in good student outcomes, and the Valley has a student population that is reflected in its teachers.

This has helped school districts in the region build a strong support and assistance for dual language programs. The region also embraces the different cultures and backgrounds of its students, she said.

“When you have a different community value around students who are Latino, who are speaking languages other than English then that is a factor in educational outcomes,” Sikes said.

Students from the Valley have outperformed students elsewhere, too, when it comes to higher education. About 23% of Hispanic students complete some form of higher education in the Valley region while only 18% of Hispanic students statewide do the same, according to the latest data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Last year, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley started covering full tuition and fees for students whose families make $100,000 or less. It represents an increase to the program’s income threshold, which started at $75,000 in 2019.

“What that reflects more than anything is the value system of the Rio Grande Valley,” said Guy Bailey, UTRGV’s president, during a Texas Tribune event in August. “We have people who value higher education, our communities, our students, and they’ve been terrific to work with.”

Alicia Noyola, superintendent of the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District, said districts in the region that are labeled as high poverty and are majority Hispanic excel because they put most of their efforts into the needs of this specific population.

The district tries to provide clothes and meals to students who don’t have enough of either. For students who can’t stay after school, the district has set up tutoring centers at apartment complexes.

“Economically disadvantaged students are our focus,” Noyola said. “That is what we do day in and day out.”

Valley View ISD partners with a local food bank to deliver goods to families throughout the year.

Noyola said it also helps that a lot of her district’s teachers have lived in and know the community so well. It makes it easier for a student to learn when they know and can connect with their teachers.

Luis Garcia, a teacher at Valley View ISD, said he’s been at the district for 15 years and believes what makes the scores great is consistency from teachers. In his district, teachers stay for a while.

“It becomes more like a family,” Garcia said. “We don’t give up. We don’t quit, and you do it with pride and care.”

Disclosure: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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