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Rio Grande Valley: Great Need, Great Opportunity

I first visited the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), the southernmost area of Texas along the US/Mexico border, in April 2010 on a tour arranged by Greater Texas Foundation.During that visit, I met a remarkable young woman named “Luz.” She was the daughter of Hispanic immigrants, and every year, her parents pulled her out of school months early so that she could pick produce with them as a migrant worker. While her peers were in school, Luz was working 14-hour days, carrying a plastic bag to go to the bathroom in so that she didn’t have to stop picking. At fifteen, she told her parents that her education was too important, and that she wouldn’t be going with them anymore, at which point they basically disowned her. She “couch-surfed” for several years on her own and continued to work 14-hour days – only this time on her school work.  Upon graduating from high school, Luz received a full scholarship to the University of Texas at Brownsville, and went on to get a full scholarship to dental school. Hers is a story of grit, determination, and desire – a story of success. However, that success was against great odds. As she told her story, I kept thinking over and over to myself that it just shouldn’t be that hard, that we have an obligation to make it easier for young people in the RGV to attend and complete college.

A few months later, FSG had the privilege of working with a group of funders in Texas, including Greater Texas Foundation, Communities Foundation of Texas/Educate Texas, Houston Endowment, and The Meadows Foundation, to conduct action-focused research aimed at improving postsecondary persistence and completion across the state. As part of that effort, we developed an evidence base for five regions including the Gulf Coast, the Dallas/Forth Worth Metroplex, Central Texas, El Paso, and South Texas including the Rio Grande Valley. We collected and analyzed extensive secondary research, visited all five regions, and interviewed a broad array of educators and community leaders to understand and describe the existing landscape and identify opportunities to significantly improve postsecondary persistence and completion. The full set of reports can be found on the Greater Texas Foundation website.

Here is what we learned about the Rio Grande Valley.  Only 16 percent of students complete a higher education degree or certificate. Hispanic students, who currently represent more than 90 percent of the region’s students and whose numbers are projected to grow 25 percent in the next 20 years, attain degrees at an even lower rate of 13 percent. At the same time, by 2016, the fastest growing occupations in the region will require a postsecondary degree and demand for college graduates will grow by 35 percent. So unless graduation rates are improved, particularly for Hispanic students, the region’s already poor education outcomes and its economic prospects will decline.

This presents a significant and complex challenge, one that no single organization is going to be able to address.  There is no “silver bullet” solution.  Instead, it will require the combined efforts of a wide array of actors including schools, community groups, after-school programs, county and city agencies, parents, and others to move the needle in the Rio Grande Valley. We at FSG think problems like this are best addressed through collective impact – which involves a set of cross-sector actors holding a common vision for success, coordinating their actions, and striving to achieve the same goals. You can read FSG’s original collective impact article, and access additional collective impact resources.

On the bright side, we also learned during our research that the leadership at multiple school districts, community organizations, and institutions of higher education across the region are highly motivated and committed to improving their coordination and effectiveness. This has led to efforts such as Brownsville’s selection as a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Partners for Postsecondary Success grantee, and to the University of Texas hosting a nationally attended set of meetings on how to collaboratively improve the Rio Grande Valley’s education, healthcare, and community prosperity.

These efforts are a great start, but there is still much work to be done to increase collaboration and to move to true collective impact in the region.  Doing so will require building on progress to date to finalize a common vision; determining and tracking progress toward agreed upon goals and outcomes; designing a strategy to coordinate regional activities; and developing an infrastructure to ensure ongoing communication, knowledge sharing, accountability, and action across all the actors. Succeeding in such an effort will also require the region’s educators to build trust, develop new ways of working together, and engage the broader community including business leaders, nonprofits, community groups, and policy makers.

To that end, a steering group including school superintendents, presidents of higher education, and cross-sector partners from the business, nonprofit, and education community has been meeting monthly to create a regional action plan to align the involved actors, integrate ongoing initiatives, and further develop the full set of solutions that are needed to drive dramatic gains for students. FSG feels honored to be partnering with Educate Texas to support the work of this group which is being funded by Greater Texas Foundation, Ford Foundation, Lumina Foundation, Communities Foundation of Texas, and The Meadows Foundation.

While the path to collective impact is a challenging one, we at FSG truly believe that such an approach to system alignment has the potential to transform the RGV, greatly increasing educational attainment and workforce readiness for a substantial number of Texas’s most underserved students. We are proud to be a partner in this important work, and we will do everything we can to make sure that young people in the RGV don’t have to make the extreme sacrifices that Luz made, but instead receive the support they need to succeed.

Jeff Kutash

Executive Director Peter Kiewit Foundation