No-excuses education

Express-News Staff WriterStaff  Jenny LaCoste-Caputo

HIDALGO The odds are stacked against the children here.

The tiny border town sandwiched between McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico, is one of the poorest in the country.

About seven of 10 children begin school speaking no English.

Many walk to school from neighborhoods that hug the banks of the Rio Grande. Some live in shanty houses and camper trailers with no running water. They're the children of immigrants and migrant workers, the children education researchers say have little chance of succeeding.

But there's something special going on in Hidalgo. The tiny school district of 3,200 students is shattering stereotypes.

In Hidalgo, every 3-year-old has access to free, full-day pre-kindergarten with a certified teacher. Students leave elementary school fluent in two languages. Educators give parents the means to learn English, earn their GED and go to community college.

And the successes aren't just limited to a few feel-good stories.

While the achievement gap between Latino and Anglo students is growing nationally, the students of Hidalgo where more than 99 percent are Hispanic and about 93 percent come from poor homes are outpacing most districts in Texas. The state has ranked Hidalgo either recognized or exemplary for the past eight years.

The rankings exemplary, recognized, academically acceptable and academically unacceptable are based primarily on student test scores and high school dropout rates.

None of its neighboring districts comes close to Hidalgo's record. Of the 187 Texas school districts similar to Hidalgo in size, eight won the recognized label last year. Of those, only Hidalgo is a majority Hispanic, economically disadvantaged district.

"A large, large number of our students have come in as immigrants either in their lifetime or in their parents' lifetime, and many of them come from poverty," said Hidalgo Superintendent Daniel King. "We acknowledge that's a fact, and that maybe we need to approach things a certain way, and it's a challenge, but it's not an excuse that we're going to hide behind. Our belief is that our students can do what anybody else can do."

With that attitude as the driving motivator, King and his staff have combined a host of programs that set Hidalgo apart.

From dual-language classes that produce bilingual, bi-literate children, to expanded pre-kindergarten, to a high school curriculum designed to prepare students for high-wage employment, to help for parents who want to improve their own education, every teaching method, parent program and tutoring session has been painstakingly planned.

King is strategic about attacking his students' very real challenges. He employs a no-excuses leadership style, but at the same time arms his principals and teachers with the tools they need. He refuses to believe that ethnicity, language or income are insurmountable obstacles to success.

"We focus on performance, and we're not going to spend a lot of time looking for reasons why our kids can't do things," King said. We can't and we wouldn't trade our students for any other students."

It's a mantra students know.

"They don't accept failure from us," said Jesse Castillo, 18, a senior at Hidalgo High School. "We're like a family here and the teachers and principals care about us and want us to succeed."

Every year Jesse's family travels from the Rio Grande Valley, where his father hauls citrus, to Michigan to work on the farms there for several months.

Last year his parents let him stay with his grandmother so he could focus on school. This coming fall, the B-average student will become the first in his family to go to college. He wants to study criminal justice and work in law enforcement.

"My parents want me and my brother and sisters to do what they couldn't do," he said. "They want us to take advantage of opportunities they didn't have."

Last year, 165 seniors graduated from Hidalgo High School. Of those, 160 had concrete plans for post-secondary education and a combined $750,000 in scholarships. Most were accepted to colleges and universities and others headed for vocational school.

Lucio Peraza began school in Hidalgo without knowing a word of English. His entire family was born in Mexico. Lucio was the first to be born in the United States.

At 4, he began pre-kindergarten at Hidalgo Elementary.

"I adapted very quickly," said Lucio, now a bilingual fourth-grader who loves to read in English and Spanish. Lucio, who's helping his dad learn English, wants to be an engineer when he grows up.

Lucio's principal, Olivia Hernandez, watches the sun rise and set from the small windows of a makeshift office a classroom she converted into a mini-curriculum department at Hidalgo Elementary School.

Hernandez has spent 18 years at the school guiding the progress of hundreds of children like Lucio. She is often there until well into the night, poring over test scores, tailoring curriculum for individual students and figuring out how to pay for more tutoring or an extra reading coach.

Nearly all of the educators in Hidalgo grew up in the valley. Many went to the same schools where they now teach. Beginning teachers make about $33,000, nearly 65 percent higher than the median family income in Hidalgo, and the district has no trouble recruiting.

"We have to provide these kids hope," Hernandez said. "Hope is what brought them here. It's why a lot of them cross that river."

Literate students

Looking for a way to prepare students for high-paying jobs, King organized a meeting with business leaders in the McAllen-Edinburg area and representatives from South Texas College and the University of Texas-Pan American.

With growing international trade, valley employers are in desperate need of bilingual employees. So Hidalgo schools responded six years ago with dual-language programs, an approach educators say works for kids who know little or no English while also giving English-speaking students a command of Spanish.

The State Board of Education is now debating whether to ask legislators to abandon dual language in favor of immersion programs that require students to speak only English a move that would not go over well in Hidalgo.

"In other programs, the students often lose their Spanish," Irma Hinojosa, the district's dual-language project director, said. "This is the best way to teach them English and preserve their Spanish."

It's also the best way, teachers say, to teach English-speaking students a second language.

Children begin in pre-kindergarten with dual language. Initially, all students are taught math in English, reading in their dominant language and other subjects in alternating English and Spanish. On a Spanish day, a teacher may preview a lesson in English, teach in Spanish and review in English. Most, if not all, conversation between students and teachers that day will be in Spanish. On English days, the languages flip-flop.

In Hidalgo classrooms, English and Spanish merge. Charts listing shapes, colors and days of the month are posted around the room in both English and Spanish. Three-year-olds, who a few short months ago spoke no English, chant the days of the week and months of the year.

The focus on language spills out of the classrooms and into the hallways lined with homonyms, words that can be confusing for children learning a new language. There are scores at every turn: sea-see, maid-made, fare-fair, die-dye.

The result is evident on the playground.

Four-year-olds who months ago spoke only Spanish chatter with their English-speaking friends. The conversation slips easily back and forth between the two languages.

The trick is consistency, says pre-kindergarten teacher Maria Bocanegra.

She pointed to one of her students, a son of migrant farm workers, who began school in August speaking only Spanish. Within two months, the 4-year-old was writing his name and beginning to speak English.

The family left in October to work in Michigan, where the boy was placed in an immersion program. He returned to Hidalgo after Christmas.

"He lost everything," Bocanegra said. "When they're in a situation like that, they can be overwhelmed and they shut down."

In Hidalgo, every classroom from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade is taught in dual language. King plans to eventually use the approach in all grades.

Fourth-grader Richelle Guerra has been at Hidalgo Elementary since 3-year-old pre-kindergarten, where she started school speaking only English.Now she's bilingual.

"It's important where we live to know both languages," Richelle said.

Teaching youngest

As national discussion over how to provide pre-K for all drags on, Hidalgo is, once again, following its own course. The district has a full-day pre-kindergarten program for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

Hidalgo leaders use local money raised through property taxes to make sure every child can attend school all day. The cost is $627,000 in local dollars. The state provides nearly a half-million dollars.

Without the local money, Hidalgo could provide only half-day pre-K, which the Texas Education Agency helps pay for statewide.

The local money is squeezed from an already tight budget, and King said he makes tough choices in order to find it. Raises have been slight in some years and nonexistent in others, and the district operates with a drastically scaled-down administrative staff.

King also prods his staff to run after grants and keeps a tight rein on the cost of school construction.

"It gets harder every year," he said. "But the programs we fund here are critical to our success."

Preparing oldest

Hidalgo educators are equally committed to readying their oldest students for life.

Near the end of eighth grade, students choose one of five career pathways. Their schedule at Hidalgo High School is then built around preparing them for a job in one of the five broad categories: business and marketing; health science and technology; industrial and engineering technology; human development management and services; and personal and protective services.

"Our goal is to connect every student with their next step in life before they leave us," King said.

Counselors hound students until they've applied for every scholarship. The deadlines are posted in the hallway.

"They probably think we're bugging them, but we're going to keep doing it," Principal Edward Blaha said.

The task no doubt is easier in this close-knit school of 800 students than in larger, urban districts. Guidance counselors know all their students by name and classes rarely have more than 25 students.

Blaha's goal is for this year's 145 seniors to earn $1 million in scholarships. He said the district is also working on a way to check on students' progress after they graduate.

Ruben DeLeon, 18, has applied for 10 scholarships. He expects to begin finding out how he did next month.

"Since elementary school they talk to us about how going to college should be one of our goals," said DeLeon, whose ambition is to be an attorney. "The classes I took in high school really solidified that. I took introduction to criminal law and introduction to corrections. We were able to visit the courthouse too. That was really cool."

Fellow senior Vianney Diaz said it's important for students to know their teachers believe they can succeed. Diaz, 18, came to Hidalgo from Mexico just a few years ago. When she started school she spoke no English.

Now, she's fluent, a top student and plans to be a doctor. She has applied to the University of Texas at Austin and Baylor.

"I can't imagine doing something that doesn't involve science," she said. "I love it."

Beginning next school year, Hidalgo High School will offer students more. The school scored a $1.2 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to start an early-college high school program.

The grants generally cover the costs for 400 high school students to take college classes, so schools create a school-within-a-school program. But Hidalgo district leaders wanted more.

"We didn't know how we'd choose one out of every two students to have this opportunity," Assistant Superintendent Eduardo Cancino said. "So we negotiated with them."

The result? Hidalgo High School became the first and so far the only in the country to receive a grant that covers every student.

Starting with next year's freshman class, all students will have the chance to earn up to two years of tuition-free college credit by the time they graduate from high school.

"The school district is a remarkable model for the early-college high school," said John Fitzpatrick, executive director of the Texas High School Project, which administers the Gates Foundation grants. "It's something that people around the country will be traveling to Hidalgo to see in a few years."

Lifting all boats

Hidalgo school leaders don't stop with children. They want to educate parents, too.

In its new academy, called the 21st Century Academy, parents are learning English and studying for their GED, thanks to a federal grant.

Eventually the program will include community college courses and job training. A new group of parents will begin each school year.

"The first thing I want to do is to learn to speak, write and read English," Sandra Martinez, mother of an 11-year-old at Hidalgo Elementary and two teenagers at the high school. She is also in charge of a day care for teachers' children at the elementary school.

Martinez, who came to Hidalgo from Mexico 10 years ago, said her goal is to go on to community college and train for a higher-paying job.

King wants parents to feel at home at school. He's proud that all seven of Hidalgo's school trustees and the vast majority of principals and district directors are Hispanic.

Many district leaders are the children of immigrants and began school with the same challenges their students face.

"We can't all sit around and say we can't do much with these students because they're all Hispanics," King said. "They have examples in front of them every day of Hispanics who have succeeded."

King himself is one of the only Anglos among district leaders.

Appointed superintendent in 1999, King began his teaching career in Hidalgo in the 1970s. He returned as high school principal in the late 1980s after working in the Mission Independent School District, a few miles west along the border.

He was raised in the Rio Grande Valley and has no desire to be anywhere else. He delivers every speech, lesson and pep talk in English and Spanish.

Such efforts pay off.

Each elementary school has a parent room where as many as 14 or 15 parent volunteers are busy at work most days, cutting, pasting, drawing and copying.

Some stop by on their lunch hour, or volunteer at the school before an evening shift.

Monica Padron works as a substitute teacher, and when she's not filling in, she's volunteering at Hidalgo Elementary where her three children go to school. She likes the environment so much, she's going to college to become a teacher.

"Most of the parents speak only Spanish. Now with dual language, they feel they can contribute. They don't feel intimidated by the school," Padron said.

For Jesse Castillo, the hard work and determination of the educators who have shaped his future are immeasurable.

"I love this school district. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," he said.

Jesse has applied for 10 scholarships. He's considering attending the University of Texas-Pan Am.

He knows he must set an example for his younger brother and two younger sisters.

"I want to go as far as I can," he said "There's a lot of pressure for me since I'll be the first one to go to college, but I'm prepared for it."

Photos by Delcia Lopez/Express-News

The students of Hidalgo are outpacing most districts in Texas. The district has been ranked recognized or exemplary, based on student performance on the state-standardized test, for the past eight years.