March 29, 2006
In a poor Texas border
town, educators are achieving notable results with a single-minded focus on
By Catherine Gewertz
The schools in this town used to be among the worst in Texas.
But now, the
low-income Latino children who fill its classrooms are outperforming students in
wealthier, whiter communities
Here on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, school district leaders chalk up
the change to a deceptively simple reconception of how school systems should
work. Students, they say, must be at the heart of everything, with every service
and program-from janitorial assignments to curriculum design-shaped by what will
help them the most.
Under that guiding principle, the district's leaders have revamped all of its
operations, energizing the staff and producing academic results that are drawing
“We are humbled by being part of a system that is striving to serve kids,”
Cancino, a migrant worker's son who rose to become the assistant superintendent
for school and program improvement in the 3,100-student Hidalgo Independent
“The mental model changes to say, 'I'm really your servant,' but at the same
time,” he said, “it gives you a new battery, focuses your work, and makes
you want to do a good job.”
For the past eight years, Hidalgo has been rated “recognized” or “exemplary,”
the two top categories in Texas' accountability system.
The New York
City-based College Board has commended the district for the large numbers of its
high school schools taking Advanced Placement courses and passing those tests.
“This is a poor district, a tiny district, but they took the pieces of what we
know works and put them together, using the kids as their focus, and got great
results,” said Delia Pompa, the vice president for education at the
Washington-based National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group. “The
lessons from Hidalgo are about how a community's high expectations for its
students can change their lives.”
In the late
1980s, district leaders say, Hidalgo ranked among the lowest-performing 5
percent of districts in Texas. Even worse, educators seemed resigned to that
fate. “There was a sense that was the best we could do,” said Superintendent
Daniel P. King, who grew up in the area, where most students enter school
knowing little English. Many live in trailers and patched-up cottages with no
He recalled: “The way people thought was, 'Well, with our population …'”
The jolt that began the district's upward journey came in the early 1990s, when
two of its six schools were deemed low-performing by the state. The
superintendent at that time had been laying important groundwork to refocus the
district on student achievement, but by most accounts, he was hobbled by the
school board's micromanagement.
When Mr. King assumed the post seven years ago,
he found a
administrators isolated from one another,
working in separate “silos.”
He combined all
instructional functions under a “teaching and learning” umbrella and
leaders of curriculum and instruction, special education, dual-language
programs, and assessment share the meeting table with those from human
resources, transportation, and food service.
“You get to know who's who and what everyone's working on, and
it's all personal,”
said Rebecca Rodriguez, the director of special education. “It's part of us.”
Backed by a new group of school board members, district leaders developed a
clear theory of action and made sure everyone knew what it was. Education in
Hidalgo would be conceived of as “systems of support” for students.
The leaders identified
four areas to concentrate on: “systems thinking,” teaching and
learning, future career pathways for students, and parent
Systems thinking is the idea that all of the district's operations are united in
one vision: helping children. No purchase is made, no program adopted, unless it
serves that end, Mr. King said.
“It's always about, 'Why am I here?' That's the message that's relentless
around here,” said Mr. Cancino, the assistant superintendent. “It's in
everything we do. It's keeping the vision front and center, and taking action to
pursue that vision.”
Emphasizing parent empowerment is grounded in the idea that
helping parents helps
Among the district's offerings are English-literacy classes for its largely
Spanish-speaking parent population. On a recent day, 21 women were chanting the
days of the week in a room at the high school, one with her sleeping child in a
stroller. The previous day, the room was packed with parents learning how to
monitor their children's homework and help them prepare for upcoming state
Forging pathways for students means linking them with the next steps in their
lives. That includes teaching a more rigorous curriculum and making students
aware of college scholarships, as well as outlining direct routes to the
workplace. School-community partnerships connect students with internships. High
school students pursue one of five broad career areas, guided into
apprenticeships and two- or four-year colleges by teachers and counselors who
rotate through summer work in those fields themselves.
One of the most ambitious aspects of the district's effort is its plan to begin
an “early college” program for all 800 of its high school students in
partnership with the University of Texas. Using a four-year, $1.2 million grant
from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Hidalgo's high school is
about to become the first in the nation to redesign itself so that every student
will participate in the early college model.
Starting this coming fall, the program will enable all juniors and seniors to
take college-level courses tuition-free, earning two years of college credit
while fulfilling their high school graduation requirements.
Superintendent King and Edward Blaha, the high school's principal, know the plan
requires some heavy lifting in a district where many high school students are
still struggling to master English. They are working to prepare students and
staff members for the added challenges.
Setting the bar high,
they argue, is the only way to open roads to their students' futures.
be at the heart of everything, with every service and program-from janitorial
assignments to curriculum design-shaped by what will help them most.
program has affected Diana Puente's vision of her future. The 8th grader's
parents, a deli cashier and a pawnshop employee, have worried they couldn't
afford to send Diana, the youngest of their three children, to college. But the
early-college program essentially slashes tuition in half.
“I used to think college wasn't a possibility, but now I want to make sure I
don't slack off,” said Diana, who hopes to become a lawyer. Her father,
Antonio, said news of the program was “like a message sent from God.”
To increase the chances of students' academic success,
Hidalgo has made
universal preschool a keystone of its teaching-and-learning system.
All 3- and 4-year-olds can attend full-day preschool with teachers certified in
early-childhood education. Elementary school principals say they see the
investment paying off in stronger prereading and social skills among
instruction in English and Spanish is used from preschool through elementary
school, and is
being phased in to higher grades, as a tool to build “biliteracy.” District
leaders view those skills as crucial to students' success in an increasingly
global economy. (Texas students may choose to take state tests in English or
Spanish through 6th grade. Then, they must take the tests in English.)
The dual-language approach has also brought more parents into the schools to
volunteer in the libraries, help in classrooms, and seek out meetings with
teachers, educators here say.
[dual-language], there was a barrier with parents,” said Silverio Macias, the
principal of Alejo D. Salinas Elementary School. “Now, they feel they can come
to school, that their community is respected and valued.”
trained to approach learning as a cooperative, inquiry-based venture,
because district leaders believe that approach builds the content, social, and
language skills of students with Hidalgo's demographic profile.
For math time recently in a 1st grade classroom, for instance,
a child with strong
English skills was paired with a classmate who speaks little English. They
worked together with brightly colored cubes, speaking alternately in two
languages, while solving place-value problems. Such an approach boosts several
types of skills simultaneously.
principals meet often to analyze the results of benchmark assessments and adjust
offered for the students most in need,
and teachers of all grade levels are involved. At Salinas Elementary, for
teachers from pre-K through 2nd grade take part in tutoring children in 3rd
the Texas state tests begin-so they “get the whole picture,” Mr. Macias
also were at the heart of crafting the district's curriculum.
administrators who had immersed themselves in scholarship about what makes good
curriculum and instruction, teams of teachers extracted key ideas from state
standards and tests and designed thematic units to cover them.
They built a “concept
map” laying out the pivotal ideas in each unit and figured out how to
teach them in the instructional time left after subtracting holidays, test
preparation, and test-taking. They “backmapped” the curriculum to
ensure that each grade level prepares students for the next one, and that all
students build strong enough skills for college, and they aligned instruction
“horizontally,” so that all 4th grade teachers, for instance, are
covering the same material.
Doing such work
turns both administrators and staff members into students themselves.
They've been guided by such books as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe's
Understanding by Design, Heidi Hayes Jacobs' Mapping the Big Picture,
and Fenwick W. English's work on “deep alignment” of curriculum.
Underpinning their approach is the belief that
should be more than following a textbook-it
should flow directly from clearly defined goals and concepts.
The scholarly collaboration continues in meetings at the district's
headquarters, as administrators take turns guiding seminars on such books as
Robert J. Marzano's Classroom Instruction That Works. And the
at schools has a similar flavor. A recent focus at Ida Diaz Junior High School,
for instance, was training teachers in higher-level questioning strategies.
Pervading the work here is
a palpable sense of
Mr. King said that in serving some of the poorest children in Texas, he and his
staff are all too aware that the nation, with its stereotypes, quietly expects
failure. So his team's goal is twofold: to make sure students succeed, and to
prove to the rest of the country that they can.
“If we can really do some things here that many think are undoable,” he
said, “maybe we can change some mind-sets.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace
Foundation, at www.wallacefoundation.org.