Dovalina Elementary School in Laredo overlooks the waters of the Rio Grande and, with it, the border that separates Texas from Mexico. Enveloping the campus is a neighborhood where close to half the population over the age of 25 has less than a high school education. Nearly 94 percent of its families speak Spanish at home. Roughly half of the neighborhood’s residents fall below the federal poverty line.

Editor’s Note

Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.

The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.

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At Dovalina, about three-quarters of the students are still learning English and nearly 100 percent are considered economically disadvantaged. Several of the students are what Principal Karla Peña calls “raw beginners,” children who have no experience in a school setting.

“These are kids that were in Mexico, but because of the violence or whatever it was, they were never sent to school,” Peña said.

In many ways, Dovalina Elementary is representative of high-poverty schools throughout South Texas and in San Antonio, facing immense challenges that stem from the deeply entrenched poverty within the surrounding communities.

While educators and community organizations attempt to level the playing field, more often than not, a student’s zip code still dictates what opportunities are available and outcomes achievable. The majority of failing schools in San Antonio are concentrated in the poorest areas of town – the same areas that historically have had the lowest graduation rates, the highest number of dropouts, and the largest number of students deemed not ready for college. Opportunities for well-paying jobs, especially for residents who don’t complete high school, are scarce.

Dovalina’s community experiences the same hardships, but the students attending this elementary defy the odds. The Texas Education Agency awarded the school an A in its yearly report card and in 2019 the U.S. Department of Education named it a National Blue Ribbon school, one of only 362 nationwide in 2019.

A flag honoring Dovalina Elementary School as a National Blue Ribbon School flutters on the flagpole. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Dovalina is just one bright spot of many in South Texas. No school district from Laredo to the Rio Grande Valley scored below a B in the State’s A-F letter grading system. At the same time, these schools educate the most English language learners and students deemed at risk of dropping out.

While opponents often criticize the State’s school rating system as being too closely correlated to poverty, Commissioner of Education Mike Morath points to schools like the ones in South Texas as “proof poverty is not destiny.” Even though the schools face some significant challenges, including immense poverty and a high population of students still learning English, students are excelling.

South Texas schools and those in San Antonio don’t share all the same characteristics, said State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), vice chair of the Texas House Public Education Committee. However, the achievements of South Texas students provide an example of what is possible when districts pay attention to the specific needs of their students and adapt accordingly.

“The results show that students of any stripe or background can achieve at the highest levels,” Bernal said.

State and regional education officials point to South Texas schools as holding potential solutions for high-poverty school systems in San Antonio. These school systems produce high academic results across all their campuses, use data in a way that allows students and teachers to track their own progress, and hire instructors who empathize with their students.

Making ‘Pockets of Excellence’ the Norm

Laredo ISD Superintendent Sylvia Rios can list many best practices for improving student achievement: tracking student performance rigorously, offering a wide array of dual credit opportunities, and hiring empathetic teachers. All of this is moot, however, if the best practices are not applied universally.

When Rios arrived in Laredo ISD, she found “pockets of excellence,” she said, but not consistent outcomes throughout the system.

Cornelio Gonzalez, the executive director of the Region 1 Education Service Center that supports South Texas schools, observed a similar trend.

“About three years ago, Region 1 was one of the lowest-performing areas of the state and over the years, there has been a transformation of the school districts in the area,” Gonzalez said. “When you think about what is going on in Region 1, it is the culture that is persistent, a culture of leaders being very innovative, always trying new things, taking chances, taking risks, and trying to innovate.”

For Laredo ISD and Rios, that meant the district needed to develop a common vision – high expectations for all students – that reached into each of Laredo ISD’s 30 campuses.

“We understood that the common vision had to be something that was practical, but it had to be applicable. It had to be manageable and it had to be monitored,” Rios said.

Gerardo Cruz, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, led a rewrite of the districtwide curriculum, hiring the district’s best educators to review and improve it. The common instructional foundation allows a student who transfers from one campus to another to stay on track. Two third-grade students enrolled at different schools on opposite sides of the district should learn the same material on any given day, Cruz said.

This standardization of curriculum aims to uphold the same high expectation for every student across the district, whether they attend a more affluent or more impoverished campus, Rios said.

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United ISD, another highly ranked, high-poverty school district in Laredo, adopted a similar strategy in the early 2000s. District administrators wrote curriculum and created professional development tools to support educators’ use of the materials. As teachers prepare to deliver a lesson, they can go online and view videos to refresh lessons or bolster their own subject knowledge.

Located three-and-a-half hours south of Laredo at the southernmost tip of Texas, Brownsville ISD takes a similar approach. The district designed its own curriculum that allows for changes relevant to the surrounding community. For example, when SpaceX opened a launch site nearby and Brownsville educators identified a need for stronger STEM education, they adapted their lessons to meet the demand.

The district opened STEM academies at every middle school to pique students’ interest in a high-wage field. District officials said this flexibility also helps work toward a long-term goal: improving the area’s educational attainment.

“Brownsville is one of the lowest-educated areas in the country,” Assistant Superintendent Dora Sauceda said. “One of the biggest goals for BISD is to change that. … We want 100 percent – we have a goal of 100 percent of our kids that will graduate with an associate’s degree.”

A Window Into Student’s Needs

Once Laredo ISD identified a uniform approach to instruction, administrators began closely tracking students’ progress. 

At Martin Elementary, Principal Amy Cruz holds weekly meetings with teachers in what some call a data war room. The repurposed classroom’s walls are covered with plastic dividers pockets in primary colors. Each student’s progress is tracked on a paper that reflects their most recent performance on benchmark tests.

Students are updated on their grades and tutored outside of class at Dovalina Elementary School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

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Once students take regular exams, they are sorted into various sections of the dividers. There’s one for approaches, meets, and masters grade level – the same designations given after students take the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exams. At a glance, teachers can see which students would pass or fail the State test if it were administered that day. Each week, teachers at each grade level meet to talk about how to keep high performers where they are and bring the rest of the class up to join them.

Uncompromising tracking procedures are a hallmark in some of the highest-performing South Texas districts.

“That’s how you identify where your needs are,” Brownsville ISD’s Sauceda said. “If you don’t understand your data, then you are going to have issues getting to the root cause of what’s keeping your campus from performing.”

Brownsville’s schools are even putting more data into the hands of students themselves. At Hudson Elementary, another 2019 Blue Ribbon School that educates a student body that is 93 percent economically disadvantaged, classes review their results together. Students then chart their desired growth in math and reading and display their goals on folders that hang in the school’s hallways.

The process serves as a reminder that every student is capable of growing and should be invested in the process, Hudson Elementary Principal Rachel Ayala said.

Teachers Who Look Like Their Students

Ayala, like many of her fellow district principals, was once a student in Brownsville ISD. Her mother was a principal, and Ayala learned to count by portioning out the right number of textbooks for her mother’s classrooms.

Many educators in South Texas grew up in the same school systems where they now teach. They say this helps foster empathy for their kids, but it also helps students see the success they can achieve, even if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

At Martin Elementary School at Laredo ISD, Tanairy Benitez teaches her students while wearing her cap and gown, which she had on for photographs with fellow teachers. Benitez earned her master’s degree from Texas A&M International University. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

As principal of Hanna High School in Brownsville ISD, Blanca Lambarri oversees a campus that serves a large population of English language learners and economically disadvantaged students.

“As a student since fourth grade when I came from Mexico, I did not know a word of English, and so I think … a lot of us have experienced the same thing,” Lambarri said, talking about her fellow educators. “When I got to the classrooms and the kids tell me, ‘Well, I don’t know English,’ [I respond,] ‘Well, I didn’t know English, so that shouldn’t stop you.’”

Commissioner of Education Morath credits educators like Lambarri for South Texas’ educational success. When the area’s most talented students stick around to educate the next generation, the whole community benefits, he said.

“Having visited the region many times in my tenure, I’ve observed a reverence for the teaching profession that embodies an American ideal,” Morath told the Rivard Report. “Valedictorians and salutatorians regularly choose, after college, to work as teachers at schools in the region, and the decision is celebrated.”

That was Laredo ISD Superintendent Rios’ path into education. After graduating as the valedictorian of Hebbronville High School in 1973, Rios became a teacher at her alma mater. She was hired to lead Laredo ISD in July 2017.

It’s Rios’ perspective as a graduate of a high school about an hour away from her superintendent’s office that guides her empathy for students.

“We have kids that are smart [but there’s a] stigma of if you are in an economically disadvantaged location, you can’t perform,” she said. “No, that is not what happens in our district. In our district every child is important, every child is worthy of a quality education.”

To that end, Dovalina Principal Peña spent a December Monday visiting her student’s homes, asking families why their students were absent. Attendance was just 91 percent that morning, meaning a large number of students were missing class for some reason.

Instead of letting kids skip, Peña started knocking on doors of absent students, emphasizing how important it is for kids to be at their desks and in front of their teachers.

“Sometimes it just takes that extra effort on my part for them to see that it is important,” Peña said. “They need to feel that sense of urgency that I feel. And when they see me, they feel it.”

Dovalina Principal Karla Peña makes an impromptu house visit to check in on a student absent from school. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Peña’s empathetic efforts could go a long way in San Antonio, where low-performing, high-poverty schools often struggle to keep students in the classroom consistently.

“I have conversations with families and tell them … your children have the opportunity and they have the ability to get there,” she said. “I want to make sure that we get them here, because it is hard, but it can be done.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.