Staff Writer

HARLINGEN — It’s been a year of firsts.

The Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District recently signed a letter of intent with the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley to create a pipeline to medical school, a first both for the district and the university. The district also opened two new academies to give students a solid foundation in both art and science. Opportunities to explore the STEM professions were expanded, the school district scored a B on its accountability ratings, and three campuses were recognized for their superb efforts. Harlingen School for Health Professions graduated its first senior class.

“It’s a big honor, and it comes with a lot of responsibility,” said Sylvia Sanchez, one of about 75 seniors who graduated from the Harlingen School for Health Professions. They were the school’s first graduating class since the school opened in 2014, and they all sensed the significance of the moment.

“The first class of the Harlingen School for Health Professions has opened doors and possibilities for others and set the standard,” said Valedictorian Arely Gonzalez.

Indeed, new doors continue to open at the specialty school.

Recently, district signed a letter of intent with the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley to create a pipeline from HSHP to medical school.

The program allows the district to identify aspiring medical students and move them into a track that will facilitate their entry in the UTRGV medical program, said Dr. John Krouse, dean of the school of medicine.

“We don’t have any organized programs of that sort with any school districts,” Krouse said. “This is a new initiative for us.”


The Harlingen district also opened two new academies with vastly different curriculums to address different parts of the brain.

One of those academies is The Fine Arts Academy at Lee Means Elementary which offers experiences in arts of all forms, including music, dance, theater and drama, and visual arts.

Lee Means students also broke ground by participating in speech, drama and debate competition. They were the first elementary students in the district to do so.

“They actually competed against high schoolers and middle schoolers,” said Sally Navarro, sponsor of the fledgling speech, drama and debate team.

Those middle and high schoolers came from all over Texas.

“They got so much attention because really it’s so rare to see them in speech, drama and debate,” Navarro said. “They got to make history and we want to get other elementary students excited all over the Valley, not just in Harlingen.”

The new STEM Squared Preparatory Academy also opened to offer instruction in science, technology, engineering, math and medicine.

The new academy at 1920 E. Washington Ave. was offered to “enhance students’ passions for opportunities in STEMM, college and career pathways,” said Joseph Villarreal, assistant superintendent for secondary education.

“There’s obviously a need in our community, state and country to produce students that are going to be able to compete for STEMM-related jobs,” he said. “These opportunities are going to better prepare our students for college and also for some students that want to jump right into the work force.”


Speaking of STEM, several high school students and their instructors spent the past six months creating a fully automated farm at STEM2 academy.

The HCISD Robotics Community Service Team built the 200 square foot garden and the robot that just planted the seeds. The robot, called a FarmBot for the kit in which it came, is now checking soil moisture, watering the seeds, and keeping out the weeds.

“Over the summer we started building our Marmot,” said Arlette McClain, 17, a senior at Harlingen High School.

FarmBot is the name of the kit in which the robot came.

“We actually had to build the robot and then program it to do everything,” said Arlette McClain, 17, a senior at Harlingen High School.

Arlette said she enjoyed working as a team with students from other schools, which included Harlingen High School South and Early College High School.

Hector Elizondo, a junior at Early College High School, agreed.

“It was fun collaborating with different schools that we usually have a rivalry against,” said Hector, 17.

Now the middle school students at STEM2 will take over, keeping twigs and leaves out of the garden and maintaining the operation. In a few short months they’ll be able to eat the carrots, bok choy, lettuce and broccoli raised by the robot.

STEM is a big thing at Zavala Elementary School, too. So much so it was named this year as an Apple Distinguished School for its continuing efforts to integrate technology into daily lesson.

Apple Distinguished Schools is a program of Apple Inc. Zavala received a ConnectED grant several years ago from Apple that gave it a huge push toward that distinction. The grant put devices such as laptop and computers and iPads in the hands of every student and teacher.

The new distinction puts Zavala in contact with about 400 other distinguished schools throughout the world.


This was the first year the Texas Education Agency gave school districts a letter grade, and the Harlingen school district received a B.

The grades are based on accountability ratings being released today by TEA, and those ratings in turn are based on results of the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness. The Harlingen school district, like many across the state, has always taken issue with an accountability system which focuses strictly on academics.

“We still believe the accountability system falls short of painting the true picture of a district,” said Alicia Noyola, chief academic officer.

“In school districts across the entire state, we also focus on educating the whole child,” she said. “We also know that the academic side alone doesn’t equate to success in all students.”

Dishman Elementary distinguished itself in a very different way. This year, it was one of 24 schools in Texas recognized as a National Blue Ribbon School for 2018.

The recognition is based on a school’s overall academic performance or progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.

“Dishman has been prescriptive and strategic to meet student needs and to ensure their academic success,” said Principal Irma Davis.

Davis said when she became principal several years ago the school had some areas in need of improvement.

“We committed ourselves that Dishman would get to number one,” she said. “We also committed ourselves to putting Dishman on the map.”

The Dr. Abraham P. Cano Freshman Academy made the news this year as the only Valley school to offer a new pilot program of pre-AP classes.

“The significance of the program is that the pre-AP program is going to follow the model of the AP program,” said Myliss Parker, director of advanced academic services.

“Our advanced placement program is a huge international program that we have through the College Board, which has designated certain classes fro advanced placement,” she said.

Cano Academy was also recognized by U.S. News and World Report with a bronze rating this year. U.S. News and World Report ranks schools across the country each year and awards gold, silver or bronze medals based on several criteria.

“This is the first time Cano has been recognized,” said Alicia Noyola, chief academic officer for the Harlingen school district.

Principal Vivian Bauer was delighted by the news.

“We at Dr. Cano Freshman Academy are extremely proud of the designation,” she said. “All our hard work in the last five years is rewarded. Our students, teachers and support staff are the best!”