Nonprofit gives Valley schools high marks amid pandemic

Jodie Bulnes wears a masks as McAllen ISD distributed Chomebooks at Cathey Middle School on Friday, Aug 14, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Despite poverty, a pandemic and a host of other factors, Rio Grande Valley schools are continuing to punch above their weight, according to rankings published by nonprofit education organization Children at Risk.

Children at Risk held a discussion on the rankings last month featuring its CEO Robert Sanborn, McAllen ISD Superintendent J.A. Gonzalez and RGV FOCUS Senior Director Rodney Rodriguez, along with principals from some of the highest ranking schools in the Valley.

“The Rio Grande Valley, when we look at public education, clearly outpaces the rest of the state and as a researcher it’s sometimes tough to say … where the level of wealth is not very high, the level of poverty significant, and yet we see these schools that continue to outperform others,” Sanborn said.

Although Children at Risk has been doing rankings for the last 16 years, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed education in the Lone Star State and it’s also changed how Children at Risk examined the schools.

Sanborn said this year the organization looked for “pandemic-proof schools,” schools that have been performing well in challenging circumstances despite the pandemic

“One of the things that’s clear is this pandemic is going to be especially hard on low-income families and the kids coming from these families,” he said. “We know that there’s been this significant pandemic learning loss going on that continues to this day. A lot of kids across our state have been lost to the system; a lot of motivation has been lost. Parents don’t know how to interact in the technology, so we want to look to these pandemic-proof schools as examples.”

Other factors taken into account in the ranking were improvement and racial equity, he said. Overall, the organization ranked 4,000 elementary schools, close to 2,000 middle schools and 1,349 high schools in the state; in the Valley it ranked 68 high schools, 114 middle schools and 293 elementary schools.

According to Sanborn, 170 of those Valley schools were high performing — 106 elementary schools, 37 middle schools and 27 high schools. He said about 27% of Texas schools were ranked as an A or B; the Valley had almost 10% more A and B-rated schools.

“When we looked specifically in the Valley, we saw that the Valley had the highest percentage of high performing schools, 36% of all the schools in the Valley got A’s or B’s,” Sanborn said.

Children at Risk’s top-ranking schools in the Valley included Achieve Early College High School in McAllen ISD, South Texas Preparatory Academy in South Texas ISD and Florence J. Scott Elementary School in Roma ISD.

Principals from those schools spoke at the panel last month, describing the challenges they face and what steps they take to overcome those challenges.

South Texas Preparatory Academy Ana Castro attributed her school’s success to teamwork, preparedness, and the ability to act quickly and effectively.

“We have systems in place to be able to track the academic and emotional needs of our students,” she said, “and be able to intervene and come up with solutions, just like everybody else has said, and not make excuses for what’s coming our way, and really be proactive and really taking the time to listen to what the issues and what the concerns are and acting upon them and making sure that we do address them.”