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School & District Management

Against Odds, School Propels Its Students to College

By Debra Viadero — May 16, 2001 18 min read
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Every year, Clement R. Markley does a little mathematics exercise with his history classes here at Simon Rivera High School.

“What do you think is a good salary?” the veteran teacher asks his students, most of whom come from families scraping by on below-poverty-level incomes.

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Some might guess $10 an hour. A few go as high as $20 an hour. Then Mr. Markley shows his students his own annual household budget, and the teacher and his students do the calculations together.

What the teenagers inevitably learn is that, even at nearly twice the minimum wage, $10 an hour is barely enough to feed and house a family. And, while $20 an hour may afford a more comfortable existence, it’s not luxury living, either.

“Now,” the teacher asks his students, “Who are you going to get to pay you at least $20 an hour without a college education?”

Similar messages get passed along in the English classes that A. Lynne Watson teaches, in Gumecindo Rivera’s math classes, and in James Pace’s social studies classes. Students hear them from their guidance counselor, Estela R. Moreno, and from dozens of other teachers and counselors here. Rivera High School is not the end of your school career, these educators say again and again. It’s a step along the way.

Apparently, the students are listening. An analysis by Just for the Kids, an Austin-based advocacy group, shows that, compared with other poor Texas high schools, Rivera and two of its sister schools in this border city of 99,000 people are among the most successful in the state at sending graduating seniors on to public colleges and universities. Perhaps more important, the numbers also show that more than 60 percent of Rivera’s college-goers are still in school two years later.

At a time when critics are suggesting that American high schools have far to go to educate all students to higher academic standards, 1,700-student Rivera High seems to be holding its own. It is preparing many of its students for college, even though 85 percent or better of them are poor, 98 percent are Hispanic, and most have parents who have never set foot on a college campus themselves.

Even national experts acknowledge that no single model exists for an effective high school. And, in truth, Rivera and the two other comprehensive high schools here with similar college-going rates have far to go before they can boast that each and every senior who walks out their doors is ready to succeed in postsecondary study.

Still, the schools are proof that disengaged and ill-motivated students are not the inevitable byproduct of schools facing grinding poverty.

“We need to look at the schools that get results and see if they have characteristics in common,” said Tony Wagner, a co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard University. He advises school districts and national foundations on high school improvement efforts.

“In a research-and- development environment, you look at best practices,” Mr. Wagner said. “That’s what the American corporate economy learned 15 years ago.” Most experts believe it’s what American high schools need to do now.

Fighting the Tide

Rivera is not alone among American high schools in getting a majority of its students ready for college. But it is in pretty thin company.

A growing number of experts contend that too few high schools are turning out students who have the know-how to succeed in today’s postsecondary education environment—regardless of whether the extra years of schooling come in four-year colleges, community colleges, or technical schools.

The problem is not that high schools have failed, those experts say, it is that they have become obsolete in the face of the changing academic demands of the workplace. To succeed in the economy of the early 21st century, students need to acquire mathematical, problem-solving, and literacy skills of a level not normally attained by most high school graduates. That is precisely the point that Mr. Markley and his colleagues try to drive home to their students here in Brownsville.

In the literature on improving high schools, a few well-known examples of high schools that beat the odds have emerged.

One is Urban Academy High School, a pilot school in New York City. Although more than half the school’s 120 students are poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches, nearly every one of its graduates enrolls in postsecondary education.

With similar demographics, Boston’s Fenway High School, a 250- student charter school that uses project-based learning, internships, and required senior projects, sends 80 percent of graduates to college.

Both schools, and a handful of others like them scattered around the country, are small and largely autonomous—qualities that allow them to more easily provide personalized learning for students and to respond quickly to changing student needs.

Finding large, comprehensive high schools in poor communities that are providing a stepped-up academic curriculum for all—or at least most— students is a tougher task.

To identify such schools, Education Week asked researchers at Just for the Kids to sift through their storehouse of Texas educational data for schools in which three-quarters or more of students qualified for the federal free or reduced-price lunch program, more than half the graduating class went on to college, and more than half those entering freshman were still in college the following year. (Most college dropouts occur after the first year.) That analysis turned up Rivera, as well as Porter High School and Lopez High School, also in Brownsville.

“It’s incredible that, first, schools like these are able to prepare students well enough to get them motivated to even come to higher education, and that, second, students are prepared well enough to be able to have the skills to persist there,” Omar S. Lopez, the director of Just for the Kids’ College Success Initiative, said of the handful of schools that his search turned up. “If these students are going to leave college, they aren’t leaving because they can’t do the work.”

In 1997, the most recent year for which the researchers were able to collect such data, the percentage of seniors from Rivera going on to public colleges or universities in Texas was 60.3 percent. The schools in Texas with higher college-going rates tended to be magnet schools and wealthier, suburban schools. At most big-city high schools, in contrast, the estimated percentages of students who drop out of school over four years are about as high as the percentage who go on to college from Rivera.

And that college-going figure for Rivera is, in fact, an underestimate. It includes only students who go to public colleges and universities within Texas. Many of Rivera’s graduates go on to private colleges in the state or to public or private institutions around the country. According to school records, 85 percent of last year’s senior class—271 of 318 students—headed to two-year colleges, four-year colleges, or vocational-technical schools after graduation.

Evidence of Rivera students’ far-flung college destinations hangs on the wall of Ms. Moreno’s guidance office here. There, the longtime counselor displays pennants that former students have sent her from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., Georgetown University in Washington, Ohio State University, and other well-known colleges and universities across the United States.

Broadening Horizons

All of those postsecondary schools are a long way from the ranches, warehouses, and taco stands that dot the landscape on this side of the Rio Grande River. Some students in Brownsville schools have even grown up in homes without indoor plumbing in the colonias, the settlements of substandard housing that spring up on the outskirts of most cities along the border between the United States and Mexico.

“A lot of our students have never been out of the Rio Grande Valley,” said Ms. Watson, the English teacher, who also offers an elective course on preparing for college. When they begin to apply to faraway colleges, she said, “all of a sudden they realize the horizon doesn’t stop at King Ranch or the border of Texas.”

Local educators and students give a range of factors that converge and contribute to Rivera High’s apparent success despite the kind of demographic profile that challenges so many schools. One of them is sending students consistent messages that their teachers hold high expectations for them, the way that Clement Markley does.

But policy actions at the state and district levels also affect what goes on in an individual school. And Rivera, like other high schools in Texas, has felt the ripples from the state’s controversial system of standards and testing.

As it’s currently configured, the 7-year-old Texas Assessment of Academic Skills tests students in reading and mathematics every year in grades 3-8. Schools are rated by the state based in part on how well their students do on those tests. All five high schools in Brownsville, for example, are considered “recognized” campuses by the state, which means they are scoring above average but not at the top. The highest rating a school can achieve is “exemplary.”

In addition, high school students cannot earn diplomas without passing the state’s 10th grade reading and math exams.

“The percentage of kids who are not able to read when they get here has really gone down, and, to be quite honest with you, I think it’s because of the accountability,” said Michael J. Keranen, Rivera’s principal. “Testing is just one indicator of what’s going on in schools, but I also think it’s brought accountability and focus, especially when it comes to basic skills.”

District- level officials in Brownsville went the state one better in the mid-1990s by raising minimum graduation requirements for their high schools. Instead of taking only three years of math, students have had to take four, beginning with those who entered high school in 1996. What’s more, district leaders decided that students would have to take Algebra 1 by 9th grade. Their remaining math classes must include Algebra 2 and geometry. The district also added two years of foreign-language study.

“When we started all of this, it was a combination of the work of a strategic-action committee and a result of the fact that we would annually bring college students back to talk to our board of trustees,” said Mary Jo Monfils, an area administrator for the 40,000-student district. “They would repeatedly come back and say our math program was not what it needs to be, for example.”

Around the same time the state also began slowly increasing minimum graduation requirements and paring the range of classes that would meet those core requirements. Environmental science, for example, was no longer acceptable. Students now have to take at least biology, chemistry, physics, or a new integrated course combining some of those sciences in order to earn their diplomas. The state’s changes put the state and the district on parallel tracks for high school graduation requirements.

Upping the Ante

The district raised the bar for its students again last year by requiring freshmen entering high school in fall 2001 to earn only a “recommended” or “distinguished” diploma to graduate. State rules allow three categories of diplomas: “standard,” “recommended,” and “distinguished.” The “distinguished” diploma entitles graduates to state tuition subsidies at public colleges and universities. At Rivera High, counselors had never let on—even before the new rule was adopted—that the lowest-level, “standard” diploma was an option, according to Ms. Moreno, who has been with the district 23 years. And that, says Mr. Lopez of Just for the Kids, could well be the biggest clue to Brownsville’s successes.

“We have found in our analyses that, regardless of how well or how poorly students were doing when they came into high school, if a student took a college-prep high school program, they were successful coming into higher education,” Mr. Lopez said. “What if the answer is as simple, really, as asking students to make a commitment to more rigorous coursework?”

Texas legislators, in fact, are now debating a bill that would require all students to earn at least the “recommended” diploma unless the student, the student’s parents, and a school official agreed that the student could opt out.

Nine years ago, educators at Rivera High also introduced Advanced Placement courses to the school, which allow students to earn college credit for taking higher-level courses in high school. Districtwide, the school system five years later brought in pre-AP courses in middle school to lay the foundation for more students to take AP courses in high school.

And steps were taken to better align all of the middle school coursework to the high schools’ program of studies. With the same goal in mind, seven of the district’s nine middle schools have also adopted Gear-Up, a federal program aimed at grooming low- income students early for success in higher education.

“We tell students if you’re not up to the skills level, but you have the thinking, we’ll get you up to the skills level,” Ms. Watson said. “When a kid is doing fine in the regular classes and a person to whom they look up says, ‘I think you should try this at a high level, and I teach it,’ they listen. Once they’ve been in the challenging classes, the regular classes become boring to them.”

Like a growing number of high schools nationwide, Rivera schedules 90-minute classes so that students can study fewer subjects at a time in greater depth. A small number of Rivera students are also enrolled at local colleges so that they can take courses there while in high school.

In addition, last year, Rivera launched a school-within-a-school—an international-business magnet program that capitalizes on students’ bilingual skills. Programs that link high school students to real jobs and careers are a common thread in high school improvement efforts nationwide.

Across town from Rivera High, Lopez High School took the idea a step further by creating “career pathways” for all students that include elective courses that are closely aligned with their own interests. Students in the health-sciences pathway, for example, can take electives in medical terminology, pharmacology, gerontology, and other subjects. Those courses come on top of their core science requirements.

Each career concentration at Lopez concludes in 12th grade with an independent study— a capstone course that usually involves “shadowing” professionals on the job.

“It gives kids a kind of focus,” John Feist, a career-placement officer at Lopez, explained. “We are beginning now to see kids that I think are more able to indicate what they want to make sure is happening with their schooling.”

With a student population that was 88 percent poor, Lopez sent more than 57 percent of its graduating students to public colleges or universities in Texas in 1997, according to Just for the Kids. Of that college- going group, nearly 56 percent were still in college two years later.

Doing ‘My Best’

Rivera’s students, meanwhile, mention none of the academic and organizational changes when asked how their school motivates them to work hard—even when “senioritis” threatens to set in. The explanation, they say, is in the personal relationships they have formed with their teachers and counselors. Despite its substantial size, Rivera feels small to many students.

“I feel ready to go out there and do my best because the teachers here have shown me that, with hard work, anything is possible,” said senior Rick Pedraza. “When I first came here I was, like, semi-shy. I learned to cooperate with students and teachers. Teachers would even stay after school with me and help me out with my troubles.”

Mr. Pedraza found his niche in football and band. Next year, he hopes to go to a state university and study music education.

While a typical complaint of many high school students is that their guidance counselors are inaccessible, students at Rivera talk of seeing their counselors daily. That happens in part because the school’s regular counselors stay with a class of students for four years, rather than looking after different groups of students each year.

With a total of six counselors for its 1,700 students, the school also has a slightly larger-than- average complement of counselors. Federal money earmarked for the educational needs of the children of migrant farmworkers helps pay for one counselor to serve that population. A career-placement officer, paid for by the school district, works with students in the magnet school.

In addition, Ms. Moreno, the counselor assigned to this year’s graduating class, stays until 7 p.m. one night a week so that students and their parents can get in to see her.

“She’s like our second mom,” said 12th grader Erica Garcia. “You need to talk to her about anything and she’s there. Like I said, we’re like little bugs on her, and I’m in her office 24-7.”

The counselor works hard to find financial aid for students. Last year, Rivera students got a total of $2.4 million worth of scholarship offers from postsecondary schools and accepted $1.2 million of that.

Ms. Moreno also cajoles college recruiters to come to campus because most Rivera students can’t afford to make college visits on their own. Harvard University and Yale University, for example, sent representatives for the first time this year.

The school and the Brownsville district also arrange bus tours so that students can visit college campuses around the state. Ms. Moreno also personally mails college applications for her students so that procrastinators don’t miss any crucial deadlines.

“You have to know your students in order to be able to write letters of recommendation,” Ms. Moreno said. “I don’t care what anybody tells you.”

She is also blunt with students whose grades and course selections do not mark them early on as college material.

“I tell them this is what you have to do to make the grade,” she said, adding that if students doubt her, she invites them to call college officials directly. She discourages students from thinking they can slack off and still get conditional acceptances from the colleges they choose, and she warns them about the hidden costs of having to take remedial courses in college.

“I tell them you don’t want catch-up time. You want to start at the same starting line with everybody else,” Ms. Moreno said. She also shows students technical manuals from local companies to convince them that, whatever their future plans are, they still need strong academic skills.

To a large extent, Ms. Moreno’s efforts reflect districtwide policies to ensure that all students have a shot at postsecondary schooling.

“There was a belief in the past that, well, we can’t hold them by the hand because when they get to college they won’t know what to do,” said Mary Salinas, the administrator for the school district’s guidance and counseling department. “My philosophy is to hold them by the hand until they learn how to do it.”

For instance, the district holds districtwide financial-aid nights that give parents a chance to talk personally with aid officers from lending agencies and colleges. Because so many students here are poor, 80 percent of the school system’s graduating class typically qualifies for such assistance.

Knowing the tuition money will be there eliminates a barrier that keeps many students from even applying to college in the first place. To break down the financial barriers between high school and college even further, the Brownsville schools also absorb the cost of at least one college-entrance exam, as well as testing fees for some AP courses.

Educators here say the local demographics, meanwhile, work in the schools’ favor in a striking way: They help motivate students.

Living just four miles from the Mexican border, Rivera’s students have close ties to that country. Because so many students here are first-generation Americans or Mexican immigrants, they are acutely aware of the sacrifices their parents have made to bring them to the United States and to put food on the family table. As a result, many such students believe they owe it to their families to make a better life.

Valente Nieto, a 12th grader at Rivera, says his motivation to succeed in school comes from watching his father, a migrant farmworker, pick blueberries, cucumbers, and tobacco.

“To me, he’s like the hardest worker I’ve ever known,” he said.

At the same time, the Mexican cultural norms that infuse this part of Texas can also present special challenges for students with college ambitions. Parents are sometimes reluctant to allow their children— especially their daughters—to go away to school.

“That’s the beauty of our culture, but it’s also what hurts us—it’s that closeness of the families,” said Jesus Torres, a probable candidate to be Rivera’s valedictorian next month. The eldest son of retired migrant farmworkers, he applied to 44 colleges and universities. His first choice school is the University of Pennsylvania, a private, Ivy League institution in Philadelphia.

“It’s like, ‘No, you stay here, and we’ll help you out,’ ” the Rivera senior said. “I’ll say, ‘Thanks, Mom, but I want to go out and see the world and experience it for myself.’ ”

In the end, Lopez High’s Mr. Feist and other Brownsville educators say it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why so many of their local high school students seem to be faring well in college.

“All of it fits together somehow, but I don’t know how,” Mr. Feist said. “If I did, I would bottle it.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2001 edition of Education Week as Against Odds, School Propels Its Students to College


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