School & District Management

It’s No Secret: Progress Prized In Brownsville

By Mary Ann Zehr — December 01, 2008 11 min read
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Here at Cromack Elementary School, near the border of the United States and Mexico, many children in the early grades are taught in Spanish. By 4th grade, those students have made the smooth transition to classes where practically all instruction is in English.

Cromack’s progress in helping such students illustrates the strengths of a school district where nearly half of the students are English-language learners, nearly all are from low-income families—and where students in all grades outperform those in similar districts statewide in reading and math.

That performance, aided by strong teacher professional development and data-based instruction, are a key reason why the Brownsville district was awarded the prestigious 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education for being the nation’s most improved urban school district.

In giving the $1 million prize, which will be used to provide college scholarships for graduating seniors in the school system this spring, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation highlighted Brownsville Independent School District’s success with Hispanic and low-income students.

Underlying that success is its strong track record of enabling students from Spanish-speaking homes to acquire the English they need to do well in the classroom and on state tests. About 42 percent of the district’s 49,000 students are English-language learners and an additional large proportion are former ELLs, while across the state of Texas, only 15 percent of students are ELLs.

At a Glance: Brownsville Independent School District


City of Brownsville: 161, 225

Brownsville Independent School District

Number of students, 2007-08: 48,858
Percentage of ELLs: 42.4%
Percentage of Hispanic students: 98%
Percentage of low-income students: 94.4%

SOURCE: Brownsville Independent School District

The Brownsville district missed making adequate yearly progress goals:

2008: reading and math for special education students; graduation rate
2007: graduation rate
2006: reading for special education students

SOURCE: Brownsville Independent School District

Dropout and Graduation Rates for the Class of 2007

Brownsville district dropout rate: 17.9%
Statewide dropout rate: 11.4%
Brownsville district graduation rate: 53.2%
Statewide graduation rate: 78.0%
Brownsville graduation rate for English-language learners: 26.8%
Brownsville dropout rate for English-language learners: 38.5%

SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

Bilingual/ESL Program Enrollment 2007-08

The Brownsville district reclassified most ELLs as proficient in English in the early grades.


SOURCE: Texas Education Agency

The Broad prize “validates that we’re on the right track,” said Hector Gonzales, the superintendent of the Brownsville district.

A native of the Rio Grande Valley, Mr. Gonzales was an assistant superintendent for 12 years before becoming superintendent two years ago. He credits a focus on data-based instruction and a strong investment in teacher professional development for the district’s improvement.

“Academic excellence is not an accident,” he said. “It’s a very deliberate approach.”

As the 10-person Broad prize jury recognized, the district fares well according to a number of indicators. In 2007, for example, the district outperformed other Texas districts that serve low-income students in reading and mathematics at all grade levels. More than 94 percent of the district’s students are from low-income families.

Brownsville also is narrowing ethnic and income achievement gaps. From 2004 to 2007, for instance, the academic gap in math between Brownsville’s Hispanic students, who make up 98 percent of its students, and non-Hispanic whites statewide at the elementary school level was reduced to 6 percent from 13 percent.

The school system is not faring so well according to some other indicators, however. The district has failed to make adequate yearly progress goals under the No Child Left Behind Act for the past three years.

But AYP is just “one of many indicators used by the jury,” said Erica Lepping, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation. She said the New York City and Boston school districts, previous Broad prize winners, had also missed making AYP.

“The districts that win have to be closing the achievement gap,” said Ms. Lepping. “The prize is seeking to recognize districts that are improving at a rate faster than their peers.”

Brownsville’s proximity to the border and close ties with nearby Matamoros, Mexico, present educators with an unusual mix of students and a daunting set of challenges.

Sylvia Senteno, the principal of James Pace High School, said the English-learners who come from Mexico and enroll in the district fall into three general categories.

One group has parents who were professionals in Mexico—teachers or engineers, perhaps—and who seek better educational opportunities for their children. Such parents may work delivering pizza in Brownsville, but their children sense their passion for them to do well in school and so perform well.

Another group of immigrant children have parents, or often only a single parent, who moved to the United States after exhausting their resources in Mexico. Parents who are struggling to survive often don’t send a message to children that they must succeed in school, Ms. Senteno said.


Closing the Achievement Gap

Hispanic students in the Brownsville Independent School District are catching up with their non-Hispanic white peers statewide in reading and math proficiency, according to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation.

READING: Elementary School Proficiency Rates


READING: High School Proficiency Rates


MATHEMATICS: Elementary School Proficiency Rates


MATHEMATICS: High School Proficiency Rates


SOURCE: Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

But educators must work hardest to reach a third group of English-learners, she said. “The parents remain in Mexico, but they send their kids here. The children are separated from the family. Sometimes they go back and forth.” Such children often have low self-esteem, she said, and educators need to work hard to help them to “feel wanted and belong.”

In working with its ELL students, both American-born and foreign-born, Brownsville puts a strong emphasis on its transitional bilingual education program.

“Brownsville has a very strong bilingual education program—maybe the best in the nation,” said Miguel Angel Escotet, the dean of the school of education at the University of Texas at Brownsville.

The only four-year university in the city, UT-Brownsville provides 75 percent of the school district’s teachers, most of whom graduate with bilingual certification. Many of those teachers also grew up in the Rio Grande Valley. “They know the type of student they have in the classroom,” Mr. Gonzales said. “Maybe they had the same struggles.”

Teacher turnover is low, and at 3.1 percent per year, so is student mobility.

Strong Elementary Schools

The ranking of Brownsville’s schools in Texas’ accountability system indicates that the elementary schools stand out. Overall, the district has a rating of “academically acceptable” for 2007, which is below “exemplary” and “recognized” and above “academically unacceptable” in the four-level ranking system.

The elementary schools rank far better: All but one of Brownsville’s 33 elementary schools received an “exemplary” or “recognized” ranking in 2007. By contrast, only four of the district’s 11 middle schools had a ranking as high as “recognized.” Just one of the district’s five high schools had a ranking that high.

In the area of English-proficiency, students make marked progress in the early grades. While 62 percent of Brownsville kindergartners are classified as having limited proficiency in English, that drops to 30 percent by 5th grade.

At Cromack Elementary, all but one classroom teacher is bilingually certified. That permits the school to assign ELLs to almost any teacher in the school, so students don’t physically move from a bilingual class to a mainstream class when they are reclassified as proficient in English. Rather, the amount of instruction in Spanish in their lessons is phased out as they move through the grades.

In 3rd grade at Cromack, a large number of students receive 90 minutes of reading instruction—required for participants in the Reading First program of the No Child Left Behind Act—in Spanish and take their state’s reading and math tests in Spanish. In 4th grade, teachers use English most of the time, and almost all students take state tests in English, although any ELL who is a newcomer still receives reading lessons in Spanish, regardless of grade.

Cromack Elementary educators credit the federal Reading First program for helping their school to improve students’ test scores. It provided funds for a reading coach, Maricela Franco, who ensures that reading lessons are taught in a consistent way.

“We try not to focus so much on the test, but the teaching of skills,” said Ms. Franco.

The biggest impact of Reading First, said Elda S. Rodriguez, a 3rd grade teacher at the 750-student school, is that teachers now emphasize small-group instruction, while in the past they taught primarily with whole-group instruction. Students whose reading skills are below grade level also receive extra reading-instruction time each day, which district officials credit with helping to improve reading scores districtwide.

On a recent morning, the 3rd graders in Ms. Rodriguez’s class broke into three groups for reading activities. In one group, children timed themselves with digital clocks on how many words they could read aloud in one minute from a vocabulary list. In another cluster, children took turns dictating sentences to their classmates. In the last group, the teacher helped students write summaries of the day’s story.

During reading class, everything was in Spanish. But in social studies, Ms. Rodriguez presented a world geography lesson in English, and her students spoke mostly in English for that lesson.

The switch to English isn’t easy, said Gladis Garcia, 10, who moved from Mexico to Brownsville 3 ½ years ago and is now in 4th grade. “I get some words confused,” she said. “Sometimes the words are too hard.”

High School Concerns

Mr. Gonzales acknowledges that the district has a challenge in trying to educate students who arrive in Brownsville not speaking English at the middle or high school levels. Right now, English-as-a-second-language classes are the main support for middle and high school ELLs here.

Officials are particularly concerned about the low graduation rate for English-learners. Only 26.8 percent of students in the class of 2007 who were English-learners in 9th grade graduated in four years. Brownsville’s overall four-year dropout rate for the class of 2007 was 17.9 percent, higher than the average for Texas high schools of 11.4 percent.

No one in Brownsville thinks the dropout problem will be solved easily, but officials are taking action.

One initiative is the alternative school begun a few years ago to help students who lag in the middle-school grades catch up with their peers. The school district started an effort this school year to keep 9th graders in school through class-size reduction and assigning teachers to keep track of their progress in school.

Also, starting this school year, the district has a dropout specialist for each high school. The new dropout specialist and staff members at Pace High School, for instance, persuaded 30 students to return to school out of about 80 who failed to show up at the start of the school year.

More generally, Mr. Gonzales said his school district is working to improve the achievement of secondary students by introducing a hands-on science curriculum at the elementary level. Previously, he said, elementary students didn’t have access to a strong science curriculum, and those students are now doing poorly on the state’s science test at the secondary level.

Teacher training is a key part of the improvement strategy when it comes to high school ELLs. The district is working to train mainstream teachers in “sheltered English” approaches that help teachers make their teaching more accessible to ELLs. So far, 44 percent of the 922 secondary teachers who teach core subjects have received such training.

Adriana Garza, a 10th grade world history teacher at the 2,500-student Pace High, has taken to heart what she learned about how to make teaching more accessible to ELLs. In a recent lesson about Alexander the Great, for example, she had students discuss what they learned in pairs, and she changed the pairings every few minutes, giving them a chance to practice the language.

And Pace High officials continue to try new approaches for the school’s 300 English-learners. They implemented this school year an online curriculum created by the University of Texas at Austin that enables ELLs to take either a biology or math course in Spanish each semester.

Still, Ms. Senteno, the school’s principal, jokes that it would be nice if winning the Broad Prize made her school exempt from NCLB’s adequate yearly progress goals. Pace has missed AYP for special education students and ELLs in reading and math for the past three years, and missed its graduation goals in the past two years.

After leading a Brownsville middle school that improved, she is charged with doing the same at Pace High, where she’s in her second year as principal. Ms. Senteno says she has directed the school to pay teachers to work with students before and after school and on Saturdays, and to use data to “find the gaps that need to be closed.”

“My passion has always been that the content-area teacher needs to take responsibility for all the special populations, such as those with a low socioeconomic status or who are ESL students,” she said.

Charter School Competition

In a city with many low-income and working-class families, the Brownsville Independent School District commands a lot of respect. It is one of the largest employers in the city. But Brownsville ISD is not the only show in town.

Two years ago, the IDEA network of charter schools, which originated in Donna, Texas, opened a school on the edge of Brownsville that now enrolls 800 students in pre-K through 10th grade. Tom Torkelson, the founder, chief executive officer, and president of IDEA Public Schools, contends that the network’s schools have more rigorous curricula than the Brownsville district and are better preparing students to attend four-year colleges or universities.

Some parents welcome the charter school option. The Brownsville IDEA Frontier Academy and College Preparatory School had a waiting list of 1,000 students for 300 slots this school year.

Brownsville Superintendent Gonzales pointed out that charter schools don’t have to operate under the same rules as regular public schools do. For example, he notes, it’s easier for charter schools to expel students, something that Mr. Torkelson acknowledges as well. Also, the IDEA schools have a smaller proportion of ELLs and special education students than the district does, Mr. Gonzales said.

“We have to deal with every child,” Mr. Gonzales said. “We teach everyone and we’re proud of it.”

Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the December 03, 2008 edition of Education Week as It’s No Secret: Progress Prized In Brownsville


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