School & District Management

Upward Journey

By Catherine Gewertz — March 28, 2006 9 min read
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The schools in this town used to be among the worst in Texas. But now, the low-income Latino children who fill its classrooms are outperforming students in wealthier, whiter communities.

Here on the northern bank of the Rio Grande, school district leaders chalk up the change to a deceptively simple reconception of how school systems should work. Students, they say, must be at the heart of everything, with every service and program—from janitorial assignments to curriculum design—shaped by what will help them the most.


Under that guiding principle, the district’s leaders have revamped all of its operations, energizing the staff and producing academic results that are drawing national notice.

“We are humbled by being part of a system that is striving to serve kids,” said Eduardo Cancino, a migrant worker’s son who rose to become the assistant superintendent for school and program improvement in the 3,100-student Hidalgo Independent School District.

“The mental model changes to say, ‘I’m really your servant,’ but at the same time,” he said, “it gives you a new battery, focuses your work, and makes you want to do a good job.”

For the past eight years, Hidalgo has been rated “recognized” or “exemplary,” the two top categories in Texas’ accountability system. The New York City-based College Board has commended the district for the large numbers of its high school schools taking Advanced Placement courses and passing those tests.

“This is a poor district, a tiny district, but they took the pieces of what we know works and put them together, using the kids as their focus, and got great results,” said Delia Pompa, the vice president for education at the Washington-based National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group. “The lessons from Hidalgo are about how a community’s high expectations for its students can change their lives.”

In the late 1980s, district leaders say, Hidalgo ranked among the lowest-performing 5 percent of districts in Texas. Even worse, educators seemed resigned to that fate. “There was a sense that was the best we could do,” said Superintendent Daniel P. King, who grew up in the area, where most students enter school knowing little English. Many live in trailers and patched-up cottages with no indoor plumbing.

He recalled: “The way people thought was, ‘Well, with our population …’”

The jolt that began the district’s upward journey came in the early 1990s, when two of its six schools were deemed low-performing by the state. The superintendent at that time had been laying important groundwork to refocus the district on student achievement, but by most accounts, he was hobbled by the school board’s micromanagement.

When Mr. King assumed the post seven years ago, he found a disjointed curriculum, poor data systems, and administrators isolated from one another, working in separate “silos.” He combined all instructional functions under a “teaching and learning” umbrella and emphasized collaboration. Now, the leaders of curriculum and instruction, special education, dual-language programs, and assessment share the meeting table with those from human resources, transportation, and food service.

“You get to know who’s who and what everyone’s working on, and it’s all personal,” said Rebecca Rodriguez, the director of special education. “It’s part of us.”

Backed by a new group of school board members, district leaders developed a clear theory of action and made sure everyone knew what it was. Education in Hidalgo would be conceived of as “systems of support” for students. The leaders identified four areas to concentrate on: “systems thinking,” teaching and learning, future career pathways for students, and parent empowerment.

Systems thinking is the idea that all of the district’s operations are united in one vision: helping children. No purchase is made, no program adopted, unless it serves that end, Mr. King said.

“It’s always about, ‘Why am I here?’ That’s the message that’s relentless around here,” said Mr. Cancino, the assistant superintendent. “It’s in everything we do. It’s keeping the vision front and center, and taking action to pursue that vision.”

Emphasizing parent empowerment is grounded in the idea that helping parents helps their children. Among the district’s offerings are English-literacy classes for its largely Spanish-speaking parent population. On a recent day, 21 women were chanting the days of the week in a room at the high school, one with her sleeping child in a stroller. The previous day, the room was packed with parents learning how to monitor their children’s homework and help them prepare for upcoming state tests.

Forging pathways for students means linking them with the next steps in their lives. That includes teaching a more rigorous curriculum and making students aware of college scholarships, as well as outlining direct routes to the workplace. School-community partnerships connect students with internships. High school students pursue one of five broad career areas, guided into apprenticeships and two- or four-year colleges by teachers and counselors who rotate through summer work in those fields themselves.

One of the most ambitious aspects of the district’s effort is its plan to begin an “early college” program for all 800 of its high school students in partnership with the University of Texas. Using a four-year, $1.2 million grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Hidalgo’s high school is about to become the first in the nation to redesign itself so that every student will participate in the early college model.

Starting this coming fall, the program will enable all juniors and seniors to take college-level courses tuition-free, earning two years of college credit while fulfilling their high school graduation requirements.

Superintendent King and Edward Blaha, the high school’s principal, know the plan requires some heavy lifting in a district where many high school students are still struggling to master English. They are working to prepare students and staff members for the added challenges. Setting the bar high, they argue, is the only way to open roads to their students’ futures.

Students...must be at the heart of everything, with every service and program—from janitorial assignments to curriculum design—shaped by what will help them most.

The coming program has affected Diana Puente’s vision of her future. The 8th grader’s parents, a deli cashier and a pawnshop employee, have worried they couldn’t afford to send Diana, the youngest of their three children, to college. But the early-college program essentially slashes tuition in half.

“I used to think college wasn’t a possibility, but now I want to make sure I don’t slack off,” said Diana, who hopes to become a lawyer. Her father, Antonio, said news of the program was “like a message sent from God.”

To increase the chances of students’ academic success, Hidalgo has made universal preschool a keystone of its teaching-and-learning system. All 3- and 4-year-olds can attend full-day preschool with teachers certified in early-childhood education. Elementary school principals say they see the investment paying off in stronger prereading and social skills among kindergartners.

Dual-language instruction in English and Spanish is used from preschool through elementary school, and is being phased in to higher grades, as a tool to build “biliteracy.” District leaders view those skills as crucial to students’ success in an increasingly global economy. (Texas students may choose to take state tests in English or Spanish through 6th grade. Then, they must take the tests in English.)

The dual-language approach has also brought more parents into the schools to volunteer in the libraries, help in classrooms, and seek out meetings with teachers, educators here say.

“Before [dual-language], there was a barrier with parents,” said Silverio Macias, the principal of Alejo D. Salinas Elementary School. “Now, they feel they can come to school, that their community is respected and valued.”

Teachers are trained to approach learning as a cooperative, inquiry-based venture, because district leaders believe that approach builds the content, social, and language skills of students with Hidalgo’s demographic profile.

For math time recently in a 1st grade classroom, for instance, a child with strong English skills was paired with a classmate who speaks little English. They worked together with brightly colored cubes, speaking alternately in two languages, while solving place-value problems. Such an approach boosts several types of skills simultaneously.

Teachers and principals meet often to analyze the results of benchmark assessments and adjust instruction accordingly. Tutoring is offered for the students most in need, and teachers of all grade levels are involved. At Salinas Elementary, for instance, teachers from pre-K through 2nd grade take part in tutoring children in 3rd grade—the year the Texas state tests begin—so they “get the whole picture,” Mr. Macias said.

Teachers also were at the heart of crafting the district’s curriculum. Guided by administrators who had immersed themselves in scholarship about what makes good curriculum and instruction, teams of teachers extracted key ideas from state standards and tests and designed thematic units to cover them.

They built a “concept map” laying out the pivotal ideas in each unit and figured out how to teach them in the instructional time left after subtracting holidays, test preparation, and test-taking. They “backmapped” the curriculum to ensure that each grade level prepares students for the next one, and that all students build strong enough skills for college, and they aligned instruction “horizontally,” so that all 4th grade teachers, for instance, are covering the same material.

Doing such work turns both administrators and staff members into students themselves. They’ve been guided by such books as Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design, Heidi Hayes Jacobs’ Mapping the Big Picture, and Fenwick W. English’s work on “deep alignment” of curriculum. Underpinning their approach is the belief that classroom work should be more than following a textbook—it should flow directly from clearly defined goals and concepts.

The scholarly collaboration continues in meetings at the district’s headquarters, as administrators take turns guiding seminars on such books as Robert J. Marzano’s Classroom Instruction That Works. And the ongoing professional development at schools has a similar flavor. A recent focus at Ida Diaz Junior High School, for instance, was training teachers in higher-level questioning strategies.

Pervading the work here is a palpable sense of mission. Mr. King said that in serving some of the poorest children in Texas, he and his staff are all too aware that the nation, with its stereotypes, quietly expects failure. So his team’s goal is twofold: to make sure students succeed, and to prove to the rest of the country that they can.

“If we can really do some things here that many think are undoable,” he said, “maybe we can change some mind-sets.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 2006 edition of Education Week as Upward Journey


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