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The Border/La Frontera

A hardworking district strikes a balance where the U.S. meets Mexico.

By John Rosales

Ask George Borrego for the best place to eat dinner in Brownsville, Texas, and he'll give you directions to Los Portales, a legendary home-style beef eatery located a mile across the U.S.-Mexico border in Matamoros.

"You can't beat it," he says, not thinking twice about having to go through customs and cross the Rio Grande to get there. Los Portales, like most restaurants in the twin cities of Matamoros and Brownsville, features a bilingual menu and allows patrons to pay in pesos or dollars.

Los Portales could be in Brownsville or Matamoros or anywhere else along the bicultural frontera shared by Mexico and the United States. 

 Such is the ambiguity pervading life along the divide, where people work on one side and live on the other, are born on one side and die on the other, get sick on one side and see a doctor on the other, attend elementary school on one side and graduate from high school on the other.

"The two cities have more in common with each other than with other areas of their own countries," says Borrego, an economics teacher at Porter High School in Brownsville. "Students look the same over there as here."

It's true. In the Brownsville Independent School District (BISD) about 98 percent of the 48,400 students are Hispanic, mostly of Mexican descent. Beyond appearance, Brownsville also shares another quality with its Third World sister city: poverty. According to a 2006 Census Bureau report, Brownsville is the poorest city of its size in the United States.

For teachers in the Brownsville district, this means that 95 percent of their students are categorized as "economically disadvantaged." Add to that a high percentage of first generation Hispanic students, many from families who can't read or write English, and you end up with 43 percent of district students ranked limited English proficient (LEP) and in need of special services that stretch the district's budget to the limit.

This scenario could wreak havoc on even the best-run, wealthiest school districts in the nation, but it hasn't in Brownsville. On the contrary, BISD has adapted to its environmental challenges and emerged as a model school district for the nation.

Meeting the challenge

Hacer frente al desafío

Parts of BISD's winning plan include paying teachers a competitive salary—starting at $38,000 and going as high as $59,720—working closely with parents, community leaders, and Mexican educators, and building loyalty among its teachers, most of whom are bilingual and routinely turn down lucrative offers to teach in districts across the country.

BISD also created a magnet school system in conjunction with community leaders to help motivate students to stay in school and to fill high-skill local jobs in health care, engineering, criminal justice, education, and business.

So far, it's working.

In 2007, BISD graduates received more than $17 million in college scholarship offers. This year, BISD was chosen by the National Alliance for Hispanic Health and the Merck Institute for Science Education as one of three school districts nationwide that will receive $4 million in college scholarships over the next five years for qualified students to study science.

Roberto Zamora, a Porter graduate who attended the   Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and is now a physics graduate student, felt good about his high school math and physics background.

"I expected MIT students to be much more advanced than I was," says Zamora, 23. "I soon learned that the strong foundation I had developed in high school enabled me to hold my own against any problems the professors would throw at me."

Another key to the district's success is community support. In 2006, Brownsville voters approved a $135 million school bond package allowing the district to construct four schools and upgrade existing facilities.

"We have easily passed $235 million [in bonds] in less than 10 years in a community that has some real poverty issues," says Drue Brown, BISD public information officer.

While more than 150 local businesses and organizations participate in the district's adopt-a-school program, parents also do their share.

"Anytime I ask parents for help, they are willing," says Porter Principal Dora Sauceda.

After Porter won the Texas state soccer championship in 2005 in one of the state's most competitive divisions, people associated with the school have become known as the Porter Nation.

"It's not just a title," says Sauceda. "There's a lot of tradition and pride at the school."

The overall showing by BISD in academics, sports, and community involvement has caught the attention of a group of national education experts who visited last spring, evaluating BISD for the Broad Prize for Urban Education.

BISD is among five school districts in the nation that have been chosen as finalists for the Broad, which honors urban school districts that demonstrate the greatest overall performance or improvement while reducing achievement gaps among ethnic groups and between high- and low-income students.

The winner will be announced in October and receive $500,000 in scholarships for graduating seniors. 

Cultural common ground

Terreno común cultural

Borrego attributes some of BISD's success to a teaching and support staff who are home-grown and familiar with the Hispanic culture.

"It helps that teachers look like their students," says Borrego, who has taught at Porter for 18 years.

 About 90 percent of the district's 7,000-plus employees are Hispanic. At Porter, there are no Black students and less than a dozen White and Asian students combined. The teaching and support staff are more diverse, including several Black ROTC instructors.

Consequently, many school festivities and traditions in BISD can be traced to its southern neighbor. For example, Porter boasts a mariachi orchestra, Mexican folkloric dance group, and theater performances that honor Hispanic playwrights.

Students and teachers also participate in Brownsville's Charro Days, a weeklong celebration held each February to honor the city's fellowship with Mexico.

Brownsville is the easternmost city in Texas, with Porter and its feeder schools located just two miles from Matamoros. One of the most impressive exchanges between the sister cities is the annual Binational Conference, a 15-year-old event involving up to 750 public school educators who exchange classroom strategies and stories.

"We learned from [Mexican educators] how to establish basic literacy programs," says Maria Gonzales, BISD Bilingual Education Program Administrator. "They are very interested in our ELL programs."

In addition to similar methodologies, the two education systems are linked because they educate members of the same families, Gonzales says.

 "A river divides us, but we're working [in Brownsville] with second and third generations of families originally from Matamoros," she says.

Are we poor?

¿Somos pobres?

For all it is doing right, BISD must still contend with a depressed economy that seems to affect children the most. In a recent newspaper article titled, "Are We Poor? Depends on Your Point of View," the Brownsville Herald quoted experts who said "along the U.S.-Mexico border, an impoverished population composed largely of children stretches limited resources."

Educating economically disadvantaged students and students with limited English proficiency is "more expensive than educating English-speaking students who are not poor. Poor students, for a variety of reasons, are likely to arrive at school less prepared to learn. Poor families cannot afford to buy books, computers, and other learning materials," according to Bordering the Future, a recent report by the Texas State Comptroller's Office.

In addition to a poor home learning environment, the report states that the "educational level of a child's parents, which tends to be lower for poor families, is one of the greatest predictors of academic success. Because of these factors, the schools must play 'catch up' with such students."

"Most LEP students are in the lower grades," says Gonzales. "If we catch them early, they'll stay with us for the long haul."

For BISD's 54 schools, the biggest challenge of admitting a constant flow of students from Mexico is that many do not even have a basic literacy in Spanish, let alone English. In Mexico, attending school is not free nor a government mandate.

"When you are weak in your native language, it is difficult to make a transition to another language," says Principal Sauceda, who attended school in Mexico before moving to Brownsville as a child.

Saucedo recalls when she was a teacher that a group of middle school students from Mexico weren't familiar with the number 5.

"They didn't know what it was . . . '¿Que es eso (what is that)?'" they would ask her.

Transfer students from Mexico could do well at Porter, says Borrego, if only they practiced their English more.

"They listen to Spanish radio stations and watch Spanish television," he says. "Our biggest battle is getting them to talk English."

Omar Covarrubias, an 18-year-old senior and soccer player at Porter, is greeted by friends in Spanish as he walks the halls during a class break. Covarrubias was born in Monterrey, Mexico, and attended schools in Matamoros up to eighth grade. With little knowledge of English, he transferred to Porter in ninth grade.

"All I could say in English was, 'My name is Omar, how are you?'" says Covarrubias, who wants to study computer science in college. By the start of 11th grade, he understood English well enough to transfer from English Language Learner to regular classes. 

Some stay, others leave

Algunos se quedan, otros se van

It's easier for BISD to provide a transformative experience for an ELL student like Covarrubias, who starts and finishes at the same high school. It's much harder to work with turnstile students who change schools several times a year.

At BISD, students whose families migrate to northern states to work at seasonal agricultural jobs often start school late and leave early. About 1,440 BISD students (3 percent) are categorized as "migrant." The border areas of Texas have a 24 percent mobility rate, slightly higher than the state's non-border areas (21 percent).

"They go from school to school during the year, usually arriving in October and leaving in April," says Saucedo. "It's their family's chosen way to earn a living."

She says these students attend 150 days of school "at most," instead of the normal 187.

Consequently, many fall behind and drop out. BISD lists its dropout rate at 14 percent. There are various methods of measuring the dropout rate, including whether or not a district counts students who transfer to alternative education programs, leave the state, or move to Mexico where they may or may not continue their schooling. Other sources list BISD's dropout rate at about 30 percent.

The district's completion rate (which takes into account students who need more than four years to finish high school) is an impressive 84 percent.

Much of this success is attributed to several bilingual programs that place Spanish speakers in LEP classes until they improve their English-speaking skills. For example, Promoting Academic Language Learning (PALL) is a full-immersion program for incoming students who are illiterate in their native language.

Thanks to a highly cooperative relationship with Mexican education officials, BISD has incorporated a program that accepts some academic credits from Mexican schools.

"This helps to avoid having an 18-year-old freshman," says Richard Longoria, an ELL teacher. "Without some transfer credits it would take them forever to graduate." 

ELL students are the fastest-growing population of public school students in the nation. From 1990 to 2001, ELL enrollment has grown by more than 105 percent, compared with only a 12 percent growth of total student enrollment during the same period. Nationwide, the most common language group for ELL students is Spanish at 79 percent; Vietnamese is listed second with only 2 percent, while Chinese and Korean are 1 percent each.

Longoria says his students are well-behaved, hard-working, and get good grades.

"But they don't interact in English," he says. "Socially, they converse in Spanish. But I think that will change in time." 

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