South Texas Initiative Tackles Tough Issues To Foster Students' Success
For George Lopez, parent specialist with the Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SS/HS) initiative in Weslaco, TX, helping students succeed comes naturally.
An immigrant from Mexico, Lopez had very little education and did not know English when he arrived with his family 30 years ago. But assistance from social workers, counselors, and dedicated teachers laid the foundation of success for Lopez.
"I love helping people because when I was growing up, I always had that support system," he said. "It stemmed from the schools having a strong network to help us."
While that network still exists, times have changed at Weslaco Independent School District, home to more than 15,000 elementary and secondary students on 19 campuses in the Rio Grande Valley. It is increasingly rare to find traditional families similar to the Lopezes.
"Half of our students today are living in what are considered non-traditional family settings, and they bring along a host of difficult issues," Lopez said. Alcohol and drug addiction, high unemployment, lack of mental health services, and poverty compound the problems.
Help came in 2001 when the school district won a $5.7 million, 3-year grant from the Federal SS/HS Initiative. The grant provided Weslaco's students and their families with crisis and mental health services; school safety, prevention, and early childhood education; and school reform. It also provided education and health classes for teen parents, after-school tutorial and recreational activities for youth, and youth leadership training and scholarship information.
"When we received the grant, it was a blessing," Lopez said. "The community came together: our civic leaders, our State and local agencies, our schools, and not only to reach out to the students and teaching staff, but also out to our community, even into the rural and underdeveloped areas."
Weslaco's SS/HS initiative, known locally as the Pinnacle program, began establishing partnerships with the community, including the members of its advisory council; Boys and Girls Club of Weslaco; the City of Weslaco Parks and Recreation Department; Buckner Children Services; and K-WES, the school district's local cable access channel that reaches 35,000 city residents. The collaboration between Pinnacle and K-WES has created award-winning programming as well. Last year, K-WES produced a short video, Shattered Dreams, based on a Pinnacle student retreat that focused on the dangers of drunk driving. The video won K-WES the Texas Schools Public Relations Association award for the top instructional station in the State.
Since Pinnacle's inception, its success has been contagious. Weslaco was selected as an "All-American City," 1 of 10 in the country and the only city in Texas to be given such a designation.
"It gives you a deep sense of pride and a sense of accomplishment," said Weslaco Mayor Joe Sanchez. "It is a pride that will carry on for years to come."
Collaboration Is Key
Weslaco is working collaboratively to sustain a comprehensive cadre of services to reduce school violence, alcohol and drug use, and teen pregnancy while working to increase school safety, academic achievement, and student leadership.
Pinnacle addresses six core elements: ensuring the safety of its students; preventing the abuse of drugs and alcohol and the use of tobacco; supporting the mental health of its students; addressing early childhood issues; working with teenage moms to break the cycle of problems stemming from adolescents having children; and reforming the educational system, including meeting, and in some cases, exceeding State requirements.
"Despite the fact that we encounter some difficulties associated with our region and location, we are academically competitive with other districts throughout the State," said Weslaco SS/HS project director Julie Majors.
Educating Students and Parents Through Youth Leadership Conferences
Pinnacle has supported dozens of Youth Leadership Conferences that address character building among the district's fifth graders. At the end of each conference, participants sign an agreement that they are going to be better citizens, better role models, and better peers. "It is really powerful in the lives of our young children," Majors said.
Administrators do not just plan the conferences; they bring students into the planning process. "Before we even plan the conference, we talk with students about issues facing them today," said Maria Alvarado, Weslaco's "drug-free schools" social worker. "As we looked at some of the issues, we realized that many [students] needed to be targeted at the elementary level because that was where we started to see [the problems] manifest."
The issues range from high rates of teen pregnancy to poverty to bullying and violence. "These are not issues that we as adults are imposing on our students," Alvarado said. "It is what they are telling us."
The conference organizers try to give students a sense of leadership with the hope that it will prevent negative behaviors from developing later on in life. "We try to help them develop their assets so they will become stronger students academically and better students overall at the middle school level," Alvarado said.
Pinnacle also offers programs for parent education. "Parents come up to us and they thank us for those parent involvement workshops and for the youth leadership workshops," said George Lopez. Schools are seeing the difference: Grades are up and discipline infractions are down at many campuses.
Weslaco "Goes Back to School"
In 1995, the U.S. Department of Education launched the "America Goes Back to School" (AGBTS) campaign to help Americans identify ways to increase active parent participation and to strengthen teaching and learning in local schools.
At Weslaco, the campaign is still going strong. One day a week, students don their favorite college T-shirt and meet to listen to college students and representatives from colleges.
Audrey Aguirre, age 10, knows AGBTS activities well. "I think it is really cool because we have pep rallies and people come and talk," Aguirre said. "It's like we have a celebration for college on Thursday."
Students apply for Weslaco's "America Goes Back to School" scholarships when they are seniors. "Some people can't afford to go to college, so we put quarters in the piggy bank every Thursday," Aguirre said. "We give the money to seniors as a scholarship, and then they go to college."
The piggy bank has been full. Each year, nearly $5,000 is collected at Cleckler/Heald Elementary School. These funds help high school seniors to get a jumpstart on their college educations. In the last 5 years, as many as 30 Weslaco students have received financial help for college from these elementary school scholarship collections..
One strategy that has helped build momentum for the program is the motto: "If it should be.it is up to me," said Linda Abrego, an elementary school counselor who assists with the program. "Every morning, we emphasize our school motto after the school announcements, and for the day, we let the students know that "if it is to be.it will be up to them."
Most campuses in the Weslaco district organize weekly activities. "We really establish goals for each student and relay the message that they can go to college," Abrego said. "As you walk through our elementary schools, our kids are saying that they are going to college."
Another avenue for fundraising for scholarships has been an "Evening of Harmony at the Park," a community gathering and fair that provides a forum for exchanges among students, parents, school leaders, and community leaders. The event draws thousands of students and families in the region and provides visibility for the Pinnacle program, which assists in making Weslaco's SS/HS initiative sustainable.
Programs Work on Multiple Levels
Many of Pinnacle's activities function on two levels: helping students and, at the same time, ensuring the success and the future of the program. One example is Pinnacle's Tobacco Prevention Campaign-a collaborative effort among the Texas Department of Health, the Texas State Trooper Association, and Knapp Memorial Hospital-which won the 2003 Tobacco-Free Texas Award from the American Cancer Society and the Center for Safe Communities and Schools.
Last November, more than 1,400 school-aged children attended events at 9 of the district's schools. They listened to presentations from law enforcement, mental health professionals, social services partners, medical doctors, and the Boys and Girls Club of Weslaco.
"There is a philosophy of 'it takes a village to raise our kids,'" said George Lopez. "I think that is one of the most beautiful things that we see in this area. But we still have battles to win. That is where my passion comes from. We won't win the war anytime soon. If we can save one kid, we change that generation."