“They remind me a lot about the way I grew up, which was very hungry to get ahead, very hungry to succeed, because my parents didn’t have a lot.”
Dr. Esperanza Zendejas, Superintendent of Brownsville ISD, the largest school district in the Rio Grande Valley, can relate to her students and their families. Growing up picking peaches and tomatoes in the fields of California, Zendejas experienced what many BISD students do – financial insecurity in a family struggling to get by.
In fact, more than 95 percent of BISD students are economically disadvantaged and nearly a third are English Language Learners.
And yet, Brownsville ISD and its students consistently outperform expectations. The district, which boasts a 90 percent graduation rate, recently was featured by U.S News & World Report as a place “Where Poor Students Are At the Top of the Class.” It is ranked in The Washington Post among the country’s most challenging high schools.
“Given the challenges like our high rate of poverty, our huge digital divide, and being located minutes from the border in an isolated part of the state, we’re doing exceptionally well when we compare ourselves nationally,” says Dr. Zendejas.
How do the district and its students consistently outperform expectations? Zendejas attributes it to students seizing the wide-ranging opportunities offered by the district.
District leadership believes some of its most effective investments for students include:
- Pre-k for most 4-year-olds and many 3-year-olds
- Early College High School courses at all seven of BISD’s high schools, allowing students to earn up to 60 college credit hours prior to graduation
- Engaging extracurricular activities, like fine arts, athletics, and chess, including covering expenses for students who cannot afford equipment, and travel costs to compete statewide and nationally
- Extended elementary school day to provide tutorials until 5:30 p.m.
- Breakfast, lunch, and dinner for any student who needs it at no cost to families
Dr. Zendejas, who eventually earned her PhD from Stanford University, attributes much of her success to the support and encouragement of her family.
“We want and need parental involvement and engagement, and we want families to feel supported by our school system so they may believe in us as much as we believe in our students. When we enroll a child in our schools, we really are enrolling the entire family, and we want that family to know their child has every opportunity to be successful, both at BISD and beyond.”