Year in Review: Changes, accomplishments mark schools in 2019

HARLINGEN — Big changes and grand successes were the hallmark of local school districts, looking back at education through our area in 2019.

Local school districts were recognized for their exemplary performance. In the Harlingen school district, the Texas Association of School Administrators named the district’s school board the best in the state.

Everyone was pretty psyched about it. Harlingen Superintendent Art Cavazos couldn’t stop talking about the pride he felt for the board. He did, after all, nominate the board for the distinction.

“The board’s governance has allowed us to provide students with a greater access to a world-class education that sparks creativity and discovery both inside and outside the classroom,” Cavazos said. “They have learned from and challenged one another so that equitable and high impact decisions are made, and I am honored to have a seat among them.”

One of those board members, Dr. Nolan Perez, was appointed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to join the University of Texas System Board of Regents.

“ I’m deeply honored that Gov. Abbott appointed me to the UT System Board of Regents,” said Perez, who is also the president of the Harlingen school board.

“If confirmed by the Senate, I can’t wait to begin serving with this amazing board,” he said. “With eight academic and six health institutes, there is so much to learn and so much to do to expand UT’s impact across Texas.”

Cavazos commended Perez for the appointment.

“I am super proud of Dr. Perez and grateful for his service to HCISD,” he said. “As a champion for children, he has and will continue to leave a legacy on education in this great state.”

The Harlingen district also opened the Harlingen Performing Arts Conservatory for students in grades 9-12.

Students must pass an audition in order to be accepted into the program. Those who are accepted take their core classes at their regular high schools. Then they are transported to the conservatory for afternoon classes in their chosen track. The conservatory offers four tracks: theater, musical theater, dance and technical theater. The conservatory is open to students from other school districts. Several students commute from McAllen, and one student moved here from Victoria so he could attend the conservatory.

“We have so many talented students in the arts and we wanted to provide the best training for them,” said Sally Cavazos Navarro, with the conservatory. “It’s going to offer intense training in the section that they choose. There’ll be intense training by professionals and guest artists from all over the United States.”

The conservatory has also delivered stellar performances, including “In the Heights,” “Leading Ladies” and “Jellicle.” Guest artists flew down from California and New York to give students master classes.

Students seem to see the conservatory as a sort of “jumping off” point toward greater things.

“I think they can make my acting experience 100 times better and I can actually make it on Broadway,” said Leroy Zaller, a junior at Harlingen High School. He’s also enrolled in the musical theater track of the conservatory.

“We have actors, we have musicians, everybody all coming to help us,” he said.

Meeting such successful entertainers is exciting – and a little intimidating.

“People who actually made it, it’s a little scary to me,” he said with a laugh.

Even the school district’s nutrition program caught the attention of the Texas Department of Agriculture. This summer the department awarded the district’s nutrition program it’s Best of the Brunch Award.

“I’m very happy,” said Lionel Vega, the district’s new registered dietitian.

“This is my first year participating with the district but I feel very happy that we were able to achieve our goals and get our award,” he said.

The district had to meet three criteria to earn the award: eat local, teach local, and be social. District officials met the criteria at locations where children participated in the summer feeding program.

“We had the opportunity to bring in items grown in Texas, from greens, chickens, fruits, from our milk,” he said. “We were able to teach them about Texas produce.”

In the Accountability Ratings released in August, the district scored just one point below an A. The ratings by the Texas Education Association show the district scored a 94 for closing the gaps, 91 on school progress, and 85 on student achievement. The combined score came out to a 92.

But wait … didn’t the ratings say the district scored an 89? Which is it, 89 or 92?

Well, one campus received less than a C on Closing the Gaps, and that bumped the district’s score to an 89.

Closing the Gaps assesses how special populations such as English language learners and special education students are performing.

The district explained that the school in question is KEYS Academy.

“Harlingen CISD created KEYS Academy as part of its continued commitment to addressing the needs of students at-risk of dropping out,” states a release from the school district.

“KEYS Academy allows children to complete their high school education in an environment outside of their primary high school campus,” states the release.

The school board this year did something rarely seen: trustees actually cut property taxes.

The reduction will cut taxes by more than 10 cents per $100 of property value. More specifically, the school district’s property tax rate will be reduced from $1.31 to $1.21.

The tax cut is in response to the state legislature’s approve of House Bill 3 last session, said Julio Cavazos, chief financial officer for the district.

“It requires school districts to reduce their maintenance and operations tax rate in order to achieve property tax relief,” Cavazos said. “The state will subsidize the lost property tax revenues with state dollars.”

This move reduces the tax rate a little lower than its previous level before voters approved a tax increase.

The district also had to deal with unforeseen events like the heavy flooding in June. Dishman Elementary had eight to 10 inches of water inside the entire school.

“We had to remove the first four feet of sheetrock in all the walls with the insulation,” said Oscar Tapia, assistant superintendent for district operations.

Wilson Elementary and Vernon Middle School also sustained damage.

“Overall, Dishman alone is probably about $300,000,” Tapia said. “We took the money out of the general fund.”

Early College High School received a top rating by GreatSchools, a leading national nonprofit empowering parents to unlock educational opportunities for their child.

“I feel very honored and humbled,” said Principal Pamela Flores.

ECHS’s recognition is the result of a “team effort,” Flores said. “The teachers work very hard to prepare our students, our students are very focused and very driven. This is all the result of the teachers’ hard work and our students’ commitment to set goals for themselves.”

The district and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley agreed to build a new ECHS at the corner of Hale Avenue and Camelot Drive. The city donated the land where HCISD and UTRGV will build the new $14 million campus. Both entities are splitting the cost.

The new Early College High School will have four pathways, said Veronica Kortan, administrator for organizational development for the Harlingen district.

“One of them is for the academic core,” she said. “But we have an engineering pathway, a computer science pathway and an aspiring teacher pathway.”

The school district — and the whole community — had to bid goodbye to a beloved educator. Verna Young, a former school board member, died earlier this month. She was 88.

Board member Gerry Fleuriet spoke at length about Young, who was first her former algebra teacher.

“She was our children’s high school principal, and she was our close friend,” Fleuriet said. “These things stand out in my mind: Her commitment to fairness and consistency under all circumstances.”

In other districts, the Rising Scholars Academy in San Benito, was named Best in Texas in two categories in the 2020 Niche Best Middle School and Best Public Middle School Teachers in Texas. The school is part of the South Texas Independence School District.

“Our state and national ranking reflect the collaboration amongst our students, parents, faculty and staff and district community,” said Principal Criselda Rodriguez Flores.

The campus also ranked 26th in the nation in each of those categories out of over 23,000 schools ranked.

Jubilee-Harlingen opened a new campus this year to more than 500 students.

“We’re ecstatic,” said Principal Tanya Perez.

And what makes Jubilee stand out?

“Everything is about building a personal relationship with our students and their parents,” Perez said. “Every teacher that we bring on board is passionate about what he or she does. We’re very focused on the development of leadership, and we talk about ways to develop their leadership from early on.”

Jubilee Academies previously held classes in two rented facilities. Jubilee Destiny was located at Grace Point Fellowship Church. Harlingen Leadership Academy taught students at Faith Pleases God. The new building will offer classes to more than double the number at the two rented facilities. It will serve students in grades pre-kindergarten through 8th.

The South Texas Independent School District once again enjoyed accolades at the state and national level, with four high schools ranking at the top of their class.

“U.S. News & World Report recently published its 2019 Best High Schools Rankings,” said Amanda Odom, Public Relations & Marketing Coordinator for STISD.

“All four STISD high schools rank among the best in the state and nation,” she said.

STISD Superintendent Marco Lara Jr. was delighted by the news.

“We are elated to see all four of our high schools achieving a ranking among the best in the state and nation,” he said. “There are amazing things happening in education in the Rio Grande Valley, and we are so proud to be a part of it.”

It is clearly evident that the passing year will, in fact, leave its impact on the future.

twhitehead@valleystar.com