Located near the border of the United States and Mexico, Cromack Elementary School provides education to many young children in Spanish. However, by 4th grade, these students smoothly transition into English language classrooms. This success in helping students demonstrates the strengths of the school district, which has a high number of English-language learners and low-income families. In fact, students from all grades outperform those in similar districts when it comes to reading and math. The remarkable performance is attributed to the school district’s commitment to teacher professional development and data-based instruction. As a result, the Brownsville Independent School District was awarded the prestigious 2008 Broad Prize for Urban Education, recognizing it as the most improved urban school district in the nation.

As part of the prize, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has awarded $1 million, which will be used to provide college scholarships to graduating seniors in the school system. This generous gesture highlights the district’s success in supporting Hispanic and low-income students. The key to this success lies in its track record of helping Spanish-speaking students acquire English proficiency, enabling them to thrive academically and perform well on state tests. The district has a significant number of English-language learners, making up around 42 percent of the student population, compared to the state average of 15 percent.

An overview of the Brownsville Independent School District reveals that the city of Brownsville has a population of 161,225. The district has a total of 48,858 students, with 42.4% of them being English-language learners, 98% identifying as Hispanic, and 94.4% coming from low-income families. It is worth noting that the district did not meet the adequate yearly progress goals in 2008 for reading and math among special education students, as well as the graduation rate in 2007 and the reading goal for special education students in 2006.

When comparing the dropout and graduation rates for the Class of 2007, the Brownsville district had a dropout rate of 17.9%, higher than the statewide rate of 11.4%. However, the district’s graduation rate was 53.2%, while the statewide rate was 78.0%. For English-language learners in Brownsville, the graduation rate was significantly lower at 26.8%, and the dropout rate was higher at 38.5%.

Despite these challenges, the Broad prize acknowledges the district’s progress on various indicators. In 2007, the district outperformed other Texas districts serving low-income students in reading and math across all grade levels. Over 94% of the district’s students come from low-income families. Additionally, the district has made significant strides in narrowing the achievement gap between Hispanic students, who make up the majority of the student population, and non-Hispanic whites statewide in math at the elementary school level.

While the district has not met the adequate yearly progress goals under the No Child Left Behind Act for the past three years, it is important to note that this is just one of many indicators considered by the Broad prize jury. Previous prize winners, such as the New York City and Boston school districts, have also missed these goals. The Broad prize recognizes districts that are making significant progress in closing the achievement gap at a faster rate than their peers.


Closing the Achievement Gap

According to the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, Hispanic students in the Brownsville Independent School District are narrowing the gap with their non-Hispanic white peers statewide in terms of reading and math proficiency.

READING: Proficiency Rates in Elementary School

READING: Proficiency Rates in High School

MATHEMATICS: Proficiency Rates in Elementary School

MATHEMATICS: Proficiency Rates in High School

SOURCE: Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation

However, educators face the greatest challenge in reaching a specific group of English-learners, as the parents of these students often remain in Mexico while their children are sent to school in Brownsville. This separation can have negative effects on the students’ self-esteem, so it is crucial for educators to make an extra effort to help them feel valued and included.

Brownsville places a strong emphasis on its transitional bilingual education program when working with both American-born and foreign-born ELL students. Miguel Angel Escotet, the dean of the school of education at the University of Texas at Brownsville, describes Brownsville’s bilingual education program as one of the best in the nation.

The University of Texas at Brownsville is the only four-year university in the city and provides 75 percent of the school district’s teachers, most of whom graduate with bilingual certification. Many of these teachers have personal experience growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, so they understand the unique challenges faced by their students.

Teacher turnover and student mobility rates in Brownsville are both low, indicating a stable and consistent learning environment.

Strong Elementary Schools

Brownsville’s elementary schools excel according to Texas’ accountability system. The district as a whole has an "academically acceptable" rating for 2007, which falls below the levels of "exemplary" and "recognized" but is higher than "academically unacceptable" on the four-level ranking system.

The elementary schools stand out with all but one of the 33 schools receiving an "exemplary" or "recognized" ranking in 2007. In contrast, only four out of the 11 middle schools and just one out of the five high schools achieved a ranking as high as "recognized."

In terms of English proficiency, students in Brownsville show significant progress in the early grades. While 62 percent of kindergartners are classified as having limited English proficiency, this drops to 30 percent by 5th grade.

During the reading class, the instruction was entirely in Spanish. However, in social studies, Ms. Rodriguez delivered a lesson on world geography in English, and her students mostly spoke in English during that lesson. Transitioning to English is not easy, according to Gladis Garcia, a 10-year-old who moved from Mexico to Brownsville 3 ½ years ago and is currently in 4th grade. She said, "I get confused with some words. Sometimes the words are too difficult."

Concerns in High School

Mr. Gonzales recognizes that the district faces a challenge in educating students who arrive in Brownsville without speaking English at the middle or high school levels. Currently, English-as-a-second-language classes are the main support for middle and high school English language learners (ELLs) in this area. Officials are particularly worried about the low graduation rate for English learners. Only 26.8 percent of students in the class of 2007, who were English learners in 9th grade, graduated within four years. Brownsville’s overall four-year dropout rate for the class of 2007 was 17.9 percent, higher than the average rate of 11.4 percent for Texas high schools. No one in Brownsville believes that the dropout problem will be easily solved, but officials are taking action.

One initiative is the alternative school that was established a few years ago to assist students who are falling behind in the middle school grades to catch up with their peers. The school district started an effort this school year to ensure that 9th graders stay in school by reducing class sizes and assigning teachers to monitor their progress.

Additionally, starting this school year, the district has appointed a dropout specialist for each high school. The new dropout specialist and staff members at Pace High School, for example, were able to convince 30 students to return to school out of approximately 80 who did not show up at the beginning of the school year.

In a broader sense, Mr. Gonzales stated that his school district is working towards improving the achievement of secondary students by implementing a hands-on science curriculum at the elementary level. Previously, elementary students did not have access to a strong science curriculum, and these students are now performing poorly on the state’s science test at the secondary level. Teacher training is a crucial component of the improvement strategy for high school ELLs. The district is providing training to mainstream teachers on "sheltered English" approaches that help make their teaching more accessible to ELLs. Currently, 44 percent of the 922 secondary teachers who teach core subjects have received such training.

Adriana Garza, a 10th grade world history teacher at Pace High, has embraced the techniques she learned to make her teaching more accessible to ELLs. For instance, in a recent lesson about Alexander the Great, she had students discuss what they learned in pairs and changed the pairings every few minutes, giving them opportunities to practice the language. Pace High officials are also continually exploring new approaches for the school’s 300 English learners. They have introduced an online curriculum developed by the University of Texas at Austin this school year, which allows ELLs to take either a biology or math course in Spanish each semester. Nevertheless, Ms. Senteno, the school’s principal, humorously suggests that it would be nice if winning the Broad Prize exempted her school from the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals set by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. Pace has not met AYP for special education students and ELLs in reading and math for the past three years, and has also missed its graduation goals in the past two years.

After successfully leading a Brownsville middle school, Ms. Senteno is now tasked with achieving the same success at Pace High, where she is in her second year as principal. She has directed the school to compensate teachers for working with students before and after school as well as on Saturdays, and to use data to identify and address any learning gaps. She said, "My passion has always been that the content-area teacher needs to take responsibility for all special populations, such as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds or who are ESL students."

Competition from Charter Schools

"We are committed to engaging with every child," expressed Mr. Gonzales. "Our dedication lies in educating each individual, and we take immense pride in that achievement."


  • rhysgraham

    Rhys Graham is an educational blogger and professor who writes about topics such as literacy, mathematics, and science. He has written several books, including one on the history of science. He is also the co-founder of the website Learn Out Loud, which helps educators create and share classroom activities.