To help students in the Rio Grande Valley pursue a post-secondary education, the U.S. Department of Education awarded nearly $28 million Thursday to The University of Texas-Pan American for a collaborative project with 23 middle schools in 12 school districts stretching from Rio Grande City to Brownsville.
Provided through the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), the five-year award of $27,907,605 was announced by Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (D-Mercedes) at the International Trade and Technology Building at UTPA. It is believed to be among the largest awards in program history.
"We have a big gap to close in terms of investing in our children, but it can be closed," said Hinojosa, who was surrounded by community leaders, superintendents, educators and middle school students.
"These funds will help us do whatever it takes to help students graduate and take the Rio Grande Valley's percentage of graduates to more than 90 percent. That is our goal, and I look forward to the day when we can see all children graduate from high school."
The UTPA GEAR UP effort, "Yes, You Can Go To College, ¡Sí, Se Puede!" will develop and offer comprehensive services like mentoring, counseling, outreach, awareness and more. It will assist about 7,000 economically disadvantaged Valley students.
"Some states have not received this amount of money, so this award is very gratifying, and I want to congratulate everyone who was involved in this effort, especially Congressman Hinojosa," said UTPA President Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez.
"Congressman Hinojosa has done his work, and now it's up to us. Our students in South Texas are not participating in post-secondary education at the same rate as the rest of the state. We're going to have to be patient, but I think we're headed in the right direction."
Through GEAR UP, high poverty middle schools partner with at least two community and business organizations and local colleges and universities to provide students at a particular grade level (typically beginning in sixth or seventh grade) and their families with comprehensive support services to prepare for college - including enhanced curricular offerings, summer academies, information about college options and the college application process, and financial aid.
The program offers academic preparation and higher-level coursework to each class of participating students not only during middle school but also throughout high school.
"We're here today to celebrate a great investment in the Rio Grande Valley," said Dr. Hilda Medrano, dean of the UTPA College of Education, who presented Hinojosa with a poster and thank-you letters from children in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade.
"This will impact not just the education of students but also the quality of life in the Rio Grande Valley. It is through education that we can make a difference."
The 23 Valley middle schools represented are Central, Cummings, Oliveira and Stell in the Brownsville Independent School District; Veterans in the Donna ISD; Memorial in the Edinburg ISD; Ann Richards, Chavez, Memorial and Schunior in the La Joya ISD; Lasara in the Lasara ISD; Brown and Lincoln in the McAllen ISD; and K. White in the Mission Consolidated ISD.
Also, Alamo, Austin, Memorial and San Juan in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD; Myra Green in the Raymondville ISD; Ringgold in the Rio Grande City ISD; Santa Rosa in the Santa Rosa ISD; and Cuellar and Mary Hoge in the Weslaco ISD.
"I thank Congressman Hinojosa because we know he is working hard to make sure South Texas is getting it's fair share of federal dollars," Medrano said. "I consider him a champion for education, a champion for children and students."
Following the news conference - which included a performance by the UTPA Mariachi - was a daylong grantwriting workshop sponsored by Hinojosa and the UTPA College of Education. About 60 superintendents, teachers and other educators learned about funding sources, selection criteria, budgeting and more.
"This area has so much potential, and it has received a tremendous injection of federal money," Hinojosa said. "Colleges, universities and public schools are receiving record-breaking amounts of money, and this kind of investment should make a measurable difference in the number of students graduating from high school and going on to college."