A "Tribute to Excellence" dinner, held Mar. 24 at The University of Texas-Pan American, celebrated 22 South Texas schools designated by the Texas Business and Education Coalition (TBEC) as 2009 Honor Roll schools, the most prestigious award for sustained, academic excellence in the state.
Approximately 100 superintendents, principals, teachers and other administrators from the honored schools were welcomed by UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen to the annual event that recognizes their distinguished academic achievement.
"What you have done for students in South Texas, all the way from Harlingen to Laredo, is amazing. You are transforming this world and transforming the lives of our students. One in two of our students in the Valley are in poverty. Because of you that is not going to stay that way. Because of you these kids are going to have a chance," Nelsen said.
TBEC, formed in 1989 by Texas business leaders to support efforts to improve public education in the state, identifies Honor Roll schools by analyzing three years of performance data for all the public schools in Texas. An Honor Roll school must have a high percentage of students meeting state standards on every Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test for three consecutive years and have the highest percentage of students performing at the state's most rigorous standard - commended - in every subject. The selection criteria also considers the school's demographics, number of subjects tested and grade levels.
The 2009 standards were the toughest in the 10-year history of TBEC's Honor Roll designation. All schools were expected to improve their commended performance from 2008 and every school was required to have a minimum of 20 percent of their students tested performing at the commended level on all the 2009 tests. Of the more than 8,000 public schools statewide, TBEC named 254 as Honor Roll schools - 13 high schools, 35 middle schools and 206 elementary schools.
"Every year we raise the bar just a bit," said Ken Zornes, TBEC executive director. "We are going to keep the standards high. Those who make it, they've earned it."
Dr. John Edwards, UTPA vice president for enrollment and student services, who served as the event's moderator, said the record the schools achieved to win the award was not easy.
"It requires good leadership, planning, hard work, assessment, involvement of families - in other words, a job that often borders on 24/7," he said. "What you get out of it is the satisfaction of knowing that you have prepared well a child's next step in school. The foundation you lay in these substantive years in elementary, middle school and high school help the students to be prepared for college, university and for life."
The following schools were recognized at the celebration: Paredes Elementary, Brownsville ISD; Calallen East Elementary and Calallen Wood River Elementary, Calallen ISD; Windsor Park Elementary, Corpus Christi ISD; Liberty Elementary and Dena Kelso Graves Elementary, Eagle Pass ISD; Canterbury Elementary, Jefferson Elementary, and Treviño Elementary, Edinburg CISD; Bowie Elementary, Harlingen CISD; Gonzalez Elementary, McAllen ISD; Mims Elementary, Mission CISD; Bowie Elementary and North San Juan Elementary, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD; Rubén Hinojosa Elementary and Lloyd & Dolly Bentsen Elementary, Sharyland ISD; The Science Academy of South Texas, South Texas ISD; Trautmann Elementary, United ISD; Wilbur E. Lucas Elementary and Valley View Elementary, Valley View ISD; and Airport Elementary and Memorial Elementary, Weslaco ISD.
Barnett is the author of Guess Again!, Billy Twitters and his Blue Whale Problem and The Brixton Brothers #1: The Case of the Case of Mistaken Identity. Guess Again! was named by Time Magazine as the number two children's book of the year.
Barnett, a former teacher, gave a humorous presentation to the educators about his books, experiences as a board member and mentor at 826LA, a nonprofit writing center, and as the owner of Echo Park Time Travel Mart, a convenience store for "time travelers," a real place where children could explore what he said is "impossible."
"Great teachers are storytellers in two ways ... it is a performance job, you have to know the material and hold the attention ... and also a teacher has to get kids believing in stories that involve themselves," Barnett said. "The students are the main character and it is a hero's journey in which a student is going to improve and gain knowledge and end up in a different place than when they started at the beginning of the year. A teacher has to get them to believe that this miracle will occur."
During the evening's ceremonies, UTPA also awarded its ninth Bridge Builder Award to Alonzo Cantu, CEO and president of Cantu Construction and chairman of the board for the Lone Star Bank. The award is given to a person who has made significant contributions to education locally and statewide and is traditionally presented at the TBEC event.
Cantu is also a member of the Board of Managers of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, which he, along with a group of eight surgeons, developed from a day surgery and small ambulatory surgery center into a modern, 403-bed general acute care hospital with multiple facilities providing state-of-the-art technologies and procedures.
As a leading South Texas philanthropist, Cantu has served on the boards or as an officer on countless community organizations over the years. Cantu is chairman emeritus of VAMOS (Valley Alliance of Mentors for Opportunities and Scholarships), which he co-founded in 1996. Over the past 14 years, VAMOS has raised more than $13 million through fundraising events to provide scholarships for Hispanic students in the Rio Grande Valley. In 2001, VAMOS successfully created a matching funds endowment with the Hispanic Scholarship Fund. In 2008, VAMOS created a second endowment with UTPA of $2 million. To date, VAMOS has awarded more than 200-four-year renewable scholarships to Hispanic students in Hidalgo County to attend the college or university of their choice.
"Education to me is a passion. The best way to improve a person's quality of life is through education," said Cantu, when he accepted his award. "I want to congratulate the schools, the teachers, the counselors, the principals -you guys are the ones who should get the award."
Dahlia Guzman (BS '90, MS '95), a UTPA alumna and principal at Canterbury Elementary School in the Edinburg CISD, said her school was honored to achieve the recognition UTPA provided with the dinner and a plaque acknowledging their accomplishment.
"It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, a great staff and wonderful students - it's a commitment to success. It's about never giving up on our children," she said.