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This week, federal accountability results were released from schools all across Texas, and more schools and school districts failed to meet the standards for adequately yearly progress than met the standards. One common explanation is the implementation of a new state assessment system—the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness—which is more rigorous than the previous Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. While this is likely one part of the story, I think another important factor is what we do and do not expect of our students, and how we account for their passions.
On the cusp of another school year, I’ve been spending a lot of time with our 80 starting corps members. Before diving into the incredibly challenging, high-stakes work of teaching, they watched a TEDx talk by human-development expert Peter Benson about how young people thrive. Benson talks about the value of “spark,” an animating energy that gives life hope and purpose. I was challenged to remember my spark when I was in elementary, middle, and high school. I recall that I wanted to be an ichthyologist, to share the sea with sharks. At some point—maybe coinciding with high school biology and an AP course that seemed to take all of the fun out of the miracles of life—I lost that spark.
I was reminded of the spark again recently, speaking to a student from one of our Rio Grande Valley schools. Marissa is the salutatorian of the first graduating class of a STEM-focused early-college high school. She’s headed off to Texas A&M to prepare for a medical career, and she’ll enter the university as a junior because of the number of credits she earned at her innovative high school. Marissa’s spark was fully present as she talked about her plans to help alleviate the suffering of others, and how the choices she made along the way prepared her for this path.
Her spark is not the only one in our community, despite its history of low academic outcomes, which are generally attributed to generations of poverty and our predominantly Latino population. In fact, Marissa’s experience paints a truer, and much brighter future than this collective history would suggest. Her school district, Pharr–San Juan–Alamo, improved high school graduation rates by almost 100 % between 2007 and 2010, even with nearly flat enrollments. The district also leads the state in the development of early-college high schools like Marissa’s. And, since 2007, Rio Grande Valley schools have posted the state’s most significant improvements in high school graduation rates.
Still, the focus on limited measures of academic success that often do not align (e.g., high school completion vs. college readiness) buries the spark of our young people. In my nine years in South Texas, I have come to meet many students who have to struggle to keep their spark alive. My hope is that our community continues its work to nurture the spark for many more Marissas in the coming years and decades. If so, our future will be bright.