Ruben Alejandro, superintendent of an economically challenged district with 30% English language learners, shares his secrets for getting students—and their parents—reading.
I was born and raised in Weslaco, a city of about 35,000 that sits in the Rio Grande Valley about eight miles north of the Texas/Mexico border. I have worked as an educator in Weslaco Independent School District since 1977 and have been the superintendent of schools there since 2012. I know the potential of the students, and I know the perception of the Valley outside the area. We serve a mobile population of 17,500 students at eleven elementary schools, four middle schools, two “regular” high schools, one early college high school, and one alternative, self-paced school. Our students are 98.5% Hispanic, 86% economically disadvantaged, and 30% migrant. About 30% of Weslaco students are English language learners (ELLs). One of the ways we are preparing our kids for college and careers is by creating a community of readers.
Here’s how we’re doing it.
Teaching for the Future
We are preparing kids for an uncertain future. One thing we do know is that our average student will change careers seven times in his or her lifetime. We want to prepare our kids for the positions that will be available in the next five to ten years. In our part of Texas, many of those jobs will be related to space exploration. Space X is building a launch pad near Brownsville, Texas, where the first Mars colony is rumored to be launching. For the past couple of years, our academic calendar has been themed on the Mars colony. Because we always want to be futuristic, this year’s theme is “Weslacoland,” alluding to the movie Tommorowland.
To give our students the best possible chances at success in a changing world, when I became superintendent of schools in the summer of 2012, I put together a team of administrators, parents, and teachers to create a vision for the district called Empowering 21st-Century Learners. We are making our vision a reality in two ways. For students, we are teaching communication, collaboration, and creative and critical thinking through project-based learning. With these 21st-century skills, if they want to, they can go from being plumbers to lawyers over the course of their lifetimes. We teach robotics and STEAM starting in kindergarten and are now including three- and four-year-olds. With the help of an engineer, our youngest students are building a Mars rover—a modular car that they can put together and drive. The rover will have a handle that controls a claw so students can learn by picking up blocks with numbers and letters on them. We will have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and systems engineers to help build the rover and take it through an obstacle course. As far as I know, nobody in the world is bringing this level of STEAM and robotics to three- and four-year-olds.
For our staff, we are providing professional development to build tech literacy for everyone who works at Weslaco ISD. Everybody gets tech training, including custodians, security officers—anyone who comes into contact with our students. For our “tech illiterate” employees, we start with Tech Bingo, so they can just get used to seeing the logos of the technology that students are using. We all have a responsibility to learn as much as we can, because all of us are working together to help our children.
Training Digital Citizens
We want all of our students to have access to online learning resources, but we can’t afford a 1:1 initiative. Instead, we have a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy. We give everyone at school internet access via our filtered network. And because our entire staff has been trained in technology, they provide a safety net to make sure students are using the web responsibly. On top of this, all of our campuses constantly teach digital citizenship. One of our campuses is a Common Sense Digital Citizenship Certified School (www.commonsensemedia.org/educators/certification-school), and we are working to get all of our campuses certified.
Helping Kids Read Before They Can Walk
I have a strong focus on early learning, and a big part of that is early literacy. About two and a half years ago, the district started using an online library (myON) for K–8 reading, and then we worked with the company to launch an initiative called Zero to Three: Weslaco Reads, so kids who are 0–3 can download books and read them, too. The program highlights and pronounces words, and one can change the speed of reading so young kids can get started at their own pace. Our initial three-year pilot has been extended for another three years, It’s not only students who are using the program. We have seen parents who didn’t speak English start using the same books as their kids to learn the language. Studies show that children who succeed in school should hear 21,000 words a day, so we encourage our parents to talk to their children as much as possible and to encourage them to use complete sentences. If they want a glass of milk, we want them to say, “Mom, I want a glass of milk.” We have students and parents who speak English, Spanish, and a mixture I call Tex Mex. Students who speak Tex Mex don’t learn proper English or proper Spanish, and our hope is that giving them 24/7, anytime, anywhere access to digital or printed reading material will give them the push they need to learn both languages correctly. This year, we formed a partnership with Head Start to help three- and four-year-olds who are economically disadvantaged and have challenges.
Weslaco early childhood teachers go to Head Start locations and teach there for half a day every day. Now when these kids come into public schools, they’ll already be reading. We are looking at extending this program to two-year-olds, and we want to provide curriculum to kids as young as one.To keep all of our students reading, we have reading and writing camps during Christmas, spring, and summer breaks. Kids can go to the library and download books to read for free. We have a competition called the Millionaire Club, which pushes kids to read a million words. Over last Christmas break, we had one little girl who read 40 books. We also have writing competitions to get students writing for pleasure and to prepare for state assessments.
Connecting with the Community
Our entire community is working together to keep our students reading. Our local public library system partners with us on the reading and writing camps. They give kids somewhere to go when they are not in school, and we help them with a staffing issue by having school librarians work in the public libraries when needed. This also means that students who go to the public library see familiar faces. The libraries have Family Literacy Nights in fall and spring; students bring their parents at night to show them the work they are doing. Kids can buy books, and parents are eager to buy books for them. We also have a partnership in the works with a local hospital. We want to put posters and pushcards in pediatricians’ and obstetricians’ offices, showing how anybody can log onto myON using any mobile device. The more access to the internet students have, the greater the development of literacy is going to be, so we are working with businesses and the city to reach our goal of providing connectivity to 100% of our students. When he heard our plans, our mayor said that he wanted to help provide connectivity not just within the city but to all of our remotest students who live outside the city limits, too. We are partnering with vendors to get the infrastructure for free. We are looking at towers with a range of 18 miles. Once we pull this off, it will be the first of its kind, anywhere. We want everyone to have access because, when students access the internet, their understanding will depend on how much literacy development they’ve had and how early they were exposed to it.
We are also looking to partner with a local bank to provide $200 loans for students to purchase Chromebooks. Their parents would co-sign the loans, and students would pay off these loans, with interest, within a year. This plan would mean we wouldn’t have to depend only on BYOD in our classrooms. It would also develop students’ financial literacy, and they would care for their Chromebooks because they would own them. My next plan is to do a spin-off of the national Everybody Reads day. On the birthday of our community next December, I want to do Weslaco Reads One Book, where everyone in town uses myON to download a book called VIPs of the Barrio, which was written by our former mayor. This will give us a focal point for a roundtable discussion where students can learn about the birth of the community, and it will inspire them to read other historical books. We are doing everything we can to keep not just our students but all the residents of Weslaco reading. We want them to develop vocabulary and comprehension of science, math, and social studies terms. We want our kids to be CEOs, so we’re starting to build their literacy from birth and supporting them through the day they retire.
Dr. Ruben Alejandro is a 1972 graduate of Weslaco High School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and biological sciences as well as a PhD in educational administration from the University of Texas at Austin. His master’s degree in educational supervision is from the University of Texas Pan American. Since 1977, he has worked for Weslaco ISD in positions including chemistry and biology teacher, district technology-curriculum coordinator, federal programs director, assistant superintendent, and deputy superintendent. He was named superintendent of schools in 2012.