FROM DONNA, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, you take Farm Road 493 south, past fields where cantaloupe, maize, and cotton grow and fields of cabbage where workers labor. You drive past farmhouses and unincorporated colonias, across a half mile of fertile black dirt of the Rio Grande floodway, through fields of sugarcane eight feet high. And then, seven miles south of Donna, the road ends at U.S. 281, which runs along the Rio Grande. One mile ahead is the great river. To the right is a small fenced compound of portable schoolrooms and converted army barracks with a square stucco building sitting front and center. A sign on the building announces, “Runn Elementary, Estab. 1904.”
Runn Elementary looks like the end of the road. Almost all of its students are poor and live in colonias, many without sewer lines, some without running water. Most of them come from homes where only Spanish is spoken. Many were born in Mexico. Many leave with their families in March or April, following farm employment on the migrant trail, and don’t return until October or even November.
Yet when you walk through the main door of Runn, you find a place teeming with excitement. You find citations for the highest attendance in the fourteen-school Donna Independent School District—though Runn’s students and their parents often have to wade to school on roads flooded by rain or irrigation. You find children’s artwork everywhere. In the winter you find essays and paintings celebrating Hanukkah and Kwanza. You find a music teacher and art classes and after-school ballet lessons. You find parents with little formal education in English working as volunteers and tutors.
Runn is a phenomenon. In 1994 only two of its students passed all three parts of the state’s standardized Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) test. Four years later, 83 percent of them passed all parts of the test, with all but three students passing reading, all but one passing writing, and all but six passing math. In 1999 Runn achieved recognized status for the third year in a row, meaning that at least 80 percent of its students passed the TAAS test. How do you explain this turnaround? What’s going on?
I first visited Runn on a hot, windy June morning in 1998 the week after school had let out. In a tiny office off a tiny hallway, I found the school’s principal, Ofelia Gaona, filling out a grant application. She had just returned the night before from a six-hundred-mile trip delivering another such application to the Texas Education Agency in Austin.
We talked for five minutes and then she took me on a tour of her students’ homes. The colonias she showed me were reached by gravel or mud roads, some on huge farms, one at the end of a road through a private dump. While some homes were substantial, others were old school buses up on blocks or tiny trailers, like the one that had two small windows and housed a mother and two children and shared an outhouse with a larger trailer on the same lot.
We stopped at a little frame house on the edge of a field with an outhouse behind it. “This was one of our projects,” Gaona said. “We put windows in this house. The children were coming to school wet and cold. We found out they didn’t have any windows. That’s how our kids live.”
We turned onto a dirt road. “I have an academically recognized student living there,” Gaona said, pointing to a trailer. Patched with plywood, tires holding down the roof, it was home to a child who had scored high on all parts of the TAAS test. “They expect a child from that trailer to do as well as some affluent child living in a suburb in San Antonio or Austin. They expect a child living in a hot trailer with three other children to be able to study quietly and go to the library and do research—when he doesn’t have a car or space or time. But you know what? We did it. We said he could do it, no matter where he came from, and he did.”
We had been a few miles north of the school, well north of U.S. 281. Now she drove me due south, to the river, down gravel and dirt roads to clusters of run-down clapboard houses in the middle of farmland. Teachers often drive out here on Saturdays to pick up children to tutor, and sometimes they get stuck on these roads when it rains or when the fields on either side are being irrigated and they can’t drive out. The students’ families come pull them out.
“Survival for them is so concrete,” Gaona said. “They have to learn how to survive. ‘Do we have enough food? Do we have a place to stay?’ Then they come to school. School is such an abstract place. It’s so abstract—carrying numbers in mathematics. Yet they have to do the same as the children in town. We can’t treat them differently, because we would be damning them for life.”
On ballet day at Runn Elementary, ten 5-year-old girls lined up after school in a portable classroom with an artificial grass mat in the center. The teacher asked them to skip across the room. Some didn’t understand. They’d never skipped before. “You need to produce a well-rounded child,” Gaona told me as we watched the dancers. “We gave up a computer teacher for a music teacher.”
The girls queued up to walk across the room on a diagonal to Gaona, using their “ballerina walk.” As they walked toward her, the music playing “Out of my dreams and into your arms,” Gaona said, “ Que chula [How beautiful],” or “You look like a princess.” Later she told me, “I would have been one of the ballerinas.”
Ofelia Gaona, who is in her mid-forties, spent her early years in a two-room house in East Donna. Every time it rained, the