Runn Also Rises

For three years most of the students at this South Texas school—almost all of them poor and living in colonias—have passed the state’s TAAS test. How?

October 1999By Comments

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 water had to be swept out. When Gaona was young, her mother contracted tuberculosis and was sent off to a sanatorium for four or five years. The day after her mother left, her father disappeared. Gaona and her siblings were separated, living in two foster homes, until her mother came back. When she did, she was very frail for a number of years.

Gaona is a graduate of the Donna school system. Her high school counselor told her she wasn’t college material and suggested she get a job at the five-and-ten. But she persisted, graduating in three years from Pan American University (now the University of Texas—Pan American) in nearby Edinburg with a degree in biology and geology. After teaching middle school science in the Donna school district for seventeen years, she earned a master’s in education and certification to be a principal.

In 1995, following a year in which only two Runn students passed the TAAS test, Ofelia Gaona was appointed the school’s assistant principal. The next year, she was named the principal.

Gaona knew that, for the most part, the teachers weren’t the problem. Although she chased off a couple of them, “those that remained were good teachers,” she said. “They just didn’t have the resources. They didn’t have the materials to work with the children. They didn’t have the training, the staff development. They couldn’t do it on their own.” For years Runn had been treated as the poor stepchild of a poor school district. “This was Siberia,” Gaona told me as, outside, school district employees dug a trench to divert rainwater that sometimes flooded classrooms.

When asked what one thing could be credited with the academic turnaround at Runn, Gaona didn’t hesitate. “The teachers,” she said. “The teachers’ getting the materials they needed, developing the attitude that we can make a difference here. They’re very strong-willed and, at the same time, very caring. These people truly do love the kids. They believe in the kids.”

When I asked some of the teachers the secret of the school’s success, Ofelia Gaona was at the top of the list. Others mentioned the staff’s shared vision. Connie Treviño, a kindergarten teacher at Runn, said everyone in the school worked well together, “because we all know what it’s like to be here when it’s raining.”

Unfortunately, it’s fairly rare for a school’s faculty to be so tightly knit, let alone a faculty that includes both veteran teachers born and raised in the region and young transient Yankees from Teach for America, a national corps of teachers that serves low-income school districts. Second-grade teacher Carlos Graupera—from Pennsylvania via American University in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master’s degree in painting—said he experienced no problems in being accepted by the veteran teachers: “That’s what’s been special for me, to come in here and feel like I’m a part of the community.”

Teachers at Runn are in constant conversation about their kids. First-grade teachers ask how their students did in kindergarten. Second-grade teachers check on the progress of their students who have moved on to higher grades. “We have time to tie shoelaces,” Gaona said. “If a child is absent, if there’s no phone number, we have time to go to the home and check on the children.” Runn’s size helps: At its peak, usually in January, the school historically has had only 390 students from pre-kindergarten through fourth grade, and the student-to-teacher ratio has been approximately 16 to 1. This year the school has added the fifth grade and around 450 students are enrolled.

Runn is becoming famous locally for the parents’ dedication to getting their kids to school. When a school bus couldn’t navigate a flooded road last year, one mother, walking barefoot, carried her child to school on her shoulders so that the child’s clothes would be clean for class. Two years before, the mother of another student slipped and fell into an irrigation ditch while walking her child to school. She was unable to climb out, but continued walking alongside her child until they reached a point from which the child could get to school alone. If children don’t show up for school because the bus can’t reach them, Gaona will find a teacher with a truck and go get them.

“We all feel looked after,” said Graciela Castillo, who is the mother of two Runn students. “We all know that the red car is Mrs. Gaona. And when something happens, look, here comes Mrs. Gaona’s car.”

Although the children are growing up in isolated, rural border communities, they are not the least bit shy with visitors. In a second-grade class a boy named Oscar walked up to me carrying a cardboard pizza-delivery box. “Do you want to see my portfolio?” he asked. He then opened the box and carefully pulled out stories and essays he’d written and illustrated with paintings or drawings, explaining each one in detail.

Maria Cazares, the mother of a fourth grader and a fifth grader at Runn, said the school works because the children get individual attention, which includes being welcomed by name by Gaona and any teachers and staff members they encounter as they arrive in the morning. “It teaches our children that it is beautiful to greet,” Cazares told me. “It says, ‘Hey, here I am!’”

Runn’s principal and teachers don’t take all the credit for the school’s turnaround. Said Donna school district superintendent Juan O. Garcia: “I think one of the primary reasons Runn has been very successful is because the parents get involved there.” Parents teach classes for other parents in basic parenting skills and how to help their children succeed in school. As one of the state’s 120 Alliance schools, a  national network of public schools devoted to increased participation by low-income parents, Runn has been working with the community advocacy organization Valley Interfaith, holding meetings attended by Gaona, teachers, and parents in the colonias where the children live. It was pressure from parents that persuaded the district to add fifth grade to the school and to begin new classroom construction as part of a district bond package.

Gaona and her staff are always looking for materials, especially books, and better ways to teach at Runn. In collaboration with UT—Pan American, Runn started a dual-language curriculum two years ago, teaching in Spanish in the morning and in English in the afternoon, beginning in the earliest grades; the program will move up a grade each year along with the students. The early results are hopeful. Graciela Castillo said that her children became fluent in English in nine months at Runn.

Runn is unusual in that its teachers value their students’ migrant experience. While the shortened school year and inconsistent education of migrant children pose problems, teachers at Runn talk about how beneficial it is that these children can tell their classmates about the world beyond the Valley. A number of Runn teachers, many the children of migrant workers themselves, tutor the migrant children after school and on weekends to help them catch up. When these children tell school counselor Maribel Garza where they’ve been, she tells them, “Oh, I’ve been there. I used to do that.” She feels it gives them hope that they won’t be migrants all their lives.

As if their lives weren’t hard enough, the children of Runn are sometimes misted by crop dusters while on the school playground. In late winter the school is sometimes covered in thick black soot as nearby farms burn off stubble and debris from harvested fields of sugarcane. Smoke, pesticides, flooding, field rats in the computers, snakes in the classrooms—such are the plagues visited on a school surrounded by fields near the Rio Grande in the United States of America at the end of the millennium. Yet for these families, Runn is an oasis.

The “Runn Elementary Peace Mural-1999” graces four of the school’s exterior walls. Featuring the words and images of Anne Frank, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, it is the work of students involved in the nonprofit cultural arts program Proyecto Directo del Corazón (the Straight From the Heart Project). With the help of Gaona and several backers, former Runn teacher Aaron Brenner left classroom teaching in the summer of 1998 (after being named the teacher of the year for the Lower Rio Grande Valley by the local arm of the Texas Education Agency) to organize the project, which helps teachers in four Donna schools, including Runn, integrate art and theater into their classroom teaching. Brenner, Carlos Graupera, and several local artists also teach after-school and summer arts classes through the project, tying them to history lessons. Both Graupera and Brenner first came to Runn through the Teach for America program.

In January I sat in on an after-school art class led by Graupera and Brenner. The students were watching a film on Native American dream visions in Graupera’s second-grade classroom, which was bursting with their artwork: It covered the walls and crisscrossed the room on clotheslines. After the film ended, the class discussion moved from dream visions and the ideal spirit world they invoked to the students’ own visions of what would be included in their ideal world.

“People on bikes with flowers and houses with golden gates and sunsets and clouds,” a girl said.

“A cool place with lots of light,” said another student.

“Grandpas and grandmas.” “Selena.” “Movie stars.” “Presidents.” “Cesar Chavez.” “George Washington.”

And then a boy said, “School.”

A boy next to him asked, “School?”

“Yeah, school!” several kids shouted in unison.

Geoff Rips is a fellow with the Open Society Institute of the Soros Foundation. Research for this article was supported by a grant from the OSI Individual Project Fellowships Program.

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