South Texas school district featured in new book for their work to change education in rural America

Robin Bradshaw
Alice Echo News Journal

Premont Independent School District is featured in a new book titled "The Middle of Somewhere” about education in rural America. The book has recently been accepted for publication by the Harvard Education Press and in the world of scholars and national educators, it's a big deal. 

The book focuses on an in-depth study on rural education and features a chapter on Premont ISD and the Rural Schools Innovation Zone (RSIZ) program.

Gerri M. Maxwell Ph.D. Professor & Chair Educational Leadership, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi

Author and Professor Gerri M. Maxwell Ph.D. is a rural demographics educator and rural social justice scholar. She has been at the forefront of social change in rural South Texas by many efforts and helped assist in the early partnership of Premont ISD and Texas A&M University - Kingsville in 2011 when the rural district was on the verge of closing its doors.

The potential school closure was due to poor academic scores, poor attendance, and aging facilities leaving the state with no other choice until TAMUK System Chancellor John Sharp announced that the university would partner with the small school district in a historic effort to collaborate to address concerns from the Texas Education Agency (TEA).

Since that time the district has worked on efforts to implement a school turnaround model facilitated through an unprecedented university–public school partnership, Maxwell stated. 

"It is exciting to have Premont ISD included in a book that will contribute to helping improve the landscape of rural education in the United States," Maxwell said. "Education in rural communities has been marginalized for many many years and there seems to be a shift on perception where, now, rural education is on the forefront. The truth is many of these rural communities have very bright children with strong contributions to society and deserve the same education opportunities as urban communities."  

In 2019, Premont ISD expanded the partnership to include TAMUK, Del Mar College and Coastal Bend College along with the rural public school districts in Brooks County, and Freer ISD to share resources in the innovative program named RSIZ. The program allows them to share educational services in partnership with the founding member districts participating in the RSIZ, with Ed Point and Empower Schools providing technical assistance throughout the zone’s formation.

Premont ISD and the RSIZ was the first-of-its-kind initiative aimed at improving educational opportunities for rural students in South Texas. The mission of Premont ISD and the RSIZ is to expand opportunities for students in the region to attain meaningful and valuable career opportunities, knowing that preparing students for the 21st-century job market is critical to their success, Maxwell explains in the book. 

According to the TEA, Premont ISD and the RSIZ represent emerging proof of what is possible when districts, higher education, and technical assistance partners come together to multiply options available to students while increasing job creation and entrepreneurship across the region at the same time. 

"Regional collaboratives, such as Premont ISD and the RSIZ offer rural communities an opportunity to access additional resources (both public and private sector investments), advance systems innovation, and sustain student academic outcomes, said Premont ISD Superintendent Steve VanMatre. "According to the Texas Education Agency, Premont ISD and the RSIZ represent emerging proof of what is possible when districts, higher education, and technical assistance partners come together to multiply options available to students while increasing job creation and entrepreneurship across the region at the same time. Given the capacity constraints of rural districts generally, the success of Premont ISD and the RSIZ has been amazing." 

VanMatre was named the new superintendent for Premont ISD in 2017. The enrollment for the Premont ISD at that time was about 450 students for the district. Currently, the district has over 700 students.

From the onset, VanMatre set out to make Premont ISD, a flagship district, Maxwell writes. Continuously keeping his eye on the prize, Premont ISD students have benefitted, and the district continued to build capacity sustained by considerable TEA grant funding between 2017 and 2019 and continuing to grow through multiple other grant initiatives ultimately resulting in the Rural Schools Innovation Zone initiative. Currently, over $10 million in funding has been generated for RSIZ academia. 

"Premont ISD has spent funding wisely and the educators that are in the classrooms providing the day in and out support are the ones that need to be commended for a job well done. The hope is to share this story with other districts and create a change with long-reaching results for other rural communities in the nation," Maxwell said..