Texas school districts create Rural Schools Innovation Zone

submitted mtrevino@aliceechonews.com

Brooks County, Freer, and Premont ISD team up for student success

In a pioneering new partnership, three districts in South Texas are joining forces to create a first-of-its-kind initiative to improve educational opportunities for their rural students.

The school boards of Brooks County, Freer, and Premont Independent School Districts have voted to participate in the new Rural Schools Innovation Zone (RSIZ), which will initially consist of four schools: Falfurrias Junior High School, Falfurrias High School, Freer High School, and Premont Collegiate High School.

Educators, leaders and trustees in these Texas districts share a belief that students from rural communities should have increased opportunity to receive expert instruction and prepare for challenging career paths on the way to postsecondary success.

"This Rural School Innovation Zone has the potential to significantly expand opportunities for students in our smaller districts,” said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath. “These three public school districts are doing more than just talking about the issues – they are actively fostering ways to use collaborative and innovative approaches to prepare our students for success beyond high school.”

“This dynamic partnership is focused on improving core instruction for students by empowering school-level educators, and on creating world-class opportunities for career and technical education and for dual-enrollment opportunities with local colleges. This initiative will serve as a model for all of rural America,” said Dr. Maria Casas, Superintendent of Brooks County ISD.

The three district superintendents, Dr. Maria Casas of Brooks County ISD, Conrad Cantu of Freer ISD and Steve VanMatre of Premont ISD, developed the vision for the RSIZ and collaborated over the past year to bring it into reality.

“We want to reinvent the rural school experience by providing our students with post-secondary options they normally would not have access to without this unique initiative. We are stronger through collaboration,” Premont Superintendent VanMatre said.

Creation of the RSIZ was made possible in part by the Texas Partnership pathway of Senate Bill 1882 from 2017, which incentivizes districts to work collaboratively with new and existing partners to promote innovation and dramatically improve student outcomes. RSIZ will be supported by additional resources and technical assistance from TEA, Ed-Point, LLC., ESC Region 2, and Empower Schools.

The RSIZ, which is governed by a non-profit board including regional educational leaders and district representatives, will help transform the rural school experience by providing high-quality preparation for post-secondary success. Elements of the RSIZ model have been piloted this school year, with more than 100 students accessing specialized coursework at the other campuses and/or early college high school programming through Texas A&M University - Kingsville, Del Mar College, and Coastal Bend College. Educators in all three districts are eager to collaborate to enhance offerings for their students, and their experience and vision will drive much of the design work to come.

“Our students at Freer High School already have access to excellent programming through our own Early College, Medical Academy, and Welding Academy, and by joining the RSIZ we can now give them access to phenomenal programs at Falfurrias High and Premont Collegiate High as well, so that they can choose any career and/or college pathway to achieve their dreams - all while remaining students at Freer High,” said Linda Hinojosa, principal of Freer HS.

The Rural School Innovation Zone will offer students career pathway and dual enrollment college programming through offerings including a highly developed STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Academy, which will include engineering and robotics; a Health and Science Medical Academy, offering pathways to medical degrees and certifications; and an Architectural and Design Academy, with degrees and certifications in architecture, construction, welding, electrical, and HVAC advancements.

Families and students interested in attending an RSIZ school or learning more about the program are encouraged to contact ruralschoolsinnovationzone@gmail.com.