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Will the Texas Miracle Include All Texans?
There are more than 7 million Texans under 18 today who need the skills to enjoy a successful career, find purpose in their work, and contribute to the state’s economy. The ability of Texas’ PreK-16 schools and institutions to prepare young people for their next step will have enormous influence on the state’s collective success.
Texas is more than swagger and 270,000 square miles. It is home to more than 29 million diverse residents. According to the 2020 Census, Texas gained the most citizens of any state since 2010. That growth was driven by people of color. Whites and Hispanics each make up 40% of the state’s population, followed by Black and Asian Texans, at nearly 12% and 5%, respectively.
As the story of Texas plays out between now and 2036, when the state observes its bicentennial, the ability of Texas’ PreK-16 schools and institutions to prepare young people for their next step will have enormous influence. Will the Texas economic miracle sustain itself? And will all Texans have access to that prosperity?
Gains happened in Texas in the 1990s and 2000s, as measured by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), but that progress largely tapered off in the 2010s. Texas now has strong A-F accountability ratings in place, thanks to HB 22 passed in 2017 by the Texas Legislature. Strong education laws passed again in 2019 and 2021 to strengthen instruction, reward strong teachers, and help districts mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The policy ingredients for improvement are in place.
There are more than 7 million Texans under 18 today who need the skills to enjoy a successful career, find purpose in their work, and contribute to the state’s economy. Will young Texans entering school between now and 2036 be offered the fundamentals of a quality education that puts them on a path to opportunity and a decent living? Will the state enjoy the fruits of these students’ ingenuity, knowledge, and leadership?
To better answer those questions, we spent several months speaking with community and school leaders, policy experts, and, most importantly, students in Houston, Dallas, and Austin. We also looked at outcome data, mapping third-grade reading scores, high school graduation rates, higher education attainment, and wages.
That data is sobering. The charts below illustrate the challenge facing three of Texas’ largest counties — Dallas, Harris (Houston), and Travis (Austin). Third-grade reading scores show gaps by race and ethnicity - gaps that appear to be largely eliminated when we consider high school graduation rates across those same racial groups. Maddeningly, however, those gaps reappear across higher education attainment and wage measures.
A proxy graduate profile shows that many students were well behind on reading in third grade and math in eighth grade, but a high percentage of students graduated from high school. This begs the question, were they truly prepared for opportunity and their next step, or did we set them up to fail by passing them along in the system?
One measure of why this matters is the connection between the level of educational attainment and annual earnings. More educational attainment translates into higher salaries. Money, of course, is not the sole determinant of a meaningful life. But a greater earning ability often correlates with a greater ability to make choices, more access to opportunity, and greater ability to adapt during severe economic downturns. Texas’ success depends on its people’s success.
Preparing young people for futures in which they have agency and opportunity is not just the responsibility of the largest school district in a region or county. Instead, it requires a common understanding that adult choices have significant impact on outcomes for young people. Our research focused on complementary elements that should work together in service of young people – ecosystem, governance, and innovation. We considered the ways those elements are driving (or possibly inhibiting) progress.
We define ecosystem as the broad coalition of organizations and community leaders focused on education and workforce outcomes across a city or region. We define governance as both the actions of the school board and the opportunistic use of legislation and public policy. Finally, we define innovation as the use of strong practice, sometimes new and sometimes not, with the goal of improving student outcomes.
In part two of this series, we will dive deeply into ecosystem and governance, two elements that are distinct but intertwined. We will explore innovation in each region in part three. Finally, we will share recommendations for leaders in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and beyond in part four.
Large sets of outcome data are essential tools to understand the big picture. But behind each of these data points are young people, each with distinct experiences and insights. We can’t design strong policy or interventions without also listening to young Texans like Ángel García Donjuán, Cole Harrison, Kiara Kabbara, Vanessa Larez, and Gissel Peña, who share their perspectives on high school and college in Dallas, Houston, and Austin.
In Their Own Words: Students on Opportunity
Kiara Kabbara graduated from Lincoln High School in Dallas ISD in 2018. She currently attends the University of Texas at Austin and is the student body president – the first African American woman to fill that role in over 30 years. The Bush Institute's Justine Taylor-Raymond sat down with Kiara this fall to discuss how her high school experience shaped her.
This excerpt was edited for clarity and length.
JTR: Describe your high school experience, particularly your academic experience?
I came into high school on the math side, planning to take calculus my senior year because I knew I wanted to go to college. I came in on track for that. Unfortunately, my senior year we did not have calculus. We only had AP chemistry, we didn’t have all the other AP sciences. We didn’t even have a teacher for my English class; it was a permanent substitute. So, there were many times when I wanted to go to a different level, but because of the school and the circumstances, I wasn’t able to. I couldn’t take AP calculus. I had to just try to find something else and had to settle for another class.
The majority of my senior classmates didn’t really do that well or score as high as people at North Dallas would or different parts of Dallas would on the AP tests because of the resources they have that we didn’t have. It was also on us to find SAT/ACT prep, but other schools automatically have it at the school.
On the positive side, the high school that I went to had clusters, and I was in the culinary arts cluster. I did that for all four years, like a major, and I was able to come out with a manager certificate. So whatever restaurant I apply to, I can be a manager and am bumped up for pay.
Something else I feel Lincoln did good is that they also provided a forklifting certification. From 5 p.m. to 8 p.m., people were able to train, and they had a forklifting certificate at the end of six or seven weeks. Even if college was never on their mind in the first place, at least they know they have this certification, and they can get a job anywhere. I feel like schools should implement a lot of trade or certifications. I was talking to my mom about Microsoft, because I want to be so good at Excel and Word and stuff like that. It doesn’t take long if there are optional certifications.
I can definitely count on one hand how many people in my class went to college. But for the students who didn’t go to college, at least they would have something to make sure that they were able to get by or have a job for sure.
JTR: What was the first semester at UT like?
It was crazy, because not only was I pre-med, but I was also undeclared. Socially, it’s a weird type of vibe that you get when you’re undeclared on campus, like you don’t know what you’re going to do while other people are in their business majors and taking classes. It was especially hard when it came to taking chemistry and bio for pre-med.
I absolutely love sports. I’ve been playing sports, basketball, my whole life, I honestly thought that was how I was going to get to college. And so having to pick whether to go to a basketball game or study was so hard. But now I have to prioritize actually trying to understand a concept and understanding science and atoms and stuff like that because I didn’t get that in high school. My peers at UT were just acing the test. They were like, “oh we can handle this,” and I was like “I don’t understand a sentence that the teacher just said.” It was a rough transition of trying to study, prioritizing, and using time management that I didn’t get in high school.
JTR: How did it impact you at UT when your high school didn’t have the same AP offerings as other high schools?
Going into college, a lot of my friends already knew the basics, like APA format, MPA of papers, and I was just being introduced to it. Certain students already have the pre-background of math or science that hadn’t been available to me. My peers knew the concept, and I was trying to learn how to read. There is a different type of jargon when it comes to college classes, especially on the pre-med track, that you just have to know. I had to learn high school stuff I missed plus new stuff from college, but my peers just had to learn the college. They were already ahead, and I had to learn how to read, understand the concept, plus everything else.
For that person who is like me in college, the transition was so different. It’s just not imposter syndrome; it was definitely real. Seeing other peers get things faster was just a little discouraging, but it just made me work harder.
JTR: You are UT student body president. Why did you decide to run?I wanted to run for this since my freshman year because I knew what it was like to feel different and outside as a student. I felt like student government could have helped me during that time of not knowing what to do, so I wanted to be that person on campus. When it was time to run, I was ready. During my other three years, I always kept tabs on things I wanted to change throughout UT and that was my platform when I decided to run.
Something else that is also amazing, too, is that I am the first African American woman to hold the seat in 30-something years. That was also a very cool thing.
This is my first time ever being in student government. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. I have ideas, and I represent others. I wanted to bring a different perspective and some dope change.
Vanessa Larez graduated in 2018 with an associate degree from Kathlyn Joy Gilliam Collegiate Academy in Dallas ISD. She attended Southern Methodist University with support from Dallas County Promise, graduating in three years in 2021 with a degree in communications and Spanish. She is now a development and communications coordinator at Bachman Lake Together, an early-childhood program in Dallas. The Bush Institute's Justine Taylor-Raymond sat down with Vanessa this fall to discuss how his high school experience shaped him.
This excerpt was edited for clarity and length.
JTR: How did early college help you?
Having access to college classes in high school helped me understand that you sign up for classes – and if you don’t sign up within a certain time, those classes will disappear. Or understanding that you have to read your syllabus, that the syllabus has a purpose, and you follow the deadlines and policies they have with missing a class, being tardy, or late assignments. It’s not the same as high school. What may seem like common knowledge isn’t. And having access and exposure to that was important.
JTR: Do you feel like you are in a better position coming from your high school? Do you feel like going to the collegiate academy, getting your associate degree set you on a different path?
I don’t know if it set me on a different path, but it made the path easier. I feel like because I already got the two years and got exposure to things, I didn’t have to struggle and relearn those things.
JTR: Tell me about your SMU experience.
I do feel like I had a head start, but still it’s not the same. I think it was hard for me to adjust socially and that impacted how I adjusted academically. I failed my first exam at SMU. I was so shy to ask questions. It was a lecture-style class. Wasn’t too large, less than a 100 students, but I was too shy or embarrassed to talk to people next to me or ask a question if I was a little bit confused. SMU isn’t that big of a school compared to a UT, but it was big to me.
When I got to SMU, I was a part of program called Rotunda Scholars. They focused on bridging the gap for traditionally underrepresented students, like first generation college students, low- income students, students of color, students from very rural areas, students from certain religious backgrounds, etc. So, I was with other students who shared similar feelings, maybe on varying degrees, but we all had that shared experience of being underrepresented. Knowing other students like you helped and the staff leading the program were there to help you. We were paired with peer counselors, older students who had been part of the program. My sophomore year, I worked as a peer counselor. So, I feel like it still took me a while to adjust, but it would have been way worse had I not been a part of that program.
JTR: Did having access to an associate degree make a difference? Would it help others, too?
I did benefit from the head start. You give students access to free classes, but that does not mean all kids are going to succeed. The barrier isn’t just money or not having classes in front of you. Some students have to prioritize work – helping to provide for their family. Having free college classes doesn’t matter if your lights aren’t on.
Not all students got an associate degree in your high school class. What were some of the barriers for those students? College is not for everyone, and that is totally okay. I think support at home – maybe if your parents or family don’t go to college, you don’t have that extra understanding of the value. You may already feel it’s not for you because haven’t seen anyone before you do it. So it’s not just the barriers of family needs, but also mental barriers.
I have some peers that say my dad works in XYZ field, I’ll just do that because I know it will make money. That is secure. To them, college wasn’t secure. And, honestly, it isn’t. College doesn’t get you the job. You get the job with the tools you got from college. But it’s still not guaranteed.
Ángel García Donjuán graduated from the Judge Barefoot Sanders Law Magnet at Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Magnet Center in Dallas ISD in 2021. His three older brothers also attended magnet schools, two also graduating from Townview, and one from New Tech High School. His youngest brother currently attends Sudie L. Williams Talented and Gifted Academy. Ángel recently moved to Germany with the Congress-Bundestag Vocational Youth Exchange Program. The Bush Institute's Justine Taylor-Raymond sat down with Ángel to discuss how his high school experience shaped him.
This excerpt was edited for clarity and length.
JTR: Why did you choose a magnet school?
I chose a magnet school, and my mom wanted us to go to a magnet school, because we had seen other family members go to our neighborhood school. My cousin was brought in to gang violence and gun violence and just general violence at that school. My mom – and all of us – didn’t want that for ourselves. But we felt a lot of that could be avoided it we went to magnet school, even if it meant my mom had to drive rather than letting us a walk down the street. I guess we all felt it was a sacrifice worth making.
JTR: You said before that “there is stark difference between what you can expect from Townview and L.G. Pinkston High School. You shouldn’t have to apply to a magnet school because your neighborhood school doesn’t give you what you need.” Can you say more about that?
Some of my peers didn’t get into the high school they wanted, and they ended up just going to their neighborhood school in ninth grade. And I’ve met up with some of them now, and they feel like they didn’t do enough because they didn’t get into Townview. And now they are not getting into the college they want to attend. I feel like it shouldn’t be the case that, because in the eighth grade you didn’t get into the right high school, that you shouldn’t be able to get into the university you want to attend.
I feel like magnet schools should be a temporary thing. I can see the worth of a magnet school helping with equity and racial equity in urban school districts. Why not just fund every neighborhood school well? Why can’t the same resources found at a magnet school be transferred over to every neighborhood school?
It shouldn’t be the case that, in eighth grade, you are fighting to get the resources that you want to make sure you get to where you need to be.
Cole Harrison graduated from James Bowie High School in Austin ISD in 2021. He is now a student at Ohio State University, and he is majoring in finance and political science. He entered OSU this fall with over 30 credit hours from his AP classes at Bowie. The Bush Institute's Justine Taylor-Raymond sat down with Cole this fall to discuss how his high school experience shaped him.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
JTR: How did your high school experience successfully support your needs and post-graduation academic goals?
The most valuable part of high school is the push to take the most advanced classes, go as far as you can and see where your limits really are. Our school did a great job proving we don’t really know our limits. I was always getting support from teachers and Mr. Robinson (principal) to take the most advanced classes possible, to go as far as possible, because it pays off. I see now it has.
I am going in with the ranking of a sophomore with 30-plus credits. Because of that, I can double major in two fantastic majors in four years. I am already ahead of the game, and I don’t need to worry about general education as much. I can go straight to what I am interested in because it’s saving me a whole year of just pushing through classes I don’t care to take.
I had taken the SAT, and I did OK, but I ended up doing much better later. First time I took it, I knew I could do so much better. I was kind of hesitant about doing prep because they said we could get hundreds of points of improvement with a little bit of studying. I was skeptical. But I went after school for a few days, only 30 minutes to an hour. And next time I took the SAT, I scored something like 140 points better with only 10 hours of studying. Those SAT scores really helped my college search and gave me access to upper-tier colleges.
Gissel Peña is a graduate of YES Prep West in Houston in 2019, and she is currently an undergraduate student at Texas Woman’s University. YES Prep West provides intensive college prep for high school juniors and seniors, including a focus on understanding the college application process. The Bush Institute's Alex Dowdy sat down with Gissel this fall to discuss how her high school experience shaped her.
This following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
AD: What was one of the most important things you learned at YES Prep West?
One of my main learnings was how to write the emails because I think a lot of people don’t realize that emails regarding something school or job are supposed to be professional. I remember the teacher showing us examples of what a professional email looks like. We had to send emails to the teachers that were writing our college recommendations, and she gave an example of how to do that. And we had to write a professional letter between us students so we could get the practice in. She would remind us that it’s important how you approach your teachers or professors. They have a whole bunch of students. You want to make sure that there’s something about your email that might make them realize that this person is genuinely interested in this topic, and I should probably respond to them.
What is it like for you in college?
It’s been really hard. I’ve been having to work a lot because I’m helping out a lot financially at home now. I know that I want to become a teacher, I know that that’s my plan, and I’m going to finish college. But I had to make it very clear that it might not be on time. Yes, you are expected to graduate in four years, but that’s just not the case for everyone.