By Joey Gomez and Steve Taylor
Rio Grande Guardian
December 21, 2007
EDCOUCH, December 21 - The Delta area of the Rio Grande Valley may be one of the most impoverished parts of the nation but its record in sending students to Ivy League universities is the envy of many.
Many give credit to the pioneering work of the non-profit Llano Grande Center for Research and Development, which has worked to increase educational opportunities and expectations of young people in Edcouch-Elsa by developing effective, culturally relevant teaching methods and practices.
Llano Grande, which runs evening tutoring and mentoring in local high schools, believes students become better prepared for college by first becoming community-minded leaders and so teachers and students at the center organize a variety of community-based projects.
It has developed a college prep program based on four major pillars: academic support, understanding the application process, leadership development, and identity building.
“Our students have continued to expand their horizons, develop new skills, graduate with superior records, gain entry to America’s finest colleges and universities, and return to the Rio Grande Valley to pursue their lives and careers,” said Delia Pérez, program director at Llano Grande.
Pérez was one of the first students involved in establishing the annual East Coast college trips at Edcouch-Elsa High School. The project has led to more than 50 Delta area students attending Ivy League schools.
Pérez graduated from Yale University in 1997, returning to teach at Edcouch-Elsa High School. She later went on to earn her master's degree in public policy at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas.
“Enter Room A-1 at Edcouch-Elsa High School and you will not find your typical high school students,” Pérez said.
“Instead, you will encounter world travelers, entrepreneurs, park designers, movie producers, event planners, grant writers, and socially-conscious adults in the making.”
Pérez said the non-traditional teaching and learning experiences Llano Grande students actively participate in teaches civic responsibility and strengthens the fabric of the local community.
“Because students grow to understand the relevance of their learning to the world around them, students become motivated to set personal goals to do well in school and pursue a higher education,” Pérez added.
Francisco Guajardo is assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership in the College of Education at the University of Texas-Pan American. Before that he was a teacher and administrator at Edcouch-Elsa High School. He also directs the Llano Grande Center.
“At the Llano Grande Center, our mission is to give underprivileged students every opportunity to excel, and to change the way students, parents, and teachers think about college readiness,” Guajardo said.
While test-taking skills, rigorous classes, and good grades are important to students, Guajardo said, so is intellectual and social development through an exploration of self and community.
Guajardo won a “Heroes Among Us” award in November 2003 by People magazine, was named Southwest Region Teacher of the Year by Time Magazine for Kids in 2001, and was honored as finalist for National Teacher of the Year by Hispanic Magazine in 1998.
Corporate America is starting to acknowledge the work of the Llano Grande Center. In August, the AT&T Foundation, the corporate philanthropy organization of AT&T, awarded a $25,000 grant to the organization to purchase new technology.
Sergio Contreras, AT&T’s external affairs manager in the Rio Grande Valley, said the technology equipment will allow students to learn computer skills and use advanced equipment that will aid them in pursuing higher education or entering the workforce.
“The Llano Grande Center has such a rich history of helping students in the area to have the best opportunities for success, and we are proud to assist the center in this endeavor,” Contreras said.
This week, the Llano Grande received another $25,000 grant, courtesy of State Farm Insurance. State Reps. Veronica Gonzales, D-McAllen, and Aaron Peña, D-Edinburg, were present for the check presentation.
Roel Villanueva, State Farm Insurance Agent, said his company’s donation would help Llano Grande continue its services to students and families of Edcouch-Elsa.
“State Farm Insurance is proud to award Llano Grande's service learning program and open this opportunity of service-learning to more people in the community,” Villanueva said. “Programs such as these allow the youth to learn civic responsibility and develop meaningful leadership and workplace skills. We applaud these students for their leadership and dedication to their future.”
Guajardo thanked the corporations for their generosity. He said the funding would help Llano Grande in its mission to develop new alliances in order to revitalize the Delta community and expand educational horizons.