Greater Texas Foundation has supported the work of Rio Grande Valley FOCUS (RGV FOCUS) since its inception to transform the educational opportunities available to children living in the Rio Grande Valley region. By serving as the collective impact backbone for a strong network of partners, RGV FOCUS has led successful efforts to improve students’ college readiness across four counties in the southernmost tip of the state. Executive Director Luzelma Canales tells the story of RGV FOCUS in this feature.

RGV FOCUS, a collective impact initiative in collaboration with Educate Texas and Communities Foundation of Texas, was launched in 2012 to transform college readiness, access, and success across the Rio Grande Valley’s (RGV) four-county region. The goal of RGV FOCUS is to transform the lives of the region’s more than 415,000 students by aligning systems across the cradle-to-career pipeline to make sure each student is college-ready, has access to and achieves postsecondary success, and pursues a meaningful career in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond.

RGV FOCUS utilizes collective impact, a framework that brings cross-sector community members together to drive social change. Leveraging regional assets around a common vision and shared goals strengthens each part of the educational pipeline. The RGV FOCUS backbone serves as an administrative core and partner in the collective impact work. In these roles, the backbone is a convener, facilitator, capacity builder and catalyst for the thought, strategy and purpose of regional leaders looking to transform the Rio Grande Valley through collaboration.

At the core of this work is the Leadership Team, which is comprised of leaders from local school districts, institutions of higher education, workforce boards, the regional education service center, and community-based organizations. The Leadership Team adopted a common vision, goals, strategies and metrics along the cradle to career educational pipeline.

Vision: All Rio Grande Valley Learners will achieve a degree or credential that leads to a meaningful career.

The work of the Culture of Attending College action network is one example of the large-scale impact that can be accomplished through authentic cross-sector collaboration. In a region like the Rio Grande Valley, understanding how to pay for college is the first step in achieving college-going aspirations for students. In 2012, the Leadership Team set a target to increase FAFSA completions from 59% to 65% by 2020. The RGV FOCUS partners exceeded that target by increasing FAFSA completions in 2017 to 74%. This increase is reflective of the work of the Culture of Attending College action network, which included aligning policies and practices among the four institutions of higher education in the region: The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, South Texas College, Texas Southmost College, and Texas State Technical College — Harlingen.

RGV FOCUS Bright Spots
RGV FOCUS believes in building a strong regional culture of data literacy where partners agree to utilize data to understand the current state of education and to look forward to better serve our students and their families. To that end, RGV FOCUS leaders routinely take a deep-dive approach to understand student outcomes at the county, district, and campus level. It is through this honest and transparent use of data that the region’s leaders can build stronger strategies.

One such strategy is the use of bright spots, which shine a light on existing campuses that are outperforming their peers in key outcomes. The goal is to better understand the policies and practices at the bright spot campuses, which can inform strategies that will improve regional outcomes. The 2017 RGV FOCUS Annual Report illustrates the commitment and success of cross-sector engagement. The report shows that the Rio Grande Valley matches or exceeds the State in 9 of 11 metrics established by the Leadership Team in 2012. The report also highlights four bright spots in 3rd grade reading, 8th grade math, AP/Dual-Enrollment credit completion and postsecondary readiness. Each of these areas is critical to meeting the goals of the partnership.

The Critical Role of Grantmakers in Collective Impact
The cross-sector nature of collective impact lends itself to the role of grantmakers as partners in this work. Greater Texas Foundation serves as a thought partner, connector, and critical friend for the collective impact work in the Rio Grande Valley. RGV FOCUS is the benefactor of the foundation’s willingness to provide thought partnership in thinking through issues and building connections where available. For example, GTF connected RGV FOCUS with E3 Alliance to ensure that the Rio Grande Valley would benefit by participating in the Math Matters initiative, which allowed RGV FOCUS partners to leverage an existing asset to build an understanding of the eighth-grade math landscape in the Rio Grande Valley. GTF serves as a critical friend by asking reflective questions, providing challenge, engaging in consultancy, and brokering knowledge.

Thanks to the partnerships RGV FOCUS has forged within the Rio Grande Valley and beyond, more learners are achieving credentials that lead to a meaningful career.