A School Grows in Texas: How Student-Driven Social Change at Llano Grande Center Made it Happen
Latino students make up the fastest-growing segment of the school-age population in the United States. By 2021, one in four students nationwide will be Latino. In some states, such as California and Texas, nearly half of the student population is already Latino. Despite growing numbers, Latino students continue to be the least-educated ethnic group, and they face a number of challenges. Many Latinos attend schools that are among America’s poorest; their teachers often have low expectations of them; and, apart from their teachers, Latino students seldom come into contact with anyone who has gone to college or even anyone who intends to go.
Students at Edcouch-Elsa High School (EEHS) in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas have higher aspirations thanks to the Llano Grande Center for Research and Development. The center was founded by a visionary group of Edcouch-Elsa High graduates and it continues through a second generation of alumni—including Delia Pérez, a former EEHS student who graduated from Yale and returned to teach at her high school before becoming Llano Grande’s associate director. Llano Grande Center now works with a third generation of civically minded student leaders who are making significant contributions to their school and community.
Pérez’s path is notable but not unique—many students grow up with the program, go off to college, and come back to reconnect as teachers or cultural workers in the same rural communities and schools. The high school they return to is vastly improved thanks to students who led a campaign to pass a $21 million bond issue in 2005. Those funds transformed an overcrowded school into a two-campus institution that is truly conducive to learning, helping to assure all students’ prospects for a better future. The leadership skills shown by the students reflect the Llano Grande’s long-held vision: foster and promote a youth culture that engages in community change.
EE High School, formerly housing all 9th-12th grade students, now campus for 9th-10th grade students.
EE High Within the community at large, there was a growing concern about the bond issue. The biggest fear of residents was that their taxes would be raised as a result of the bond passage. There was also mistrust because some school board members, who would be the bond’s stewards, were under investigation. The superintendent of schools, familiar with Llano Grande students’ history of working with local officials, proposed that they take on passing the controversial school bond as a project.
The hotly contested bond provided a powerful opportunity for students to demonstrate their leadership skills on an issue in which they had a huge personal stake. They knew firsthand the effects of attending a school too small for its burgeoning population. Halls and classrooms were crowded, and there were tensions and discipline problems. Students had trouble navigating congested corridors and were often late for class.
The campaign was led by ten students who had been closely involved in the organization’s work, with oversight of adults (or “co-learners”) from the center. The students had learned to appreciate the importance of civic participation, developed ways to use their personal stories to achieve community change, adopted sophisticated inclusive techniques such as asset mapping and documentation, and appreciated that the relationship between educational opportunities and community development could be a strong agent for change.
Their approach included grassroots media, digital storytelling, and on-the-ground organizing. They told the story from the public’s perspective, interviewing student peers, faculty, and other community members about their thoughts on the proposed expansion at the school. The seven-minute video they produced was used to inform the public about the benefits and positive consequences of approving the bond.
The students’ video aired on public access television and became the topic of conversation at meetings held on campuses throughout the district, providing a means to engage community members in purposeful, honest dialogue. Students showed the video at meetings at eight schools throughout the district, and found it was a great way to focus the meetings and cultivate dialogue among all stakeholders. Conversations were still often contentious, and not everyone agreed, but participants were able to share their positions with each other in a civil dialogue.
The bond issue passed by a very narrow margin. It was a true victory for the students and the community, as it brought in $21 million and resulted in a second campus being built from the ground up to alleviate overcrowding, with a positive impact on all future students.
The student campaign had an immediate long-term impact as well. It was a formative experience for the students, most of whom have since graduated from college and are now using the skills they first developed at Llano Grande in professional capacities, including teaching, communications, and technology. Their efforts helped heal community rifts by providing a much-needed opportunity to engage in conversations about transparency and trust. Student leadership gave teachers a deeper understanding and appreciation of how students could contribute to their own education.
The campaign also inspired residents of a neighboring town, who, using Llano Grande as a model, passed a bond issue to help improve their schools.
The Llano Grande campaign motivated younger students, who have since gone on to be involved in their own initiatives. For example, a group of students are currently challenging the closing of a recently built performing arts center across from the high school. Chances are they too will head off to college and careers, another generation of young leaders confident in their ability to effect change.