Getting School to Work

Del Valle ISD Turns Tech Tax Dollars Into Gold

Getting School to Work
Photo By John Anderson

Amid the millennial fascination with Central Texas' new economy -- the era of promised wealth descending on the wings of technological innovation -- present-day realities in the state's school system stand out like smallpox sores. Texas leads in attracting dynamic new industry, but lags in teaching the skills needed to fuel it. How will education cope with the new demand for digital-ready workers? Local industry wishes more districts would follow the lead of Del Valle ISD -- a historically poor rural district that focuses hard on the basics and sees no shame in preparing kids for trades. The district may not turn out National Merit scholars like its big-city cousin to the west, nor post high college entrance exam scores, but Del Valle students are going to college and looking to score in the high-tech world. Business leaders and educators agree that Del Valle is a school system on the cutting edge.

"Oh, they're doing great things at Del Valle," says John Fitzpatrick of the Capital Area Training Foundation, an industry-supported organization that works with area schools to promote more workplace experience in the classroom. "Those kids are just fired up and excited."

The kids aren't the only ones, reports first-term Del Valle ISD board member Dulce Rivera, herself a Del Valle graduate who plans to run for her seat again. "It's too exciting to get out of it. -- Things are just looking so good for Del Valle -- it's like the end of the rainbow."

1999 was a particularly auspicious year for Del Valle ISD. A DVISD principal was among only six educators nationwide to receive a Terrel H. Bell award from the Dept. of Education for outstanding leadership, and her elementary school was named a national Blue Ribbon campus, making it the second of Del Valle's five elementaries to win national Blue Ribbon status.

Overall, the district earned a "recognized" rating in the state accountability system and produced two exemplary campuses. The three new elementary buildings Del Valle began building in 1998 to move students out of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport's flight path opened on time. And in August, the Austin division of national homebuilders Kaufman and Broad chose Del Valle as the sole recipient of a $100,000 award to enhance teacher training and fund college scholarships in trades and technology. Del Valle's aggressive recruitment of sponsorship from local business, meanwhile, brought in record numbers of participants in the district's adopt-a-school program.

"Here you have a little rural, poor school district that has transformed itself into a very important, very vital district," says Sandy Dochen, an IBM public relations director who chairs the Capital Area Workforce Development Board. The president of Kaufman and Broad's Austin division, Larry Oglesby, says Del Valle's "absolute enthusiasm" for education makes it a clear choice for community investment. "That group has a real eye for the future -- and it just kind of rubs off on you. They're not average and don't intend to be," says Oglesby.

Del Valle ISD's tax base has grown significantly over the past few years as new microelectronic companies, warehouse manufacturers, and Austin's international airport have moved into the area -- so much so that the district actually cut its taxing rate by seven cents this year. But the district's attitude about the role it serves in the community, which has been largely Hispanic and lower-income since the 1980s, was shaped in a time when resources were scarce. If anything, the district's poverty and isolation seem to have strengthened its resolve and resourcefulness.

Former DVISD superintendent Edward A. Neal, who held that post for 27 years before retiring in 1998, says the schools relied on local citizens to fill low-paying administrative positions. In return, Neal says, the district directed all the resources it could muster into the classroom -- his own office was never carpeted, says Neal, and paid consultants were seldom hired, but the district didn't blink at sending teachers to expensive training seminars.

Dochen adds that Del Valle has long understood the importance of serving, not dictating, education to its constituency. "They've learned the art of asking for things and showing relevance in the community -- saying to parents and students, "How can I help you succeed?' instead of, "You're my subordinate,'" says Dochen. In 1996, DVISD was complimented by the Texas Education Agency for stretching its budget and extending educational opportunities fairly to all students.

Del Valle's ever-pressing challenge -- moving kids with socioeconomic factors stacked against them into college -- has given the district a solemnity of purpose that insulates it from the ideological squabbles that often beset urban districts. Some Del Valle officials interviewed for this story, including current superintendent James Stewart, had never heard of The Austin Chronicle and seemed generally unconcerned by the kinds of political thumb-wrestling that fill this paper.

Del Valle superintendent James Stewart
Del Valle superintendent James Stewart (Photo By John Anderson)

In fact, Neal says he can't remember a single issue that ever divided his board members. There were some arguments about how much school staff should be paid, Neal offers, but not much else. Rivera reports that "maybe three" people showed up to protest new school boundaries the district drew up this year. "That gives me a strong message," says Rivera. "That makes me think this community is behind us."

High-Tech Tracking

Del Valle's transition from committed but unremarkable school system to nationally recognized leader began about five years ago, and was largely driven by the changes taking place around the district. Del Valle may have been quiet, but it wasn't asleep: When large high-tech employers settled in just down the road in the early Nineties, Del Valle officials realized that a gold mine of opportunity awaited their graduates if the schools could convince students from largely working-class homes that jobs in technology were within their grasp.

The district directed its newfound tax dollars toward that end. Del Valle's elementary reading and TAAS remediation programs became national models, teacher training and salaries were stepped up, and, with enthusiastic assistance from local employers, intensive technology training and workplace learning became high priorities. Today, Del Valle ISD dedicates twice as great a portion of its budget to career and technology programs as does the Austin school district.

Superintendent James Stewart makes no apologies for the fact that a large portion of Del Valle graduates are destined for Austin Community College and other two-year technical schools. In fact, says Stewart, the district is trying to make it easier by expanding scholarship offerings to students scoring in the lower percentiles on standardized tests.

"We're trying to change the perception of college education -- there are those who would say if you don't go to colleges with a four-year program, it's not worth anything," says Stewart. That attitude, he says, overlooks the talents of students whose aptitudes aren't geared for higher scholastics.

"That's the message we don't send in our schools, that these people are valuable," says Stewart. "These kids get written off, and a lot of them have a lot of ability." Rivera, whose own daughter is in her first year at ACC en route to the University of Texas, stresses that just because the district is willing to assist kids who may decide to forego college, that doesn't mean the district is losing its focus on higher education. "The board is always saying that all kids should have the chance to go to college -- and this district has to do everything it can to get them there," says Rivera.

Industry representatives admit up front that it's the middling achievers -- those who make As, Bs, and the occasional C -- who comprise their most promising recruiting grounds. Advanced Micro Devices' biggest labor challenge isn't finding design engineers -- it's finding semiconductor assemblers and other manufacturing and operations employees.

Fitzpatrick says that Del Valle, more than other districts, has been willing to listen to what industry needs. Unlike the Eanes school district, which prefers to groom its students for college exams, or AISD, which drastically cut its school-to-career program in the last budget cycle, Del Valle believes there's nothing wrong with integrating elements of the workplace into students' educations. "Stewart gets it," Fitzpatrick says of the Del Valle superintendent. "A lot of educators don't think their job is to prepare kids for the world of work, but most kids that are successful had an internship or a summer job."

Local industry executives are prominent on the board that oversees Del Valle's adopt-a-school program, a partnership which links business resources with schools' needs, and the names of some officials at AMD and SEMATECH have become inextricably linked with Del Valle ISD. Their interest in the district is derived first and foremost from their companies' location in Del Valle's tax base, company officials say; but many admit that as a smaller district, Del Valle tends to be more responsive to business involvement than larger districts such as Austin.

"I feel a lot more connected to Del Valle," says SEMATECH communications manager and adopt-a-school leader Jean Louis. "With a larger district it's like, "How dare you come over here and tell us how to do things.' With Del Valle, they're saying, "Please help us.'"

Industry contributions to Del Valle go well beyond buying computers. AMD, for example, helped finance a health center for the district, and Tokyo Electron employees serve as tutors and mentors for students.

And Floyd Bevers, Del Valle's director of career and technology programs, says that while industry representatives don't interfere in how the school structures its curriculum, the district does rely on industry input to keep its material current. "We're always revisiting [our curriculum] to see whether we're going in the right direction," he says. "It's assessed all the time whether we're creating the right kind of workers."

Floyd Bevers, Del Valle's director of career and technology programs
Floyd Bevers, Del Valle's director of career and technology programs (Photo By John Anderson)

Bevers, who's been with the district since 1975, was a major proponent of bringing education and the workplace closer together long before local businesses bought into the idea. Now, Del Valle is placing students in internship positions at AMD through a program known as Accelerated Careers in Electronics (ACE), a summer work option available to students who pursue intensive courses in electronics and physics. When Del Valle completes its new high school, Bevers says, the electronics lab course will be taught by an instructor from Austin Community College. Not all internships are in the technology industry, however. Partnerships have also been worked out with the Omni Hotel chain, St. David's Hospital in Austin, and Sears.

Most recently, the district initiated a unique program purchased directly from a company, Cisco Systems, that teaches students how to design and maintain computer networks based on the same material Cisco engineers use. Instigating the program is a huge commitment for both students and the district. Students must invest four semesters to complete the training, and the district has had to pony up tens of thousands of dollars to buy the requisite equipment and train an instructor.

Unavoidably, the program forces students to learn the Cisco system. But Ken Baker, of the Region 13 Education Service Center, a state-funded consulting office that helped Del Valle install the course, says that students learn plenty of universal skills with networks through the Cisco course. Smaller districts across Central Texas, including Leander, Cedar Park, and Eanes, use the program already, Baker says.

Land of Opportunity

But, as Fitzpatrick notes, Del Valle's enthusiasm for school-to-career programs hasn't always been matched by other districts. The program still has image problems to overcome, such as parents who fear that "career pathways" -- the courses of study students may choose as early as sophomore year -- are used to track their children into blue-collar labor. It's true that not all jobs being created in the Del Valle area are technical or professional in nature, and Del Valle's career programs reflect that reality. Development around the airport is bringing high numbers of service jobs to the area, and warehouse manufacturing and distribution companies such as Armstrong/McCall and the Calendar Club already rival the high-tech giants in the amount of tax dollars they contribute to the district.

But University of Texas economics professor Bob Glover, who specializes in the relationship between industry and education, says that the career pathways which schools create as part of their school-to-work programs don't have to be "either/or" propositions for students. Districts which have developed sophisticated programs, says Glover, keep students on the college track but also encourage the kind of early job exploration that helps students avoid the "kicking around waiting tables" phase after graduation.

"You have to be clever about it," says Glover, "but I think [school-to-work programs] are headed in the right direction." Youth development, Glover adds, is enhanced when it becomes the joint responsibility of businesses and schools: Schools need industry to step up and help students understand the consequences of their educational decisions. Responsible companies, Glover argues, aren't trying to recruit wage-earning lackeys -- they're looking to put people on management tracks.

Del Valle adopt-a-school board member Ernie Gammage, a Texas Parks and Wildlife Dept. employee, says his group is taking steps right now to ensure that Del Valle has the best school-to-work programs available. Gammage is heading a committee that will soon visit other regional school districts to see how their programs have improved and report back to Bevers in January.

Gammage says that in a world where kids are obsessed with video games and fashion, business needs to play an active role in education. Gammage says he supports programs such as "Choices" -- already used by AISD and being considered by Del Valle -- which walks eighth-graders through the potential consequences of their educational decisions. "The business world is the real world, and if we can use those real-world experiences to try to introduce [kids] to career opportunities, then I think we will have performed a valuable service, because that's something that the school can't do," says Gammage.

In truth, Del Valle ISD's school-to-career programs are not currently in danger of influencing many students one way or the other, because the number of kids signing up for the courses is still relatively small. Part of the problem, Bevers says, is finding enough participating companies and instructors to expand the range of options. But another is a lack of interest among students in intensive courses in math, science, or physics. "All of these programs are growing" in numbers of students, Bevers says, "it's just that they're not growing to the point where we have to turn anyone away."

Roadblocks on the Way

The Del Valle school district's biggest challenge, however, is still on the near horizon. District enrollment, which took a major hit in the early Nineties with the closing of the Bergstrom Air Force Base, promises to go off the chart over the next 10 years. A Texas A&M study released this month found that the 5,600-student district, which is growing faster than any other local district, could swell to more than 8,000 students within five years, and could more than double in size by 2009.

The Del Valle community is one of the hottest home-building markets in the country, with 3,300 new homes planned there within just the next five years. "We see Del Valle as becoming a very large part of the Austin metropolitan community," says Kaufman and Broad's Oglesby, whose company expects to put up more than 700 homes by July near the site of the future Del Valle high school.

Del Valle schools already use portable buildings, and although the district has tentatively scheduled a September bond election to finance the construction of three new elementaries and a junior high, keeping up with enrollment promises to be the district's number one problem for years to come. That's not to mention recruiting teachers in a market increasingly short of bilingual, math, and science instructors. "It could be pretty scary," superintendent Stewart says. The influx of newcomers could also bring more affluent families with new demands -- perhaps for more Advanced Placement offerings and fewer electronics courses. School officials who once found it relatively easy to define the district's needs and priorities could see more competition for their attention in the future.

The building boom does have a silver lining for the district: It brings more housing for teachers and other school employees, typically a scarce commodity in the Del Valle area. Kaufman and Broad's homes, says Oglesby, will sell for between $80,000 and $115,000, include three or more bedrooms, and be available to DVISD employees at 1% off the sticker price.

Typical of their nuts-and-bolts approach, Del Valle officials aren't nearly as worried about about the political ramifications of their enrollment growth as they are about getting enough chairs in place to hold everybody. Rivera, for one, welcomes the coming changes. "We need to work with it and maybe we'll learn something," she says. Dochen says he's confident that Del Valle will respond to the upcoming challenges the same way it always has -- by listening to the community's wishes and devoting whatever resources are necessary to meet them.

Former superintendent Neal says Del Valle still has a "long battle" ahead to change students' and families' perceptions about the need for higher education. "There's still lots of families, particularly in the low incomes -- they want their child to drop out [of the education system] and go to work," says Neal. But he says the coming influx of urban professionals will help, not hurt, families from poorer backgrounds. "You're going to see more of the white-collar worker, and their expectations are going to be much greater. But I think that the blue-collar worker will be happy with that; they want to see improvements in education, and they're not going to resist it." end story

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Del ValleISD, Dulce Rivera, John Fitzpatrick, Capital Area Training Foundation, Sandy Dochen, Kaufman and Broad, Larry Oglesby, EdwardNeal, school-to-career, James Stewart, Advanced Micro Devices, SEMATECH, Jean Louis, Floyd Bevers, adopt-a-school, CISCO

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