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From Humble Roots, a Rhodes Fellow Sets a High Bar in the Rio Grande Valley

September 25, 2019
How one Texas principal is setting—and achieving—his goal of sending every student to college.

Like so many families along the U.S.-Mexico border, Principal Joán Alvarez spent the first five years of his life traveling back and forth with his family, following opportunity and a chance for a better education.

Overcoming a language barrier and other hurdles, Joán graduated high school at the top of his class, earned his bachelor’s degree, and went on to become the founding principal of IDEA College Preparatory in McAllen, Texas in 2012—just a few miles from where he graduated high school.

There, Principal Alvarez has built an award-winning teaching team that is 95% Hispanic, mirroring the communities and families they serve. A full 100% of students this year are on track to matriculate to college—echoing his commitment that “college can, is and will be for all children.”

What was it like to grow up along the border?

I was born in Rio Bravo, right across the border in Mexico. We permanently moved to the U.S. when I was five—my parents, two bedrooms, eight brothers and sisters and no indoor restroom. When we were little, my dad made us a small table for the kitchen and we would gather there to do our homework. My parents’ sole mission was to give us a better education than what they received. The values they instilled—to show respect to teachers, to always be present and to always give 100%—are still what drives me today.

Did you face challenges as you pursued your own education?

No one in my family spoke English and homework was always a real struggle. I remember going to school as early as 6 a.m. for tutoring. When I was in high school, a teacher asked the class, ‘Who will go to college?’ Everyone raised their hand except me. I felt so embarrassed. I wanted to go, but no one I knew had ever gone. I didn’t have the money, didn’t know the process, and like we see with a lot of our kids at IDEA, there is also the cultural challenge of having your family allow you to leave the house for college.

Migrant families stick together, so it was a big step when my dad told me that he would support me attending Texas A&M Corpus Christi. I’ll never forget the pride I felt at orientation, walking to the front of the room with my scholarship letter, a scholarship that came from my parents and my own hard work.

How are you helping your students achieve the same goals?

When we started seven years ago, only half of students were passing math or reading. After the first year we had 90% passing state exams. Fast forward to today: Every single kid is taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, and every student completes a 4,000-word research paper before graduation—including our special needs students, including migrant kids. Today, 100% of the students that began with us are stepping foot in college right now.

We’ve done this in a number of ways, by staying close with families and finding the right design for every student—whether that’s decoding for reading or interventions for the kid who needs to go back four or five levels in math. Our teachers are committed. All of our founding teachers are still here, so when a teacher says to a family or student that they are here for the long run, it’s a promise that each of us will be here to see them graduate.

At IDEA McAllen, we strongly believe that every student’s graduation tassel is a proof point of the culture of achievement we have purposefully built. Our kids belong in college. Our award ceremonies and events are standing room only. That’s a good problem to have!

You recently won a prestigious Ryan Award, honoring transformational school leaders across the country, and donated the $25,000 prize to your students attending college. What prompted this incredible generosity?

Really, I didn’t think twice. My dad used to shine shoes and work in the fields. I’m just trying to pay forward what my family was able to give me—an education.

I’m proud to be a Hispanic principal and Hispanic leader in education, giving every student a fighting chance to succeed academically, no excuses!
Joán Alvarez

In 2012, you became a Rhodes Fellow through IDEA’s principal-in-residence program and attended the Harvard Educational Leadership Program. How has that impacted your ability to serve?

I’ve been able to meet with leaders from around the world and hear about the problems they are facing in their communities. Together, we are coming up with ideas on how to better equip our teachers and transform and change schools not just in Texas, but across the country. We also talk about issues beyond education—like immigration—and I’m able to lend my first-hand experience in how it affects schools and families on a daily basis.

I’m proud to be a Hispanic principal and Hispanic leader in education, giving every student a fighting chance to succeed academically, no excuses! I am that person you would see around the town on the weekend, biking to the corner store. When I was featured in the newspaper as going to Harvard, my community told me, ‘You are making us proud, Joán. If you can make it, we can make it as well.’ It’s super uplifting.

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