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We are preparing kids for an uncertain future. One thing we do know is that our average student will change careers seven times in his or her lifetime. We want to prepare our kids for the positions that will be available in the next 5 to 10 years. In our part of Texas, many of those jobs will be related to space exploration.
Space X is building a launch pad near Brownsville, Texas, where the first Mars colony is rumored to be launched. For the past couple of years, our academic calendar has been themed on the Mars colony. Because we always want to be futuristic, this year’s theme is “Weslacoland” — like the movie “Tommorowland.”
To give our students the best possible chance at success in a changing world, when I became superintendent of schools in the summer of 2012, I put together a team of administrators, parents and teachers to create a vision for the district called “Empowering 21st-Century Learners.” We are teaching communication, collaboration and creative and critical thinking through project-based learning. With these 21st-century skills, if they want to, they can go from being plumbers to lawyers over the course of their lifetimes.
We teach robotics and STEAM starting in kindergarten, and are now including 3- and 4-year-olds. With the help of an engineer, our youngest students are building a Mars rover — a modular car that they can put together and drive. The rover will have a handle that controls a claw so students can learn by picking up blocks with numbers and letters on them. We will have mechanical engineers, electrical engineers and systems engineers to help build the rover and take it through an obstacle course. As far as I know, nobody in the world is bringing this level of STEAM and robotics to 3- and 4-year-olds.
Training digital citizens
We want all of our students to have access to online learning resources, but we can’t afford a 1:1 initiative. Instead, we have a bring your own device policy. We give everyone at school Internet access via our filtered network. On top of this, all of our campuses constantly teach digital citizenship. One of our campuses is a Common Sense Digital Citizenship Certified School, and we are working to get all of our campuses certified.
Helping kids read before they can walk
I have a strong focus on early learning, and a big part of that is early literacy. In 2014, we worked with a corporate partner to launch an initiative called “Zero to Three: Weslaco Reads,” so kids who are 0–3 can download books and read them. The program highlights and pronounces words, and you can change the speed of reading so young kids can get started at their own pace.
We have students and parents who speak English, Spanish and a mixture I call Tex Mex. Students who speak Tex Mex don’t learn proper English or proper Spanish, and our hope is that giving them anytime, anywhere access to digital or printed reading material will give them the push they need to learn both languages correctly.
This year, we formed a partnership with Head Start to help 3- and 4-year-olds who are economically disadvantage and have challenges. Weslaco early childhood teachers go to Head Start locations and teach there for half a day every day. So when these kids come into public schools, they’ll already be reading. We are looking at extending this program to 2-year-olds, and we want to provide curriculum to kids as young as 1 year old.
To keep all of our students reading, we have reading and writing camps during Christmas, spring and summer breaks. Kids can go to the library and download books to read for free. We have a competition called the Millionaire Club, which pushes kids to read a million words. Over last Christmas break, we had one little girl who read 40 books. We also have writing competitions to get students writing for pleasure and to prepare for state assessments.
We are doing everything we can to keep our students reading. We want them to develop vocabulary and comprehension of science, math and social studies terms. We want our kids to be CEOs, so we’re starting to build their literacy from birth and supporting them through the day they retire.
Ruben Alejandro has worked at Weslaco ISD in Texas since 1977. He has held positions including chemistry and biology teacher, district technology curriculum coordinator, federal programs director, assistant superintendent and deputy superintendent. In 2014, he launched the “Zero to Three: Weslaco Reads” with support from myON.
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