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Featured, from left: Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Richard Sánchez, Associate Vice President for Governmental Relations, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley; Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen; and Veronica Gonzáles, Vice President for Governmental and Community Relations, The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. This image was taken in Conference Room 115, Mission Economic Development Corporation, 801 N. Bryan Road, on Monday, December 2, 2019.

Photograph By PAUL CHOUY

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Congressional delegation announces more than $3 million in federal funds for special education, school safety, and economic development projects

By JASON JOHNSON
VICTORIA BRITO
and
LESLIE MARTÍNEZ

More than $3 million in federal funds for special education, school safety, and economic development projects in the Rio Grande Valley have been recently secured by the Rio Grande Valley’s congressional delegation.

On Tuesday, November 12, 2019, Congressman Vicente González, D-McAllen, obtained $1,243,658 in funding from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs for a five-year program called Project PLEASE (Program for Leaders to Educate and Advocate for Special Education) at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). Project PLEASE will train 14 district educators from the Rio Grande Valley to administer special education and early intervention programs. 

On Thursday, November 21, 2019, González said that federal funds amounting to $1,493,168 were distributed to schools throughout the 15th District of Texas thanks to the Students, Teachers, and Officers Preventing (STOP) School Violence Act. The STOP School Violence Act funded evidence-based school violence preventing programming, mental health crisis intervention, and suicide prevention through the Bureau of Justice program, and school infrastructure under the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) Grant.

On Monday, December 2, 2019, Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, González, and Congressman Filemón Vela, D-Brownsville, jointly announced a grant of $374,580 in federal funds for UTRGV. These funds, awarded through the U.S. Rural Development grant program, will assist the university in providing resources and guidance to rural counties across South Texas regarding economic development.

On Monday, November 4, 2019, Cuellar recognized Escobar Rio Elementary in Mission as a Blue Ribbon School for its overall academic excellence and progress in closing achievement gaps, and presented school district leaders with $367, 374 in federal funding, through evidence-based school safety programs, to improve security at K-12 schools. The money is coming through the Department of Justice COPS Office School Violence Prevention program.

Project PLEASE designed to help special needs students

“We need teachers who are able to empathize, connect and have a greater understanding of special education and the learning process in the classroom with special needs students,” said González. “As your congressman, I will continue to promote robust special education programs because everyone has the right to an education.”

Project PLEASE is designed as a cross-department collaboration between the College of Education and P-16 Integration’s Department of Human Development and School Services, and the Department of Organization and School Leadership.

“We take a lot of pride in serving as the Valley’s university, and this is yet another example of how UTRGV will engage our communities to help strengthen our education system,” said UTRGV President Guy Bailey. “I thank Congressman González and everyone at UTRGV who assisted in obtaining this grant.”

Nine school districts – Edinburg, Donna, McAllen, La Joya, PSJA, Weslaco, Harlingen, Mission, and Brownsville – will nominate two district educators to apply for Project PLEASE. 

Those districts will make recommendations on candidates, and the applicant then applies through the UTRGV Graduate College and goes through the admission process. 

Applicants should be present in a position with a focus on special education, have the potential to be a leader in special education, have the passion to serve special education students, and the persistence to complete a doctoral program. 

Dr. Hsuying Ward, Associate Professor of Human Development and School Services at UTRGV, serves as principal investigator on this grant. 

“Our team is grateful to have the support of our Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, as well as that of our school districts in acquiring this personnel training grant to prepare 14 special education leaders through our Education Doctoral Program,” said Ward, Ph.D. “With the collaboration from the nine partner school districts, we know we will ensure the best special education practices and improve the learning outcomes of the children with disabilities in our region.”

Other College of Education faculty members involved in the grant-writing process were:

• Dr. Federico Guerra, Assistant Professor of Organization and School Leadership;
• Dr. Velma Menchaca, Professor of Organization and School Leadership;
• Dr. Steve Chamberlain, Professor of Human Development and School Services;
• Dr. Paul Sale, Professor of Human Development and School Services;
• Dr. Javier Cavazos, Associate Professor of Counseling; an
• Dr. Patricia McHatton, Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs, Student Success and P-16 Integration. 

Ward said knowing a special education student’s needs and the parent communication aspect are important components of Project PLEASE. 

“In this program, we will affect special education practice,” she said. “We want to help train these administrators so they can avoid potential conflicts with parents. We help provide the knowledge they need for current special education practices. If we train our doctoral students well, we will do a lot of good.” 

Dr. Alma Rodríguez, Dean of the College of Education and P-16 Integration said Project PLEASE is an exciting new addition to the doctoral programs in UTRGV’s College of Education and P-16 Integration.

“Through this project, our faculty will be preparing leaders with the necessary knowledge and skills to address the educational needs of special education students,” she said. “These proficiencies are essential to afford the students with appropriate and equitable educational opportunities in special education.” 

Additionally, every participant’s dissertation will be based on special education. The curriculum in the program will contain practical experiences, such as evaluations of a school district’s special education program; internships in a disability rights organization; and participation in Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) meetings to determine student eligibility for special education.

The grant cycle for Project PLEASE started November 1 and will run until December 31, 2024. The cohort will be selected in February 2020; the program will start the first summer semester 2020.

Cuellar, González, and Vela announce $374,580 for University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to expand economic development

“Expanding economic opportunities for rural South Texas is critical to the strength of our economy as a whole,” said Cuellar. “This funding will ensure that people, specifically socially-disadvantaged groups, have the necessary resources and skills that will empower them to bring economic growth. As a member of the Agricultural Subcommittee on Appropriations, I will continue to fund programs that will help our economy prosper throughout South Texas.”

“I would like to thank UTRGV President Guy Bailey and the rest of his staff for their dedication to bettering our community through the power of education. I also want to thank Congressmen Gonzalez and Vela for making economic development in the Rio Grande Valley a central priority for them in Congress.”

Small businesses are the backbone and future of the American economy, said Gonzalez. “It is my hope that these funds will help small businesses in rural areas of the 15th District of Texas succeed. As long as I am a member of Congress, I will fight for policies that encourage economic growth and help our business community flourish.”

Investments in small business development are critical to improving the livelihood of South Texans,” said Vela. 

“USDA’s grant award will allow UTRGV to continue to deliver research, education, and community engagement opportunities for our rural communities. As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, I know firsthand the important role these grants play in understanding our local needs and finding creative ways to address them. I thank the UTRGV team for their steadfast commitment to advancing rural communities and congratulate them on this well-deserved funding award.”

Colin M. Cain, Director of UTRGV Texas Rural Cooperative Center and PI for both projects said, “These critical funds will accelerate economic development in rural counties throughout South Texas, particularly among high-need groups.  We are excited to leverage UTRGV’s innovative approach to business and agricultural development for the benefit of our local communities.” 

Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant 

UTRGV will receive $174,856 to provide targeted technical assistance to socially-disadvantaged groups throughout rural South Texas.  Specifically, funding will help to increase the capacity of small-scale Latina agricultural producers to (1) improve understanding of new direct-marketing strategies to increase farm income, (2) adopt innovative technologies and embrace high-demand native crops.

Rural Cooperative Development Grant 

UTRGV will also receive $199,724 in federal funds through the USDA’s Rural Development Rural Cooperative Development Grants. These funds will support the work of the Texas Rural Cooperative Center, which since 2002 has addressed the economic conditions of rural Texas by assisting with the startup, expansion, and operational improvement of rural businesses, cooperatives, and mutually-owned businesses. This 2019 project will boost rural South Texas economy through the creation and expansion of rural businesses, private sector financing, and the use of innovative technologies.

About UTRGV

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions. UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island.

Almost $1.5 million distributed for school safety programs in South Texas schools

In 2018, González co-sponsored H.R. 4909, the STOP School Violence Act, which authorized funding to improve school security by providing students and teachers with the tools they need to recognize, respond quickly to, and prevent acts of violence – including funding to educate and train students and faculty — and support first responders who arrive on the scene of a school shooting or other violent incident.

“We need to do all that we can to give students and teachers the resources they need to identify potentially harmful scenarios and prevent school violence,” said González. “It is my hope that these federal funds will provide proper training and tools so our schools can prepare for any situation. One of my top priorities will always be the safety of our children and teachers in the classroom.”

The money for Gonzalez’s congressional district, including one in the legislative district represented by Cuellar (Mission Consolidated Independent School District), is part of more than $85.3 million distributed by the U.S. Department of Justice to 215 schools, districts and other jurisdictions throughout the United States. 

Schools that benefited from the FY 19 STOP Act funding awarded through the Bureau of Justice Assistance STOP Grant are:

• McAllen Independent School District: $249,516;
• Karnes City Independent School District: $150,000;
• Karnes City Independent School District: $238,163;
• McAllen Independent School District: $250,000;
• Mission Consolidated Independent School District: $367,374; and
• Seguin Independent School District: $238,115.

 “These federal resources will help to prevent school violence and give our students the support they need to learn, grow, and thrive,’ said U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr. “By training faculty, students and first responders, and by improving school security measures, we can make schools and their communities safer.”

The Bureau of Justice Assistance, within the Department’s Office of Justice Programs, and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services manage the programs and administer the grants, which include funds to: 

• Develop school threat assessment teams and pursue technological solutions to improve reporting of suspicious activity in and around schools;
• Implement or improve school safety measures, including coordination with law enforcement, as well as the use of metal detectors, locks, lighting, and other deterrent measures;
• Train law enforcement to help deter student violence against others and themselves; Improve notification to first responders through the implementation of technology that expedites emergency notifications;
• Develop and operate anonymous reporting systems to encourage safe reporting of potential school threats;
• Train school officials to intervene when mentally ill individuals threaten school safety; and
• Provide training and technical assistance to schools and other awardees in helping implement these programs.

 About the Office of Justice Programs

The Office of Justice Programs, directed by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Katharine T. Sullivan, provides federal leadership, grants, training, technical assistance, and other resources to improve the nation’s capacity to prevent and reduce crime, assist victims and enhance the rule of law by strengthening the criminal justice system. More information about OJP and its components can be found at http://www.ojp.gov.

About the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services

The COPS Office is a federal agency responsible for advancing community policing nationwide. Since 1994, the COPS Office has invested more than $14 billion to advance community policing, including grants awarded to more than 13,000 state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies to fund the hiring and redeployment of approximately 130,000 officers and provide a variety of knowledge resource products including publications, training, and technical assistance. 

For additional information about the COPS Office, please visit http://www.cops.usdoj.gov.

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David A. Díaz contributed to this report. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories which affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com)

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