“You don’t give up on a kid. He may not get it the first time you explain it. It might take different explanations and he might not get it until the 16th or 17th explanation, but you don’t give up.”

Dolores Cisneros Emerson, principal

  • Brownsville, Texas
  • Brownsville Independent School District
  • Grades PK-5
  • Public
  • Mid-size urban
  • DTM awarded in 2010

School Overview

Awarded the Dispelling the Myth Award in 2010, Morningside Elementary School continues to have solid academic performance under a new principal.

On the southern side of Brownsville, Texas, Morningside Elementary School sits just a couple of miles from the Rio Grande River that marks the border with Mexico, a border that has become more volatile as the Mexican drug cartels have grown bolder and more violent.

All of Morningside’s students are Hispanic, and 96 percent meet the qualifications for free and reduced-price meals — almost twice the percentage as in the rest of the state.

When Dolores Cisneros Emerson arrived in 2005, she announced her goal that all students would meet state standards. She remembered years later that some teachers had scoffed at the “unrealistic” goal. But by 2009, 99 percent of the low-income fifth-graders at Morningside met state math and science standards, compared with 78 percent of the state’s low-income students. Similarly, 99 percent of Morningside’s third-graders met state reading standards that year.

To reach that level, Emerson said, she concentrated on building the systems that allow teachers to do their jobs — such as creating a master schedule that permitted teachers at each grade level to plan and collaborate — providing them the resources to do their jobs, and then monitoring to ensure that everything was working properly.

To that end, she applied for grants to provide resources to kindergarten, first, and second grades. Kindergarten teacher Nicolas Serrata, a teacher who pre-dated Emerson, said that previous principals had paid little attention to the early, untested grades even though, he said, kindergarten “is the foundation for everything else.” Until Emerson arrived, he had few books and materials for teaching.

Emerson also ended the school practice of teaching the early grades almost entirely in Spanish, which teachers had argued was kinder to the children who arrived knowing little English. Emerson argued that not only was it against district policy, but also that it kept the children isolated and unable to function in the United States.

“My father’s words still echo in my mind,” Emerson said. “’Education is the key to end the cycle of poverty, the cycle of helplessness, and the cycle of codependence on governmental support.’ Furthermore, education gives EVERYONE a level playing field and a chance for success in our democratic society.”

Though passionate about ensuring that all children succeed, Emerson said she left most instructional decisions to her teachers, encouraging them to try different and innovative strategies. Her role, she said, was to monitor to make sure they were successful and intervene with help and support if they were not.

“Teachers want to be empowered,” Emerson said.

In 2011, Emerson was tapped by the district to open Daniel Breedon Elementary School, built to accommodate growing enrollment. In 2013, it was one of the top-performing schools in Brownsville and earned two distinctions from the state’s accountability system. In late 2013, she was once again tapped by the district to become administrator for special services for the district office.

Meanwhile, under its new principal, Jose Martinez, Morningside has continued to post strong performance.

Updated 2013