Education a Priority for this Arizona Border Town

Editor's note: This column originally appeared on

Nogales, a small border town in Southern Arizona, is on a mission to challenge any misconceptions about the town and its people. Its location on the border with Mexico means that many people have pre-conceived ideas about what a border town is, who lives there, the quality of its schools, and the students they are producing.

Aissa Bonilla, Principal of Mary Welty Elementary School, wants to challenge these ideas. “Education is key because we want to take away any misconceptions that our students are any different,” she says. “At our school, we set high expectations for each student that comes through our door… I have no doubt that every child can succeed.”

The graduation rate for Nogales would suggest that she is right. Ninety-six percent of students from Nogales Unified School District #1 graduate—18 points higher than the statewide graduation rate. So, what is it that makes Nogales so unique?

“Nogales is a truly bilingual, bi-national city,” says Roberto Gueverra, of Unisource Energy. Many places may see this as a hindrance he notes, but not Nogales. Here, the diversity is celebrated, particularly by educators and the business community. “Our educators see this as an asset,” he says. “They are developing students who can speak two languages; students that have a whole set of skills like flexibility, adaptability, and resilience.” Skills important to the business community.

This positive attitude and commitment to student success is reflected across all aspects of the community. “We have a lot of students that come from Mexico and go to school in the U.S., and a lot of Americans that live or work in Mexico,” says Ricardo Santana, Consul General of Mexico. “Because of this, we need to work with the education system on both sides of the border to hold students to high academic expectations.”

Ensuring students are prepared for the jobs of the future in a global economy is critical to business leaders like Jaime Chamberlain, of J-C Distributing Inc. “I think it's part of our responsibility as business leaders to try to get kids involved in what we do and make them understand that our industry is extremely important all over the world,” he says. “It’s becoming more and more important for us to find employees that are able to work in a global environment.”

“We want all of our students to think of what’s possible, to believe that anything is possible,” says Sophia Gamez, Reading Specialist at Coronado Elementary School. “We want to prepare them to succeed, not just inside the classroom, but outside the classroom as well.”

Students too are becoming more engaged in planning for their future, setting goals, and focusing on attending schools like MIT and Stanford University. It wasn’t until she started classes at Stanford that Cristina Brentley, a graduate of Nogales High School, realized how well-prepared she was. “After I started college I realized how amazing my teachers were and how amazing the opportunities I had were,” she says. “Nogales really prepares its students for their future academically and beyond.”

And how do they bring all of this together? “We have great partnerships,” says Angel Canto, Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum and Instruction at Nogales Unified School District #1. “Actually, that’s an understatement. We have ensuring relationships between all of the key stakeholders, and we never settle.”

These stories show that Nogales knows that creating the workforce of tomorrow requires investing in human capital where it matters most—in the classroom. That’s why Nogales educators, parents, business, and community leaders are all working together to support students to succeed. 


Lucy Davidson is manager of programs at USCCF's Center for Education and Workforce.