The Texas Congressional Delegation, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the State Department, the Pentagon and the Embassy of China all held meetings with a particular group visiting Washington this week. The group’s members were not international geopolitical power brokers yet — they were the top students at International Leadership of Texas (ILTexas), a charter school with 23,000 students across 22 campuses.

The school teaches its students Mandarin Chinese and Spanish on top of the regular curriculum, part of an attempt to forge global leaders with Texas roots.

“The economic, the cultural connection between Texas and Mexico is extremely important. When we started the school at the time, all of the commerce flying into the Dallas Fort Worth airport, the highest dollar value was between Texas and China,” said Eddie Conger, the school’s superintendent and founder. 

“So why wouldn’t we create a system where our kids are learning the language and learning the culture for us to be stronger Americans?”

Conger, a former Marine infantry officer, schoolteacher and principal, started ILTexas in 2012 aiming to prepare students for public service with a global perspective; the school’s motto is “Others Before Self.”

On the global stage, the logical focus was on China, but Conger said Texas’s ties to Mexico were not lost on him.

“Texas, you know, there’s a pretty big country just south of Texas,” he said.

Since the school’s foundation, Mexico has surpassed China as the United States’s top trading partner, in part because of the pandemic, and in part because of the USMCA partners’ two-way trade that contrasts with the large trade deficit across the Pacific Ocean.

And for many of ILTexas’s students, there’s a personal connection.

“Just like Texas, about 50 percent of our students are Hispanic. We have a larger share of African Americans; about 30 percent are African American. Then the remaining is some white, with some Asian students, as well,” Conger said.

“So I would say for the most part, looks like Texas.”

The top 3 percent of students were recruited for this week’s Washington trip, where they bridged a diplomatic gap not often traversed in Washington, meeting both with U.S. national security officials and Chinese officials.

“What I’ve asked both sides is: Why is this charter school having to be the one to fill the gap?” Conger said.

“Because when I’m in China, and I talk with folks in the Ministry of Education there, they keep saying it is important for people-to-people cultural, the cultural language exchange. When I’m at the U.S. State Department, that’s exactly what they say.”

Though only the top 3 percent of students got to experience a taste of high-stakes cultural diplomacy, Conger touted ILTexas’s success rate overall, adding that some challenges remain.

“One hundred percent of graduates have received an acceptance to a four-year degree. What we’re still struggling with is getting all of the kids who have that four-year college acceptance, to get them there.”

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