The mission is to address a long-held stigma about vocational education and emphasize instead the practical tools developed from a successful early college initiative, which continues to serve as a model for districts nationwide, according to district leaders.
The district now includes a model to expand district-wide in order to reach more than 32,000 students. The goal, according to Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD Superintendent Dr. Daniel King, is to adapt the lessons of early college and T-STEM school initiatives in order design an instructional program, as well as schools, that will inspire students to graduate college-ready.
“Our mission, when we started working on this, our main focus, was to connect every student to post secondary education before they leave high school. We have expanded way beyond that,” said King about the initiative the district calls College3 (College Ready, College Connected, and College Complete). The initiative is essentially the trifecta of goals that establish the mission behind the district’s early college plan for students.
The early college model is a bold approach that provides students with the opportunity to earn up to two years of college credit, tuition free, while obtaining their high school diploma.
“What we are trying to do is design a system. We are trying to design a seamless link with higher education. We are trying to make going from high school to college more like going from middle school to high school, where it’s more seamless, it’s an easier transition for students, with less red tape and all those other issues.”
“What we are looking at is having students more ready for college; we want to get them connected to college, and we want to make sure they actually complete college,” Dr. King said.
A study released by the Houston Endowment reported data from the Public School system database and higher education database, tracking three cohorts of entering eighth graders in Texas beginning in 1996. The study recorded the performance of students 10 years after they entered eighth grade throughout their education careers.
What the study found after 10 years was that only one-fourth, or 20 percent, of those students by roughly age 24 had completed any kind college including a certificate, associates, or four-year degree.
For Hispanics, only 11 percent have completed any kind of college, and Hispanic males came in at just under 9 percent. The figures indicate that not even one in 10 Hispanic males completes any kind of college 10 years after they enter eighth grade, according to the study.
“That’s unacceptable,” Dr. King said. “When you look at educational attainment, the average education level in Texas is not at the level of the rest of the United States. The average in the Valley is lower than the state average. So, when we start looking at the data, we realize we need to do something different; we just can’t keep doing what we have always been doing.”
“We can’t just work harder. We have to work smarter and think of different ways to do things,” King said.
‘You must be crazy’
The origins of an early college initiative date back to King’s tenure as principal of Hidalgo High School from 1988 until 1999, when he became superintendent of Hidalgo ISD. It was at that time that King said he fostered a commitment to connect students to college, but was limited by his own experience through the college system. Over the years at Hidalgo, he said he began to realize the increasing impact two-year degrees had among students.
It wasn’t until 2005 that King received an invitation by then-UTPA president Blandina “Bambi” Cardenas to meet with representatives from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Texas High School Project to establish the region’s very first early college high school in the Valley among the 800-plus student body at Hidalgo.
The initial plan was to start with the entering freshmen class, and following an application process, bus 100 of them to UTPA for college courses. If too many students applied, the students would then be decided via a lottery system.
“I looked at that plan and told them that the only way I was going to do it was by extending it to all the kids, not just some,” King said. “Initially, they looked at me like I was crazy. Nobody had ever asked that before.”
“I got a phone call some weeks later, and they said ‘Dr. King, we are going to give your idea a shot.’ So they doubled the size of the Gates Foundation Grant at Hidalgo High School, and we started the first early college in the nation meant for all students,” he said.
When King arrived at PSJA in 2007, the main priority shifted to focus on the dropout issue, but he and staff were already considering how to extend the early college program not to a student body of 800 as in Hidalgo, but rather to the more than 8,000 students that attend high school in PSJA ISD.
South Texas College assisted King and his staff to take up the challenge.
In the spring of 2008, two phone calls from STC President Dr. Shirley Reed and from the Texas High School Project indicated that a Gates Foundation Grant for an early college high school in another district was in danger of falling through. In order to keep the grant, they needed the school opened by August of that year. It was April. At the time, King suggested it would take at least 16 grants to accommodate the more than 8,000 students at PSJA. Knowing that would never happen, he began to think of how to leverage this limited opportunity to impact all students.
“I told them that we would do it on one condition; we would do it provided that we include in the agreement from day-one, that this high school will be a laboratory for us, where we will figure out how to scale this and create a system where one of these days we will be able to connect all of our 8,000 high school students to college,” King said.
All three entities, STC, THSP, and the Gates Foundation, signed off on the idea that enabled the district to start its T-STEM early college high school as a laboratory for “Early College for All.”
One year later in the Spring of 2009, King said he called Dr. Reed and the others to tell them it was time to start the scaling process to extend it to the rest of the students at PSJA.
Since then, PSJA has applied for early college high school status for all of its high schools, and for ‘school within a school’ programs. Earlier this year, PSJA ISD was only one of two school districts in the Valley which were awarded a $5.6 million federal grant to expand the early college high school (ECHS) model in the region as part of the Early College Expansion Partnership.
The partnership, which includes the two districts as well as Educate Texas, a public-private partnership of the Communities Foundation of Texas, and Jobs for the Future (JFF), will enact the grant that will be funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund.
PSJA includes 43 schools, including four high schools, four alternative schools, eight middle schools, 26 elementary schools, and over 32,000 students.
In 2010, PSJA North High School opened its early college high school utilizing the “school within a school” concept to serve more than 400 students.
PSJA Southwest Early College High School, which also opened in 2010, is now a comprehensive early college high school, serving more than 1,800 students.
The school district’s PSJA Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School opened in 2008 to serve more than 400 students, and it has emerged as a model for instructional practices across the nation.
The district has become a state and national model for dropout recovery, having graduated more than 1,150 former dropouts ranging from ages 18 to 26 and connected them to college.
Graduation rates have risen from 62 percent to over 87 percent since 2010, and the district has enrolled more than 3,000 of its 8,000 high school students in college each semester, according to TEA.
“We have really been working on building our capacity to get to the point where all of our juniors and seniors are beginning post-secondary work at some time,” King said.
“Whether it is in a career and technology area, in manufacturing technology or engineering, we are trying to get to the point where every one of our students is beginning college before they finish high school, “ he said. “What we want is a good percentage of those to complete a certificate or associates before they leave us, and then start stacking on that.”
Flipping the pyramid upside down
King is confident that if the district stays on track, it can dramatically transform education. At issue, he says, is changing the mentality on graduation day. While every student says they are going to college, only 60 percent actually attend in the fall, King says.
Instead, the goal is to flip that trend and have 50 percent of students who have already finished a college degree, not just finished a college course.
The short term goal this year is to have close to 30 percent of students complete a certificate or associates by graduation day, and then increase that 50 percent within the next two to three years, King said.
“Here in this region we lag behind,” King said. “We lag behind economically. The average income of a family in the Valley isn’t anything close to the average income in many places. We lag behind educationally. There is a high correlation between how much education you have and what you’re income is.”
“I think that here in the Valley, there is a commitment among Valley school leaders to see if we cannot flip the pyramid and take our communities that have often been on the short-end of these indicators, economic and otherwise, and see if we can’t flip it around and have our Valley be leaders in some of these areas.”
College and beyond
PSJA ISD has made a fairly unique commitment for a public school. King says the district has taken responsibility to not only ensure that students apply or get accepted into college, but to make a concerted effort to make sure they complete it.
For students who attend post-secondary schools locally, either at UTPA or STC, the district has placed paid transition counselors who help PSJA students make the change as they graduate from high school and enter college.
The counselors are there for student advisement, especially during that first year of college. Via a smartphone app that the district has created that allows students to connect to transition counselors, administrators say students now have a consistent network that helps them navigate through the initial stages of a college career.
“Just by the mere creation of these positions at the university level, it has been life-changing for so many of our students,” said Vera Boda, PSJA’s transition specialist at UTPA. “It can be an intimidating step for students; after all, many of their parents didn’t go to college, and a lot of them don’t even have a high school diploma, so there is no reference point in the home.”
“These positions help complete the long range goal, which is retention and completion,” Boda says. “After 14 years at the high school level, it’s been important to see the ultimate part of our work, which is keeping them in school and helping them complete on time.”
Boda also spearheads an effort to ensure PSJA ISD students looking to attending college outside of the Valley also have a network of support, consisting of former students in schools across the nation. Utilizing social media, the PSJA College Connection program creates a “students helping students” culture at some of the country’s most elite universities including Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford among others.
“I love that they are able to see a familiar face and have them think ‘that could be me,’” Boda says. “This is more geared to our students in high school and junior high, and we may have another step for grad school. We want our students to continue as far as they want to go.”
STC transition specialist Rosie Robles says she values her role as a support structure for students who are going through the process of entering college and who are seeking that next step in their lives.
“Whether they are planning to stay here to receive certificate or associates, or if those degrees lead to a bachelor’s degree, then I lead them through that process of transferring from STC to either UTPA or other universities,” Robles said. “Dr. King had initially stated that our main goal was to get them in a (college seat), but what happens after? I will let them know what they need to do so they can become more independent,” Robles said.
Tomorrow comes today
King says the message the district tries to convey to students is that college is not something they are going to do someday, rather it’s something they are doing today.
“We always tell students what they do right now makes a difference in their lives,” King says. “We are saying ‘start college now.’ We are saying complete early, and lock in a certificate or associates. What we mean by ‘go far’ is build on that, and go wherever you want with it. So if you lock in a certificate as a welder, that’s great. You can get a welding job or whatever you like, but you don’t have to stop there. You can go wherever you want.”