Pathways to success

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PSJA ISD explains innovative college model

By Joey Gomez

Devany Cantu, 17, can recall the exact moment she wanted to become a doctor.  At an early age, her youngest sister suffered from severe convulsions that resulted in years of regular visits with specialists and doctors for treatment.

While she was less inclined to talk about the personal details of that experience, she eagerly talks about the motivation it has given her to one day help children like her sister by pursuing a medical degree.

Since that time, she has spent her summers volunteering with her own pediatricians at Babies and Children Clinic in Pharr in anticipation of her future career as a doctor.

The goal, she says, is to hopefully make it to medical school in order to become a pediatrician.

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“I have very good connections with my own pediatricians, and they have guided me throughout, telling me how the job works and how it’s going to be.  My pediatricians have inspired me to do that,” Cantu said.  “I love little kids.  I love working with them, but my little sister was the push to doing this.”

“I really would like to reach out into the communities where they have financial difficulties,” Cantu said.  “Some kids and families don’t even have enough money to go to a simple checkup.  I really want to push that.  I just want to come back someday and help out where it all started.”

Cantu entered the early college program at North as a freshman, and she quickly completed the Texas Higher Education Assessment (THEA) exam in order to begin taking college courses while still in high school.  She is now a step away from receiving an associate’s degree in interdisciplinary studies but is more intent on preparing for her career by pursuing a major in biology med studies in the fall at the University of Texas in Austin.

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“The program has really made us grow into individuals while we prepare to go into college, because these courses are very rigorous, and we know that in college they will be even more rigorous,” Cantu said.  “In order to go into a biology major, you have to be taking the courses like Calculus 1 and the bios. I have been doing that my senior year, so it has been an advantage to be in the early college school, because those are the courses that are being offered, and they are helping me do my major.  “It has been a great opportunity.”

Limairy Rodriguez, 18, a senior at PSJA Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School, also wants to enter the medical field as a nurse practitioner.

A chance one summer to participate in Doctors Hospital at Renaissance volunteer program as a sophomore, and then the Smith Summer Science and Engineering Program in Massachusetts one year later, enabled her to coordinate with experts in the medical field and inspired her to pursue her degree.

“I really loved the hospital.  I could totally imagine doing that for the rest of my life,” Rodriguez said.  “As I worked with doctors and nurses, I learned that I really wanted to become a nurse practitioner.”

Rodriguez talked about the experience of the district’s early college high school program.

“A lot of my time has gone into this; I missed volleyball games and parties because of homework or whatever else,” she said.  “I can’t go on a vacation because I have to do this.  It really has been a nice experience, because I have learned so much about myself and about others as well.  I’ve learned that I want to do something really good for other people, not just me.  I would love to help other people who are in need.”

The goal, according to leaders in the district, is to impact college completion, as well as impact post-graduate degrees so that students can be in the best position possible to take care of their families, to be leaders in their community, and to be able to take care of themselves financially.

The early college high school track is a college preparatory program that is designed to fulfill the requirements of an associate’s degree and transition to a bachelor’s degree.  Students are fully engaged in the core curriculum that is designed towards those career pathways.

A partnership with South Texas College has given the district an opportunity to align many students with associate’s degrees or, at the very least, work towards the core completion of the 60 college credit hours needed for degree completion.

The objective is to build pathways in order to make students marketable in the workforce.  The process requires constant monitoring of workforce trends and especially evaluation of the job market to see which professions are in demand, according to leaders in the district.

“So, not only are we completing those associate’s degree pathways, but many more students in our community and schools are getting closer to that associate’s degree by the time they graduate high school,” said Guadalupe Chavez, PSJA College and Career Pathway Developer.  “What we are doing, in collaboration with STC and our counselors and principals, is that we have strategies in place that allow us to transition those students who are maybe 15 hours away from an associate’s, to getting them to STC and matriculating them.”

“Some of these students who may choose a different university, we are helping them as well through those pathways through the transitional counselors that we have available at STC and UTPA,” Chavez said.  Through these transition counselors, there are interventions in place in order to have a smooth and seamless transition to either STC, UTPA, or another four year university.”

Omar Gonzalez, 17, is one of those students transitioning to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to pursue a degree in mechanical engineering.  He will graduate in May with an associate’s degree in Mathematics before attending MIT in the fall.

Gonzalez, who says he comes from a family of engineers, said the rigor of the district’s early college program has prepared him to enter college among some of the brightest minds this country has to offer, he said.

“I’ve developed habits to eventually help me succeed in college thanks to the early college high school,” Gonzalez said.  “It really is a program that enhances learning in an individual way, and also as a collaborative group.”

Basically as an individual, you go into a classroom and you see how a college course is taught and how you have to adapt in the future once you graduate from high school and go off to college,” Gonzalez said.  “As a group, we grow up together, but we have really different ways of thinking, so we learn from each other, and we learn to analyze all the different perspectives of each other.  From there, we all learn.  There is always new stuff to learn about.”

The program was developed by keeping in mind three impact factors, according to PSJA ISD superintendent Dr. Daniel King.  They are:

1.)  Scaling the program to ensure it extends to all students

2.) Focusing on the fields of study by structuring it in a way that students will take interest

3.) Emphasizing all the different support pieces in the picture

“We try to structure it to things that students will both be interested in, and to those where is has a lot of potential growth for high wage careers,” King said.  “The other thing is the support.  There are people here who do a lot of support to counselors and students on campuses in the areas of degree planning and developing the pathways and making sure everything is planned out in advance to make sure nothing is happening by chance.”

The goal is to become an early college school district, according to King.

“Our goal over the next few years is to get to the point where every single high school graduate will have started college work and earn college credit by the time they graduate from high school,” King said.  “Then increasing numbers of them will have earned associate’s degrees, or at least 60 college hours.”

“The idea about this is it gives them a jump start on their college education, and it makes it more likely that they want to complete,” King added.