|PHARR, November 21 - Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, will give the keynote speech at the Senate Hispanic Caucus Summit in Weslaco on Saturday.
State senators in the Hispanic caucus are big supporters of Dr. King and what he has done in turning around one of the worst performing school districts in the state into one of the best.
In fact, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, a member of the Senate Hispanic Caucus, believes state education policy should be built around the programs designed by King and his PSJA team. Van de Putte spoke to the Rio Grande Guardian about her admiration for what King has achieved on a visit to PSJA’s Thomas Jefferson Early College High School in September.
“This school district is doing it right by its students. The demographic here, both in terms of ethnicity and from a socio-economic standard… for people to tell me we are going to be doomed because we are going to have more Latinos and we are going to be unprepared because they are not at the financial level they need to be when they come in, they need to come to PSJA. This is the game changer here for us to learn from,” Van de Putte said.
PSJA has 32,000 students. It is 99 percent Hispanic, with 90 percent of students living in homes where parents survive on incomes below the poverty line. More than 41 percent of students need additional help with English. And yet, in a little over six years the graduation rate has shot up from 62 percent to 88 percent, higher than the state average. More than 25 percent of PSJA students are enrolled in courses that earn college credit. Enrollment rates in higher education doubled for the district's graduates between 2007 and 2010.
“What PSJA is doing should form the basis of our education policy for the entire state, both pre-K through 12 and higher ed,” Van de Putte said, pointing out that she was the author of legislation ten years ago that gave school districts the leeway to start early college high schools. “The state had barriers. It took four years to get the rules in place. We knew there were districts that wanted to do it. The state was the impediment. It is so rewarding to see a bill being utilized so widely. Students are going to have to have a post high school something,” Van de Putte said.
Van de Putte said she also likes that fact that PSJA students learn in teams and that King has provided educational opportunities to the parents of students.
“It is portfolio driven, portfolio accountability. What is wonderful here is the collaborative ethic and spirit of cooperation. What is different here is building up strength and capacity in the community. What happens in a community where the educational attainment of the parents is not at the level it needs to be? The commitment here is with adult education. How powerful is it for a student to see their mother or father study, trying to get a certification or a license. It tells them that their family is important and that learning is important,” Van de Putte said.
The San Antonio Democrat added that what is happening at PSJA is not magic.
“The results might seem magical but what is happening here is because of a focus, a determination, to put students first. You do that by acknowledging that students need certain resources. Nobody here at PSJA short changes the value of teachers,” Van de Putte said.
The Senate Hispanic Caucus Summit takes place at the South Texas Mid Valley Campus from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. The address is 400 N. Border Ave, Weslaco, Texas 78596. The summit will include sessions on health care, education, economic opportunity, immigration and civic engagement.
Four state senators are slated to attend: SHC Chairman José Rodriguez, D-El Paso, SHC Vice-Chair Sylvia R. Garcia, D-Houston, or Eddie Lucio, Jr., D-Brownsville, and Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
To date, the SHC has had a statewide summit in Austin and regional summits in San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, and El Paso, with hundreds of participants cumulatively. Participants at the past summits include advocates, students, academics, government officials, and other community leaders, Garcia explained.
“We have been humbled by the passion and participation of Latinos from all walks of life at summits so far. Across the state, they have put forth many great ideas that my colleagues and I hope to advance during the upcoming legislative session,” Garcia said. “I am excited to now hear from our Latino community in the Valley, and to incorporate their recommendations into a legislative agenda that benefits us all.”
Rodriguez said the SHC summits are designed to solicit feedback on the recommendations gathered by policy taskforces that were formed last October during the statewide Latino Policy Summit at the Capitol, which drew more than 150 people. The taskforces focused on education, health care, immigration, civic engagement, and economic opportunities. Later this year, the collected feedback will be presented to the legislators who are members of the SHC and the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, Rodriguez explained.
“We’ve heard Latino communities across the state identify a legislative agenda for the critical areas of education, health care, economic opportunity, immigration, and civic engagement. I’m looking forward to a vigorous discussion in the Valley, which like the rest of the border is so critical to the success of our state,” Rodríguez said.
“While I live in El Paso, I grew up in the Valley, and my family still lives here. I’m eager to work with my colleagues, their Valley communities, and all Texans to promote legislation that addresses the needs of the Latino community.”