PHARR, RGV – Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams says he is returning to Austin with “more energy and passion” after seeing the improvements being made in school districts in the Rio Grande Valley.

On a visit to Thomas Jefferson T-Stem Early College High School, Williams heard from seven PSJA students who have overcome challenges such as poverty, disability, drug dependency and dropping out of school early. He told the Guardian he was impressed with the way the students had turned their lives around.

“There is no doubt that there are some great things going on down here in the Rio Grande Valley. There are also some awesome things that are happening here in San Juan,” Williams said. “What has to happen, and what I would love to see happen is the kind of energy and passion that is demonstrated by this superintendent and these groups of administrators, teachers and even students. I need to match that when I get back home. So, hopefully, it has given me more energy to go back home and match it.”

The superintendent Williams was referring to was Dr. Daniel P. King, who heads PSJA ISD. PSJA presented huge challenges when King arrived in 2007. There were a high number of dropouts, a low number of graduations, stagnant achievement among the study body as a whole and low staff and community morale as a result of corrupt practices at the board of trustee level.

TEA Commissioner Michael Williams and State Board of Education board member Ruben Cortez, Jr., discuss life at PSJA with students Jaime Lopez, Michael Castillo, and Luis Guerrero.
TEA Commissioner Michael Williams and State Board of Education board member Ruben Cortez, Jr., discuss life at PSJA with students Jaime Lopez, Michael Castillo, and Luis Guerrero.

Now, PSJA is nationally recognized. It has four early college high schools and one early college academy. It leads the way in early college education with almost 3,000 high school students enrolled in college courses each semester. About half of the graduating class of 2012 and 2013 completed some college work while in high school, with approximately 150 of the students graduating from South Texas College during their senior year in high school.

PBS News Hour has showcased PSJA nationally with a two-part series featuring the district’s dropout recovery program success and early college high school work. National attention has been paid to the fact PSJA has increased the number of yearly graduates by almost 100 percent, from 966 in 2006-07 to 1,939 in 2012-13.

In a brochure provided to Williams, PSJA touts the dramatic decrease in dropouts and the increase in the district’s four-year graduation rate and high school completion rate. The district now has a dropout rate that is well below the state and regional average.

The brochure points out that PSJA’s Early Start Program was named the best early childhood program in Texas after winning the 2013 H-E-B Early Child Excellence in Education Award.

Asked why he thought Williams was going back to Austin full of energy and passion, Dr. King said: “Commissioner Williams was able to see on his visit today the real impact that opening the doors of opportunity has on our students. He saw the real potential young people have and I think he is really inspired by the young people that come maybe from an area of the state that often is not considered the headline area of the state.

“To see what these young people have already accomplished, to see their aspirations, to see their energy I think that is contagious. They have overcome challenges in so many different areas. What he has seen is that if we provide the right support and the right opportunities young people can overcome incredible challenges and go on to achieve really unbelievable things.”

King pointed out that PSJA is doing things in a systemic way. “We are not doing this in one school only or only helping those at the top. You saw everything from dropouts to top ranking students to in-between students (here today). These were students from every single high school.” And, while proud that almost 3,000 students are in dual enrollment this semester, King believes PSJA can do even better. “We are hoping to graduate close to 500 with either a certificate or an associate degree this year. And, we are just starting. In the future it is going to get much, much, bigger.”

One reason Williams could be paying particular attention to success stories in Valley schools is because of the changing demographics. At a recent Texas Tribune festival in Austin, former state demographer Steve Murdock pointed out that the Hispanic population is growing fast, not just in Texas but across the nation. Hispanics lag in educational achievement and are more likely to live in poverty. Murdock said his research shows socio-economic conditions correlate to educational achievement.

“As we change our population, if we do not change the socio-economic factors that go with them we will change the very economic base of Texas,” Murdock said. He also said that in a presentation given to bankers in the Valley, he noted how there has been substantial increases in socio-economic achievements in many parts of the Valley over the last decade.

“The future of Texas, the future of the United States, is tied to minority populations. And how well they do is how well Texas and how well the United States of America will do,” Murdock said. “Demographics are not best left to demographers. If we do not take into account these and other demographic trends as we plan for the future of our communities, as we plan for the future of this country, and certainly as we plan for the future of Texas, I think we will be much less successful than if we do take them into account.”

Ruben Cortez, Jr., is the Valley’s elected representative on the State Board of Education. He accompanied Williams on his tour of Valley schools. “Commissioner Williams understands the shift in demographics. Of the 5.1 million kids in public Texas schools, 51 percent of them are Latino,” Cortez said.

“Recently, we had the White House Initiative Group touring South Texas. This is deliberate. They are coming down here to see what the best practices are and how we are achieving the results we are achieving in a predominantly Latino environment,” Cortez said.

“For Commissioner Williams to come down is evidence of the great work that is being done down here. Part of the dialogue throughout the day was how to further engage Dr. King in that overall discussion as he (Williams) is shaping commissioner policy. When he took office, one of the first five calls he made was down here to South Texas. It is a telling tale. Other areas of the state are taking notice of the best practices that are going on down here.”

State Rep. Sergio Muñoz, whose district includes part of Pharr, agreed with Cortez’s analysis.

“Commissioner Williams recognizes the models that are being used in all areas of education, particularly here at PSJA ISD. When you look at dual language and bilingual education, when you look at drop outs and getting students ready for college, PSJA is delivering,” Muñoz said.

“It is all about providing the student with the opportunity to succeed in life. I think Commissioner Williams takes a new found energy with him because he knows the policies that have been put into practice down here are working. He knows we can use the same tools and models in other parts of the state. The future of Texas depends on the education of our children.”