EDINBURG, RGV – After sharing a roundtable discussion with him at HESTEC 2015, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan gave a big shout out to Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD.

Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education.
Arne Duncan, U.S. secretary of education.

“I am just a huge fan of Dr. King. The work he is doing is just remarkable. Graduation rates going up, dropout rates going down, him being very explicit, his goal is not just higher graduation rates but higher college graduation rates. That is fantastic to see,” Duncan said, in response to a reporter’s question about various success stories at PSJA.

“I am a huge fan of dual enrollment programs, early college, young people can graduate from high school with a year, sometimes even two years, an associate degree, done, think of the cost savings for them. Think of all of our students that are first-generation college goers, knowing in their heart they can be successful at the higher education level. It’s fantastic work, whatever I can do to support Dr. King and his team, we want to do that. You have a real star here. This community is lucky to have him.”

King praised Congressman Rubén Hinojosa for bringing Duncan to HESTEC. “Secretary Duncan coming to the Rio Grande Valley shows the growing importance of the Valley and the attention we are getting. This HESTEC work is tremendous. Events like this have the potential to solve the shortage nationwide of young people going into the STEM fields.”

Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD.
Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD.

HESTEC was started 14 years ago by Congressman Hinojosa and UT-Pan American President Miguel Nevarez. It has now been taken on by UT-Rio Grande Valley. The week-long conference seeks to pique the interest of middle school and high school students in science, technology, engineering and math with big corporations sending staff to show students the career opportunities open to those who graduate college with STEM qualifications.

“I am thrilled to be here. I have heard about HESTEC for years. Congressman Hinojosa, I just have so much respect for his leadership. So many of the jobs of the future are going to require young people who have a passion for and a love for the STEM fields. Not every child but many,” Duncan said at the news conference that followed the roundtable discussion.

“It is hard to imagine something if you do not have exposure. Something like this that brings together employers, higher education, that brings in teachers and educators, that brings in students and let’s students know what’s out there for them. I don’t want them (students) just wanting devices from Apple. I want them creating those devices from Apple. I want them making them. I want them thinking about all the different ways they can contribute to the economy, make a great living, have a good job and do something they love and have a passion for. So, I am a huge fan of HESTEC, thrilled to see the progress it has made over the last 13, 14 years and glad to have finally made it to South Texas.”

In his remarks during the roundtable, Duncan referred to a shortage of skilled workers in the STEM fields. “I can’t tell you how many CEOs, how many company leaders I’ve met with, and President Obama has met, with that say ‘We want to grow, we want to keep good jobs in our community, but we can’t find the workforce,’” Duncan said.

Duncan discusses Steve Murdock’s HESTEC presentation

Duncan was asked by a reporter about a presentation on demographics given Monday at HESTEC by Steve Murdock, the former director of the U.S. Census Bureau and former state demographer for Texas. Murdock rattled off statistic after statistic about the population growth of minorities, particularly Hispanics, and the implications a few decades from now. He said minority students are not achieving the same success in school or college as Non-Hispanic Whites. Because minorities will form a large segment of the working population soon, lower educational attainment rates will impact the economy in a negative way, Murdock warned. In fact, Murdock said, if things do not change the only thing outpacing population growth with be a rise in poverty in Texas and the U.S.

Asked what he has done as education secretary to improve educational attainment rates among minority students, Duncan said: “One of the things we are most proud of is that our nation’s high school graduation rates are at all-time highs. Dropout rates are down significantly, particularly in the black and Latino communities. That has led to more than a million additional students of color going on to college. So, we are very proud of the progress but having said that we have a long way to go.”

Duncan said minorities now make up a majority of students in public education in the United States. He said this happened this year, for the first time ever. “Let us be really clear. This isn’t just the right thing to do for the Latino community or for the African-American community. This is the right thing to do for our nation. And if children of color are not successful, are not graduating from high school, are not going to college, our nation is going to suffer. So, this is in our self-interest, the nation’s best interest.”

As he had said during the roundtable discussion, Duncan told reporters that many of the jobs of the future are going to require students with college degrees. “If we want to keep high-wage, high-skilled jobs in South Texas, in the state, in our nation, we have to have the best educated workforce. If not, the competition isn’t down the road or in a different community. The competition is India, China, Singapore and South Korea. If we want to keep those good jobs here we have to do a great job of educating children. Again, that is why I think HESTEC is playing such a remarkable role, not just here but as the model around the nation.”

King discusses Steve Murdock’s HESTEC presentation

Superintendent King did not see Murdock’s presentation at HESTEC but has seen it many times in the past. He said Murdock’s analysis of the demographic trends needs to be seen by as many people as possible because it so dramatic.

“Steve Murdock is right on target. I can tell you that our goal at PSJA is to completely flip that around in the same way we have with the dropout rate and the high school graduation rate. Our goal is to exceed the national average on college completion and we believe we will be doing that within the next few years. More and more of our young people are not only going to college but finishing college. We need them to finish college quickly,” King said.

Cornelio Gonzalez, executive director of Region One ESC.
Cornelio Gonzalez, executive director of Region One ESC.

“I will be honest with you, I think Valley-wide, whether it is IDEA Public Schools, whether it is PSJA, Brownsville, McAllen, I really think Valley-wide we are starting to change that story. If you look at the data, you could talk to Dr. Cornelio Gonzalez at Region 1 about this, and look at the graphs for the percentage of students who entered college the fall after they graduated high school, Region 1 leads the entire state. That did not use to be. Now we have got to push college graduation the same way. But when you stop and think about our area, the poverty, the ethnicity, and everything like that, that more students from Region 1 enroll in college after high school now than in any of the other 19 regions, we are moving the needle and we are going to move it on college completion as well.”

Cornelio Gonzalez is executive director of Region 1 Education Service Center. His office confirmed King’s point and cited statistics from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. In the Region 1 area of South Texas, 57 percent of students entering college had graduated from high school earlier the same year. The statewide average is 51 percent.

“We are extremely proud that the post-secondary awareness efforts in place throughout schools in our region are making a difference in the decisions of our high school graduates. That our students lead the rest of the state in college and university enrollment is not surprising to me at all,” Gonzalez said. “I know that all of our school systems stress the importance of education and the pursuit of higher education beginning at the very early grade levels. We congratulate our school systems and our students and we most definitely wish them well in their endeavors – we know this is only the beginning for them.”