McALLEN, RGV – When Aurelio M. Montemayor of the Intercultural Development Research Association participated in an education town hall meeting in a Rio Grande Valley colonia he asked parents if they want their child to go to college. Every hand went up.
That incident came to mind when, at the start of the 2nd Annual College for All Conference, PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King said he sometimes gets quizzed about his school district’s ambitious goal of getting all students into college. PSJA’s mantra is College Ready, College Connected and College Complete.
King said college is certainly for his children. He asked, rhetorically, is it for yours? “So if college is for my children and yours, please tell me whose child it is not for?” King said. He pointed out that in today’s world more and more jobs require workers to have a college degree or college certificate.
“In today’s complex world it is very important that we really rethink what we do in the education system, at many levels but particularly at the high school level,” King said, in his opening remarks. “We really need to be looking at how we develop pathways and pipelines and supports, ladders, a combination of ways to connect our students (to college), very intentionally. To have them understand what is out there in the world, what is going on, as best we know of what the future looks like and what is emerging.”
Hundreds of educators and school administrators from across the country came to the McAllen Convention Center to hear the successes PSJA has achieved with its college for all approach and to learn about the challenges it has faced implementing it.
King said high schools need to build systems that can connect students successfully to and through post-secondary education. He said school districts also need to guide students towards a successful career, “where they can take care of themselves and their family, have a good quality of life and where they can give back, where they can make their community better, their country better, make the world a better place.”
Partnering with South Texas College
King said creating a successful college for all program is not easy. To make this point he spoke about how the PSJA strategy came about. “We have now about 9,300 high school students. When we talk about connecting every one of them (to college) it is tough.” King said Dr. Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, which has partnered with PSJA on its dual enrollment and early college projects, can attest to how hard it is. Reed spoke after King at the opening of the conference. “They (STC) are working with many other districts. And so we are a piece of what they do. But it is challenging to come up with the programs, with the teachers, with the equipment,” King said. He said it is even more of a challenge in the Valley because the economy is not as varied as one would wish, with only a small manufacturing sector. He said the Valley is good for retail jobs and its medical arena is growing fast.
“It is challenging but we have been working at it,” King said, pointing out that it was in the summer of 2007 that he first approached STC about partnering on a dual enrollment initiative. King had just taken over at PSJA and he quickly learned the district had a huge problem with dropouts. By creating the College Career and Technology campus, PSJA was able to lure dropout students back to school with the promise that they would be focusing on completing a college program that would give them good career prospects.
The day before the conference started, PSJA administrators took conference attendees on tours of their schools. King said one visitor nailed it when he said: “So, you’re getting the students to focus on their college graduation, not their high school graduation.” King said that was correct. It was all about getting students to “focus on the career they want, not their high school diploma.” He said if PSJA were to place a lot of emphasis on students getting their high school diploma the students would think they have done it all. “The high school diploma is basically a piece of paper. In the old days, several decades ago that could land you a pretty good job. Today it usually does not, though there are some exceptions.”
King said STC’s Dr. Reed was very positive when she was asked if STC could partner on the dual enrollment, College Career and Technology Campus, project. “Within a matter of about 30 to 40 days we opened a brand new high school for young people aged 18 to 26 who had not completed high school, who had dropped out, who had not earned a high school diploma. We started with a couple of hundred students ages 18 to 26 who had not successfully graduated from high school.” King gave an example of a 26-year-old student from the first cohort who had dropped out of school at age 18. He said the student got a certification from STC and then earned a bachelor’s degree.
‘Wall-to-Wall Early College’
The next PSJA-STC partnership, King said, involved setting up a STEM Early College High School. “From there we just kept moving, saying, how can we reach more and more students? We opened a school within a school at PSJA North High School, and then at the new Southwest High School. Then we opened a school within a school at the other high schools. And now this year it is the incoming freshmen at all the high schools, it is schoolwide. So now we are really hitting all.”
King pointed out how big a challenge the latest venture is. “It is a big challenge for both of us (PSJA and STC) because now, all means all. Now, in our district, every single high school, starting with our freshman class is 100 percent, wall-to-wall, early college. That is exciting but also a little bit frightening because we have got to figure out how to do that.”
Before King spoke, Jesus “Jesse” Vela, Jr., PSJA’s school board chairman, gave brief remarks. The former educator said he and the rest of the board of trustees simply get out of the way and let the professionals at PSJA do their thing. When King spoke he said Vela was being too modest. King said none of the PSJA initiatives would be possible without a supportive school board. He said not only do the school trustees allow him to get on with his job they also push to get projects done faster. “They want it for all the students,” King said.
King then ran through some stats. In 2008, when dual enrollment began at PSJA, he said, about 150 students were enrolled in joint PSJA-STC programs and two associate degrees were awarded. Today, he said. 3,400 PSJA students are taking college classes and more than 1,200 of them had college hours when they crossed the high school stage to get their high school diploma. In addition, over 20 percent of PSJA students had crossed the South Texas College stage with an associate’s degree or a certificate from the community college and almost half – about 2,000 graduates – have a semester under their belt, King said. He said such advances have meant PSJA has dramatically increased the number of students who have gone on to university.
“Our goal in next few years is to have 90 percent of our students enrolled in college while in high school. Ultimately, to 100 percent,” King said.
King concluded his remarks by saying PSJA has come a long way over the last eight years. “We did things that did not work out. We have made mistakes but we have had some great successes,” he said.