McALLEN, RGV – In his remarks at the Las Colonias in the 21st Century conference, PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King spoke a lot about “systemic change” and “scaling up” proven programs so more students succeed.

He also spoke about the importance of partnering with others, such as South Texas College, Head Start and community groups like La Unión del Pueblo Entero, ARISE, Valley Interfaith and RGV Equal Voice.

There is no need to wait for Washington, D.C., for help; the Rio Grande Valley can come up with its own solutions to the challenges it faces, he said. “We have a lot of assets. We just cannot keep waiting for Washington. We have to find ways of doing things in our community and get the job done,” King said. “We need to come together, to scale and systemically engage. The responsibility is ours.”

Daniel P. King
Daniel P. King

The work King has done in his seven years at PSJA, in turning around the fortunes of a once troubled and low-performing district, is featured prominently in the education section of a new report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas titled “Las Colonias in the 21st Century – Progress Along the Texas-Mexico Border.”

PSJA has about 32,000 students. The report notes that its student body is 99 percent Hispanic and that the district reaches 82 colonias in South Texas. Among its challenges, the report states, is the fact that 85 percent of the student body is economically disadvantaged, 73 percent is considered at risk of dropping out and 41 percent has limited English proficiency. “PSJA’s focus is to prepare students—starting at the prekindergarten level—to become high school graduates who are well prepared for college and who enroll in and graduate from a college or university,” the report states.

To coincide with the publication of the report, the Bank held a one-day conference at the McAllen Convention Center. Dr. King was one of the speakers at the event. In his remarks, King said one of the biggest failings in public education is that its institutions are operating in a “disconnected system.” He said a seamless system is needed for Pre-K, through elementary, middle and high school and on to university. He said PSJA is all about getting students to and through university. Unleashing the potential of the students will not only help the students themselves but also the wider society, King said. “Those students have tremendous potential to help us. We want to build on that power.”

State Sen. Eddie Lucio had given the keynote speech at the Las Colonias conference. King was on a panel that followed the keynote speech. He noted that Lucio had talked about the Rio Grande Valley being different. King said those differences are really strengths, citing the fact that many Valley students start school knowing two languages. “Most start with Spanish as their primary language. We want them to know that is very valuable and a tremendous resource,” King said.

King then ran through some of PSJA’s successes. On dropout recovery, he referenced the district’s Countdown to Zero initiative, where, at the end of summer, staff members go out into the streets to round up any and all potential dropouts. To entice the students back to school, PSJA, working with South Texas College, offers a dual enrollment program. Previously, PSJA had twice as many dropouts than the statewide average, King noted. Now, it has half the statewide average. “We know those practices are effective and can be scaled,” he said.

With regard to on time graduation, PSJA has gone from 62 percent in 2007 to 90 percent. King noted that Hispanic students have a far poorer record than Anglos when it comes to graduating from high school on time. PSJA’s answer, he said, was a program called College Cubed. “We want all our students ready for college, connected to college, and to see them go all the way through,” he said.

PSJA’s dual enrollment program is crucial to this, King said. He said that of the 2,000 students that graduate in August, 1,300 will have started college before they leave school. “That is 65 percent. Our goal is to get to 90 percent within next three years. Forty five percent have one semester under their belt. Almost 500 have an associate’s degree or a certificate. We want it to be a majority.”

One of PSJA’s most successful students has been Cecilia Guadalupe Corral. In the “Las Colonias” report, Corral is said to exemplify the success of the school district. A student who grew up in a colonia in Las Milpas, Corral graduated from PSJA with an associate’s degree in engineering thanks to the district’s dual enrollment partnership with STC.  Corral went on to attend Stanford University and is now chief design officer of a medical nonprofit. “She grew up in Las Milpas as an immigrant and through early college and dual enrollment has been able to do that,” King said.

King concluded his remarks by pointing out that PSJA is now helping two generations at the same time by opening Parent Community Engagement centers across the district. These centers allow local residents who left school a long time ago to come back and renew their education. The centers operate through partnerships with community groups and STC. “We are asking them, what do you want? What do you need?  Citizenship, ESL, GED, computer skills, you name it. Whatever area they ask us, we do that,” King said.

In a Q&A at the conference, King was asked to elaborate on the adult education program. He had earlier noted that in addition to having Parent Community Engagement centers in Pharr, San Juan and Alamo, PSJA had also set up shop in Little Mexico, a large colonia south of Alamo, and had plans to open one in Lopezville, another rural location.

“We try to have accessibility in every part of the community. One of the amazing things is that a lot of the classes are taught by parents. We do not charge anything for the classes. Each semester we ask parents to contribute a minimum of ten hours to the school system to improve their neighborhood. We have parents from the colonias teaching computer classes and teaching classes in entrepreneurship and different ways to start businesses,” King said.

Going forward, the key will be how to make the adult education program sustainable, King said. “It is a challenge. How do we incorporate this? The best way is deep roots in the neighborhoods. Look to take it out of the school and into the community. We need the community to own it.” One possibility, King said, is to set up, two or three years from now, a board of directors from different community groups, from the cities, and from the school district.

King was also asked how much of PSJA’s work was original and how much was modeled on the work of other education institutions. He said it was a bit of both. “We know what needs to be done. It is a matter of doing it. How do you scale? How do all students have access? We are taking the best ideas and scaling it and listening to the community. A lot of community organizations come in and tell us, ‘we need this, we need that.’ Well, let’s roll up our sleeves and do it. So, it’s listening to the community and building it to scale and best practices. Not being satisfied with a small cohort but spread it to all students.”

King received the loudest applause when he responded to a question that challenged the need for dual language education. He said that when he was a superintendent at Hidalgo ISD, Dallas ISD had put a billboard on the expressway offering a $5,000 bonus if bilingual Valley teachers would join their district. King said the McAllen Monitor newspaper dispatched a reporter to Hidalgo to ask if King felt threatened, that Dallas was going to “steal” his best teachers. “I said, no, put that billboard up. I want the community to know the value of the Spanish language they know.” King said having two languages can be a benefit in almost any career. He also pointed to studies which show that having two languages improves the brain’s power and noted that in South America and Europe it is not uncommon for people to speak five languages. “I do not know why we want to limit ourselves,” King said.

The final question posed to King centered on partnerships with the business community. King said such partnerships are crucial and cited a pilot program PSJA and STC are working on with Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. Under the program, students can leave high school with an associate’s degree in nursing. “It’s the first of its kind in the nation,” King said. “After they graduate, the Hospital hires them and educates them further. We need to come together on projects like this. We need to scale and systemically engage. The responsibility is ours.”