WESLACO, RGV – A transformation of the local community and ensuring all students complete college on time are not goals normally associated with school districts.

However, nationally-acclaimed Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD has embarked on these two initiatives, as Superintendent Daniel P. King recently told state senators.

“We want to be a game changer. We do not want to close the gaps. We want to flip the gap. We already flipped it on the dropout rate. We were trailing the state. Now we are leading the state,” King said.

“We already flipped it on graduation rates. We were failing the state. Now we are leading the state. Now we want to flip it on college completion. We believe that can have a dramatic impact on our community and on the whole region.”

Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, speaks at a Senate Hispanic Caucus workshop in Weslaco.
Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, speaks at a Senate Hispanic Caucus workshop in Weslaco.

King outlined his vision for what a 21st Century school district should be about when giving the keynote speech at a Senate Hispanic Caucus workshop at the South Texas College Mid Valley Campus in Weslaco. State senators in the audience said afterwards that they want to replicate the PSJA model across Texas.

A “powerful strategy” that the state could and should focus on, in fact one of the “key game-changers” is expanding dual enrollment,” King said. And in particular, early college high schools, he said. “This is the most powerful thing we could do right now in terms of changing the end result, the educational attainment of our young people.”

King pointed out that Texas ranks ten percentage points below the national average in terms of college completion. He said he agreed with the Houston Endowment when the non-profit questioned, a few years ago, if the State of Texas was measuring the right things when it comes to grading student success. “For about a quarter of a century Texas has been putting a heavy emphasis on standardized tests. The Houston Endowment asked what difference are we making at the end game, college completion.”

Only one in five Texas students earns any kind of college completion within 11 years of entering eighth grade, King pointed out. That would be when a student reaches about 25 years of age. This is in spite of the fact that almost every year Texas pushes harder tests, he said. For Hispanics, it is one in ten. For Hispanic males it is 8.9 percent, King noted.

King then cited Dr. Steve Murdock, the former Texas State Demographer. He called Murdock the Professor of Demographers.

“The demographics are changing and Texas is becoming more and more Hispanic. His (Murdock’s) message is, if we keep doing what we are doing and keep getting the same outcomes we have right now then, as the demographics change, Texas will become poorer, less educated,” King said. “In terms of college completion, Texas will change from the one in five to the one in ten as the state becomes more Hispanic.”

King said he likes to call Murdock the Ghost of Christmas Future because “he appears and tells us what the future is going to look like.” The big question, King posed, is does Texas have to stay on the path Murdock predicts. “The answer is if keep doing what we are doing right now and the focus stays on what it has always been we are going to get what we are getting right now. We need to dramatically change our behavior to get something different,” King argued.

As for dual enrollment, King said a lot of studies at the local, state and federal level have shown the “transformational power” of students taking college classes while still in high school. “There is something about students starting their college in high school. It makes the future real to them. It makes the future now. For a lot of young people, high school is more like a rite of passage. They know they have to get through it before they can start their life. Some mess around, saying ‘I will get serious later.’ But, there is something about starting their college course work, it is their future. Studies have shown this. They do much better.”

Dual enrollment students are twice as likely to go to a four-year college, King said. They are also 15 percent more likely to graduate college inside six years. And, they are 75 percent more likely to graduate from college. He said the figures were even better for minorities.

As for early college high school, King said it was like dual enrollment on steroids.

“Early college high school is the game changer,” King said, pointing out that nationally, 30 percent of students at an early college high school complete an associate degree before they graduate high school. In Texas it is between 50 and 80 percent, he said. At some early college high schools it is at 90 percent.

In Texas, almost all the early college high school students start college while they are in high school, King noted. The four-year high school graduation rates for early college high school students are better than national average. “Early College high schools have a very positive impact on students that enter high school below grade level,” King also noted.

“Demography does not have to be destiny. We need different strategies. We can take control of our own destiny by what we choose to do,” King told the visiting state senators.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series on Dr. Daniel P. King and his transformational work at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD. The second part will be published later this week.