MCALLEN, RGV – Education leaders in the Rio Grande Valley need to do more to help those in the community who are being left behind, says Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King.

“We need to look at who is being left out. What segments of the population are we not doing enough for,” said King, in a keynote speech at South Texas College’s recent 6th Annual Bi-National Innovation Conference.

Among those who are being left behind educationally are adults who did not achieve high grades back in their school days and special needs children and adults, King argued.

The conference was held at STC’s Pecan Campus in McAllen.

Adult Learners

With regard to the adult population, King said:

“Here in the Valley we have, for generations, had a high minority population. To go back to the times when I was in high school, nobody talked too much about the dropout rate. That was considered okay. You knew certain families were going to work in the fields. A lot of laborers were needed. It did not seem to raise a lot of concern.”

As a result, King said, “a lot of adults today did not get the opportunities that today’s generation has, with things like South Texas College, with things like dual enrollment, with all the different initiatives that everyone is doing.”

Another aspect of the Valley’s population mix is a higher than average level of people that were not born in the United States. 

“Because we are an area that has high immigration, we have a high number of people that grew up in a different country, where they did not have the opportunities we have,” King said.

“If we are going to have a vibrant Valley that is really moving to the front, we really have to figure out what we do, how to come together through partnerships. The only way that is going to happen… no one is out there handing out too much in the way of buckets of money. So, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, come together in partnerships and figure out how to work with the adult education.”

The audience at the innovation conference included students, educators, academics, business leaders and economic development specialists. 

King insisted that workforce development is just as much about the 30-somethings and the 40-somethings, and the 50 somethings as it is about the teenagers and the 20-somethings. “And so we have got to focus on them,” He said.

Special Needs 

“Another area where we really need to dig in on is our special needs population. People with disabilities, handicapped, whether intellectual disabilities, physical disabilities, we really need to do a better job of working with that group. Both young people and adults,” King said.

King recalled a conversation he and other PSJA leaders had with their opposite numbers at STC a few years back. The subject was getting students to and through college.

“We challenged ourselves. What does that mean for the handicapped, what does that mean for the intellectually disabled, what does that mean for the physically disabled? Are we doing enough for those? So, we came over to South Texas College and worked with the Continuing Education Department and developed skills-specific and career specific pathways for our young people who face some of those challenges.”

King said the change that has been made at PSJA with regard to special needs education has been “amazing.” He said it has had an impact in the community and with the area’s young people. 

“We do not know the limitations of our young people. We have partnered with Workforce and Texas Rehabilitative Services, with the college (STC) and so forth, to develop a career path. Private industry has stepped forward and hired these young people and helped with internships while they are finishing off their high school work. We need to do more of that. We need to scale that.”

King pointed to other partnerships PSJA has entered into, such as those with the City of Pharr and Pharr Economic Development Corporation. The various partnerships have led to a pathway for the education of nursing students and a public safety training facility. 

“We can partner together to share facilities, share equipment, co-design programs and build pathways where we can offer opportunities. Our schools should be open more for adults and others for evening classes. I heard someone talk about access on Sundays. We should look to maximize the use of our facilities, so that we can continue to train and work together and do these things.”

The reference to schools being accessible on Sundays came in a “Cafe Conversation” exercise STC leaders put on during the innovation conference. Attendees were asked to brainstorm ideas on making STC more relevant in the community.

“Economic development is about quality of life, about investing in our people. It is about investing in our children, our parents, our neighbors,” King said.

“If I want quality of life, the best way for me to do that is to make sure you have a better quality of life. If each one of us thinks about it that way, then things will improve for each of us. If I focus on, I want more than anybody else, well, that does not work very well. Sooner of later that kind of division is going to tear things down and tear us apart,” King said.

“What works best is when I want you to have a better quality of life. If each of us focuses on that, who around us is not getting what they need? Who around is not getting enough skill? Who around us is not getting developed for tomorrow’s workforce. What parts of our community is not getting that? If we focus on those, we will all be the better for it.”

Workforce Development

In his opening remarks, King paid tribute to the work of STC and listed the ways in which the Valley is setting the education agenda.

“This is a great event. I was thinking back 25, 30 years ago when there was no South Texas College and what an impact this college has made on our communities here in the Valley, on opportunities for jobs, higher education, and we would certainly be nowhere near where we are today without South Texas College,” he said.

King said it is “pretty well accepted now” that education and workforce development go hand in hand.

“Many years ago – a lot, I am in my 42nd year as an educator; many – when I was at school it was, are you going to take vocational classes or are you going to take academic classes. It was kind of viewed as an either/or. But, whose job is education? Education is the job of all of us together. First of all, education is workforce development. So, education is the jobs of the cities, is the job of the EDCs. Education is the job of the private sector. And the job of the schools. Whose job is workforce development? It is all of us working together.”

King said the Valley has come a long way. 

“Thirty or 40 years ago we did not hear too much about working together across systems, between the private and the public sector. Now, I am pleased to see collaboration between the Texas Education Agency, the Workforce Commission and the Higher Education Coordinating Board. I really feel like the Valley is leading the way.”

King said he can remember going to Austin with STC leaders about 18 years ago to fight for tech courses for dual enrollment. At that time, dual enrollment was for  academic courses. “But, some of those tech courses are pretty rigorous,” he said.

King said in his opinion, every high school course should be connecting students to a post secondary education. 

“We want to take our students to and through post-secondary education. Getting the programs aligned, getting the partnerships formed, all of these things are very important. So, we are on the right track here in the Valley. We are on the right track in the state. I want to thank South Texas College for the way they have been working to align the endorsement of high school programs from House Bill 5, with the different degree plans and programs.”

King said that when listening to the private sector a discussion has long existed on the merits of higher education versus industry certifications. King said it is not an either/or.

“It is both. As much as possible we need to build those industry certifications within the degree plans, within the certificate plans, to the highest level possible. Where as students are taking courses and working on degrees they automatically earn industry certifications as they go through that.”

The reason higher education and certificate plans are equally important, King said, is because the world is changing rapidly.

“None of us know what opportunities lie before us. So, you students sitting here, you have a field of study. You will find as you go through life, that opportunities will present themselves to you that you may never even have thought of. Be prepared for flexibility for the future.

We have ideas but we do not know what life is going to present us with. I can tell you right now, I never had any intention of being a superintendent or a school administrator. But, here I am today. But, we are headed on the right path.”

One of the best things the State of Texas did in recent years was open up the JET grant program to public schools, King said. These funds help train workers for future jobs. 

“One of the biggest bragging points was how many people are moving to Texas. We cannot go on, long term, and become a better state, relying only importing the high skill workers. We have to invest in our young people. I am seeing a lot of change in that today – an understanding that we need to invest.”

King said he is seeing a big improvement in Texas and the Valley in the area of training nurses. 

“Within a decade we will be exporting nurses, rather than always being short of nurses. We need to be very intentional about identifying what are the high-wage, high-skill areas where we have shortages and then come together in partnerships, public-private, to start developing a plan to fulfill that plan within our own community. We have to do right by our own young people, to have those high-wage, high-skill jobs available.”

Internships are also very important, King said. 

“We are starting to hear some movement on this. That can only happen with private sector participation but internships, paid if possible but even unpaid, giving young people an opportunity for hands on experience, is important. We have come a long way, when you see the growth and the improvement in the Valley. You can see a lot of people paying attention to the Valley.”

One area where the Valley is a leader is early college education, King said. “We lead in a lot of different areas. The (Texas Workforce Commission) commissioner (Julian Alvarez) spoke a little earlier about how the Valley is a leader in getting JET grants. Here in the Valley we are very hungry, we want more and we want to improve, but, we still need to work on cooperating better together, planning better together and aligning our needs.”