WESLACO, RGV – Dr. Daniel P. King has been a school superintendent for 16 years, the first eight at Hidalgo ISD and the second eight at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD.
In the keynote speech at a recent Senate Hispanic Caucus workshop at the South Texas College Mid-Valley Campus in Weslaco, King gave an in-depth presentation on the top initiatives underway at PSJA.
“Our goal is to be a game changer in our community and beyond. We want to go from failing to lead. We have decided that demographics will not be our destiny in terms of educational attainment and economic potential. We are committed that PSJA students will outperform students at state and national averages in terms of college the completion,” King told state senators.
PSJA has nearly 32,000 students. Almost 100 percent of these are Hispanic. Ninety percent are economically disadvantaged and a high percentage of them are English Language learners. “The state is becoming more like PSJA. Our solutions can do a lot for the state of Texas,” King said.
King spoke first about PSJA’s College for All initiative. “Our goal is to connect every one of our high school students with a college while they are in high school. We are not there yet but we are making tremendous progress towards that. In 2010, the Texas Education Agency and the Governor’s Office designated PSJA as a state demonstration site for College for All because of our plan of action and the goals we had and the progress we had made on the dropout rate and the high school graduation rate and those kinds of things.”
King then focused on dropout recovery efforts at PSJA, which include teachers and administrators and even Dr. King himself roaming the streets in search of students that have dropped out. “In 2006-07, our dropout rate was more than double the statewide average. The district was losing close to 500 students a year and the dropout rate was getting worse every year. Since then the dropout rate has been declining every year. Within two years we went from twice the state average to half the state average. To this date we continue at half the state average.”
Where PSJA really excels, King said, is with the students that the state has the most trouble with. “Our dropout rate for Hispanic students is way lower because the state struggles with Hispanic students. Our dropout rate with Special Ed students, migrant students, English Language learners is like one fourth of the state average.”
As for four-year graduation rates, in 2007, the PSJA figure was 62 percent. “It was a failing grade. It took us about four years to catch up and surpass the state average. Now, for the last four years in a row our four-year graduation rate is better than the state average. Today we are at about 90 percent,” King said.
He described the change from 62 percent to 90 percent as “a phenomenal turnaround,” pointing out that the state average is about 88 percent. “But, our demographics are different. For Hispanic students we are six or seven percentage points better than the state. For English Language learners we are about 13 percentage points better than the state average. For Special Education students we are like 20 percentage points better than the state. We excel with students that the state’s current system is not… we are not where we want to be but we are doing better than the state.”
King said PSJA’s message to students is clear: Start College Now! “Start college while you are in high school. Complete something, complete a certificate. Complete an associate’s degree and then build on that when you leave high school. About 100 percent that take an associate’s degree go on to take a four year degree. They finish it two years after high school and go on to graduate school,” he said.
Pointing to last year’s student class, King said 1,859 graduated as seniors. Of those, only 42 percent or 788 had a high school diploma. The majority had either a certificate or an associate degree. “That used to be the goal,” King said, referring to high school graduation. Not at PSJA, not anymore, he said. “They need to get to and through college, to get to and through post-secondary education.”
King also told the state senators about an aspect of PSJA’s performance which needs improvement.
“Right now, we are dissatisfied that 42 percent of our students only received a high school diploma. That is better than the year before and every year we are getting better,” King said. He then gave the statistics to validate this statement. One thousand seventy one students, or 51 percent, of last year’s graduating students had already started college in high school. Of this year’s senior class, already over 1,100 of them had college hours before they started their senior year. “So, this year, we are expecting probably 65 percent will have started college before they finish high school,” King said.
King then focused on something he said the state of Texas needs to do better – strengthen the integration of high school and college. “What we are really trying to do is integrate college and high school. One of the challenges we have is we have two different systems (public education and higher education). That was okay in the old days when colleges were few and schools were about sorting,” King said.
“Today, we do not need disconnected systems. We need inter-connected systems. We have a great partnership with South Texas College. We have a partnership now where every semester we share data. What we are trying to do locally and what hopefully we can start doing regionally and statewide is connect the systems.”
He added that if the state’s goal is a college-educated workforce it cannot be done within the public schools. He said two separate pipelines with a passage between where the kids have to figure out how to maneuver and manipulate is not productive.
“Almost 800 of our graduates last year had 12 or more college hours. Senate Bill 1 said all high schools could offer this. (I believe) all of our students should have this. It is challenging because we have to build our capacity and South Texas College’s capacity to be able to offer classes and the different degree plans to these young people.”
King said that last year, 150 of PSJA’s seniors had completed at least two years of college and almost 400 of the seniors had already complete over one year of college. As for college completion, 237 of PSJA’s students crossed the STC stage with a certificate from STC. Of these, 133 had an associate degree and 105 were core complete.
“At PSJA we did it by aged 18 or 19. We beat the state average. We doubled the state output with Hispanics. Our goal is to do that on four year degrees, two year degrees, graduate degrees, associate degrees. Our goal is, within the next five to seven years, to out-produce the state average for all students, not just Hispanic students, for graduate degrees, bachelor degrees, two year degrees, certificates.”
King concluded his presentation by offering a couple of recommendations.
“The state needs to move from its emphasis on standardized tests to post-secondary completion as the main driver for education improvement. Our state’s goal is to be among top three or four states on college completion. That is our goal but what are we measuring our schools on?” King said. “We also need to continue to support dual enrollment and the scaling up of early college high schools.”