McALLEN, RGV – Aurelio M. Montemayor has been an educator and education advocate for many decades, starting out in his hometown of Laredo, Texas, in the 1960s.

A senior education associate at the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) of San Antonio, Montemayor has seen many fads come and go in the world of education and he readily admits he does not sing the praises of many.

Aurelio M. Montemayor
Aurelio M. Montemayor

Which probably means the esteem in which he holds Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD and its superintendent Daniel P. King is all the more noteworthy.

Montemayor said: “I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that what PSJA and Superintendent Danny King have done is revolutionary. This is a district that seven years ago was in the toilet. They have gone from being in serious trouble with the authorities to now showing the world that these kids from these poor colonias are college material and proving it.”

Montemayor made his comments in an exclusive interview with the Rio Grande Guardian while attending PSJA’s recent College for All conference at the McAllen Convention Center.

“I have been in and around the world of education since 1964 and, coming from Laredo, I have always been concerned about the lack of expectations for border students. Finally, we have a district that is revolutionizing things. It is not just one campus, it is not just one place. It is the whole district,” Montemayor said.

“I have been and education advocate and an educator for 50 years and I have never seen this happen anywhere in this country, not in California, not in Washington State. I have been all over this country. I have seen some good things happening but in small ways, at one campus, with one good principal, with a team of teachers, in some of the ghettos of the urban areas. But I have never seen a whole district do what this district has done.”

IDRA has been working on education issues with colonia community groups in the Rio Grande Valley and this was the subject Montemayor was asked to speak about at the PSJA conference. In his interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Montemayor spoke about how, thanks to PSJA, the expectations of parents living in colonias have been lifted.

“I have seen great work done on individual campuses. I have seen it done on a small scale. I have never seen a school district that has taken it on with the poorest of the poor because PSJA has some of the poorest colonias. These are the families that pick our crops and are expected to keep on doing the cheap labor, to be the cheap labor pool. PSJA has flipped this completely,” Montemayor said.

“The families now have expectations. PSJA had to shift the whole paradigm of how we see these children and these families and the school figuring out how to get them there. They are taking the language of the child (Spanish) and making it an asset so that they are bi-literate when they graduate. They are getting college credits. The parents are getting all kinds of education. So, PSJA is impacting generations, all at the same time.”

After Montemayor gave these remarks a reporter recalled how Dr. King, when he was superintendent of Hidalgo ISD, was prepared to forgo funding for a pilot program from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation because he wanted the program scaled district-wide. After a standoff the Gates Foundation relented and the program was funded in such a way that all the students benefited.

Montemayor said he was well aware of this story. “We have this long history of putting a glass bell jar over a school, with a lot of resources and selected teachers and selected students and of course it is going to look good. We used to call them magnet schools and now some charter schools are doing it. But to say an entire school district can do this, that is what is revolutionary here.

“Dr. King announced this morning that even the alternative campuses where you send the disciplinary problem students, the campus where the pregnant teenagers are going to school, those are college preparation campuses. Yes! Yes!

“I know as an educator that when your belief system changes and you have hope for every child that works through your doors, a lot can happen. If your view of them doesn’t change, I don’t care how many PhDs you have, how much technology you have, how well you know all the different teaching techniques, if you don’t believe that every child can learn, nothing else will happen. And that is the biggest miracle that Dr. King has been able to figure out, how to move the district saying, yes we can. That is really amazing. That is revolutionary.”

A couple of years ago IDRA published a book about PSJA titled “College Bound and Determined.” The book cover stated: “For one school district, transformation went beyond changing sobering graduation rates or even getting graduates into college. This district was to change how we think about college readiness.”

The book went on to say PSJA has “bucked all trends,” transforming itself from a district with low achievement and low expectations into one where all students are expected to graduate ready to start college. The book points out that since 2007, PSJA has doubled the number of graduates, halved the dropout rate, increased college-going rates, and implemented policies focused on making high school more like college.

At the time the book was launched, Montemayor said what he liked about PSJA’s approach was that they did not shy away from bad data. He said they embraced it and worked on ways to turn the situation around.

“The governance, the school board and the top administration have been taking huge leaps. They said, here’s where we want to go, okay, follow us; everybody has to go in this direction. Our children are not only going to be college-prepared but many of them are going to graduate with college degrees,” Montemayor said at the time.

“They said to the dropouts, we are going to bring you back to school, but not to finish your high school diploma or GED. We are going to bring you back to school because you are going to go to college. PSJA has set the bar high and the students are exceeding the challenges.”

Montemayor said IDRA also likes the work PSJA is doing in building community partnerships. “There are now (PSJA) community centers that are educating the community but also giving parents more voice, and power. There are organizations that are forming alliances with the school district to keep the excellence going. There is coalition-building. Schools are being built where they weren’t before. This is the way districts should go. Every family is seen as an asset, every child is seen as an asset.”

At the College for All conference educators from across the country learned that there are now more than 3,400 students enrolled in PSJA’s eight Early College High Schools. They learned that the district’s comprehensive approach and proven results have garnered the attention of the New York Times and PBS, among other national publications and media outlets. They also learned that top officials from the U.S. Department of Education, the Texas Education Agency, as well as local, state, and national elected officials have also showcased PSJA ISD’s solutions to the dropout crisis and preparing students to be college ready.

At the conference, Dr. King announced PSJA’s latest project – to place every freshman entering high school on a college-preparation track. King explained the rationale to the Rio Grande Guardian:

“All incoming freshman students will be on a college-bound curriculum. It is a very challenging aspiration. It is going to be hard to achieve it but that is what we are going to set out to do. All of our incoming freshmen, all of our high schools, are wall-to-wall early college, so what we are challenging ourselves and our partners South Texas College to do is come up with tracks and pathways for every student. These tracks must match the interests of the students, match their readiness level is, all of those things. Whether it is certifications in air conditioning or welding, whether it be engineering, or nursing, criminal justice, the plan is to have every student of a career path, a career track, not just through high school but partnering with Higher Ed to get them the types of certifications and qualifications they need to get a good paying job. That is what we are doing.”

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying this story shows Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District. It was taken at PSJA’s College for All Conference, held at the McAllen Convention Center.