PHARR, RGV – PSJA ISD is featured prominently in a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas titled “Las Colonias in the 21st Century – Progress Along the Texas-Mexico Border.”

The 32-page document has a section on education and the work PSJA has done on things like dropout recovery, preparing students for college and parental engagement is included.

Cecilia Guadalupe Corral
Cecilia Guadalupe Corral

There is also a sidebar story on Cecilia Guadalupe Corral, a former PSJA student who, the report states, exemplifies the school district’s successful approach.

Here is the piece on Cecilia Guadalupe Corral in the “Las Colonias” report:

Cecilia Guadalupe Corral exemplifies the success of Pharr–San Juan–Alamo (PSJA) ISD’s mission and approach. She grew up in the Las Milpas colonia and attended PSJA High School. Through its dual-enrollment program with South Texas College, Corral graduated from high school with an associate’s degree in engineering. She went on to attend Stanford University and is currently the chief design officer of a medical nonprofit.

She says her family and neighborhood environments nurtured her curiosity and love for learning. “Both of my parents only went through elementary school [in Mexico] because their families did not have resources, but I grew up seeing my dad read every single night,” she says. “He would read the newspaper front and back, along with books.

My mom would read as well. … My father would make us read poetry in Spanish, and that is why I grew up being bilingual.” Her older siblings were her role models and shared with her what they were learning. When her older sister took a creative director’s job at an advertising agency, Corral job-shadowed her. This opportunity enabled her to interact with designers and strengthened her interest in design and engineering.

Corral distinguished herself in her college application process with her associate’s degree. After graduating from Stanford, she went to work for San Francisco-based CareMessage. As chief design officer, she combines her expertise in design and engineering with her bilingual and bicultural fluency. Notably, she redesigned the agency’s communication content so that it would more effectively serve low-income Hispanic patients. Corral says she hopes to bring CareMessage to the Texas colonias and the surrounding border region to improve health care delivery and community health.

Here is the piece on Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in the “Las Colonias” report:

The Pharr–San Juan–Alamo (PSJA) Independent School District serves 32,000 students, 99 percent of whom are Hispanic. The district reaches 82 colonias in South Texas. Among its challenges, 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. It provides dual-enrollment college courses through its six Early College High Schools, two alternative high schools and partnership with South Texas College. Its four-year high school graduation rate is 88 percent, and every semester nearly 3,000 high school students are enrolled in college courses.

For the class of 2014, almost 1,100 seniors graduated with college hours, and over 700 of them completed at least one semester of college work while still in high school. The district projects that by 2017, half of its high school graduates will have taken dual-credit courses.

The success of PSJA and its students has garnered national attention. In July 2012, the PBS NewsHour showcased the South Texas public school district in a two-part series, and its dropout prevention program has become a nationally recognized model.

The U.S. Department of Education has identified PSJA as a model for major urban school districts in the nation and hosts workshops on PSJA’s model for dropout prevention and recovery. A number of national organizations have lauded its groundbreaking work, including Jobs for the Future (Boston), First Focus (Washington, D.C.) and the Education Trust (Washington, D.C.) as well as the national publication Education Week.

Understanding this success requires understanding the educational model implemented by district Superintendent Daniel King. In his seven years at PSJA, King has led the district’s efforts in increasing the four-year high school graduation rate from 62 percent to a historic high of 88 percent. “We created a completely new high school concept,” King explains. “We created a dual-college enrollment high school for dropouts. Our message to the young people was, ‘You didn’t finish high school? Start college today.’ It was about building on strengths and assets and focusing in on what these young people could be or become instead of making their deficiencies the main focus.”

This emphasis on student strengths is known as an asset-based approach. Traditional educational models commonly take a deficiency-based approach, which centers on student disadvantages. King adds, “Most educational models are about identifying deficiencies and remediating these.”

PSJA’s asset-based approach is exemplified by its cultivation of bilingualism. Texas school districts generally discontinue bilingual programs around the second grade, leaving many older students who are not yet proficient in English to fall behind in their academic progress. In contrast, PSJA conducts classes in Spanish for English-language learners while helping them build their English proficiency. All students—including high school students can enroll in the district’s dual-language program.

King emphasizes the value of bilingualism to students and the economy. “We graduate students from high school who are highly bi-literate—they’ve taken physics, calculus or different core courses in Spanish, so they can read, write and function academically in both English and Spanish. “Bilingualism,” he adds, “makes PSJA students marketable and valuable resources in a global economy.” Recognizing the value of parental involvement, the district created a swearing-in ceremony for parent volunteers. The local judge (justice of the peace) officiates, and parents take an oath and sign a pledge form to indicate their commitment. This formal process is important, King says, because it “gives volunteers a sense of significance and responsibility to the duties they are performing. They take the work more seriously and also feel a sense of commitment. They hold themselves accountable and, therefore, continue to increase their volunteer time. [As a result], the investment of their time to the schools becomes much more important and worthwhile.”

PSJA also teaches parents about the Texas and U.S. educational systems so that they can successfully navigate them. The district goes a step further by investing in parents’ academic and professional education. “We look at our work as community transformation,” King says. “If you only deal with the student, you will get great progress, but that’s only part of the picture. Parents who see opportunity for themselves will often impart that to their children.” PSJA provides adult education programs in old office buildings and schools that it refurbished into five Parent Community Engagement Centers. Partnering with local nonprofits, colleges and economic development centers, it offers continuing-education classes in or near colonia neighborhoods.

The community has found the classes to be valuable: By the end of the last school year, over 3,000 parents had attended classes. The most popular classes included English as a Second Language and General Educational Development (GED), followed by computer technology and U.S. citizenship. PSJA has 33 community partners that together offer a diversity of services to families. Partnering entities include the cities of Alamo and Pharr, Pharr Theatre Group, Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, San Juan Economic Development Corporation, Alamo Chamber of Commerce, South Texas Nursing Academy and Nuestra Clinica Del Valle.

Through PSJA’s volunteer program, “Paying It Forward,” parents volunteer at their children’s schools and at nonprofits and other community entities. In 2013, 443 parents volunteered at their children’s schools for over 97,300 hours, and 605 parents volunteered at local community organizations for over 6,000 hours.