MCALLEN, RGV – Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD has given itself a goal of having 90 percent of its graduating students leave high school with at least a semester’s worth of college credit hours.

At the moment, it is graduating half its students with 12 hours or more.

The school district also wants to have over 50 percent of its graduating students leave school having earned an associate’s degree or a college certificate.  At present, 25 percent are graduating with some level of college completion.

These short-term goals, to be met within the next couple of years, were unveiled by Superintendent Daniel P. King at PSJA’s 4th Annual College for All Conference. The two-day event, held at McAllen Convention Center, drew educators from 12 states across the nation – all eager to learn PSJA’s best practices.

King gave the opening remarks and told those in the audience about the journey PSJA has been on, recovering from a reputation of being one of the lowest performing school districts in the Rio Grande Valley to one that has been recognized nationally.

“As we have gone on this journey and moved forward, we are at a point where maybe half of our students are graduating with 12 hours or more and 25 percent with college completion at some level. We want them to leverage that and scale and build on that,” King said.

“Our goal is 90 percent with a semester or more. Over 50 percent over the next few years to graduate with college completion. Our goal is five or six hundred with associate degrees over the next few years. Our goal is we want those students to go on and get their bachelor’s degrees, their graduate degrees and go as far as they want to go. It is not our job to say where they want to go but it is our job to say what the possibilities are.”

King said PSJA’s success with dual credit programs and early college high schools would not have been possible without the support of South Texas College.

King said he was “humbled by the presence” of so many educators from across the nation. The state’s represented included Rhode Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Oklahoma, Colorado, California, Hawaii and Texas.

“As we went through this work and word of this bold ambition started to spread, we started to get hundreds of visitors every year, coming at all times of the year. So, we came up with the idea, let’s organize it, instead of trying to put something together at the last minute for each visitor, let’s organize it, with a conference.” King thanked the major sponsors of the convention, the Greater Texas Foundation, Educate Texas, and Jobs of the Future.

King started his remarks by saying PSJA is “far from where we want to be.” He acknowledged the school district has “a long way to go.” He then told the story of the journey, the lessons learned and what he and his leadership team are trying to accomplish.

“We have been on this journey for about a decade. Taking a district that had extreme challenges, extreme trouble, a district that was kind of seen as lacking in a lot of ways. Maybe having the audacity to look at our students and see not the challenges and the barriers but the potential this is in every one of our students,” King said.

The job of PSJA educators is to make sure its students achieve their potential, King argued.

“We can either be the booster for each child or we can be one more barrier for that child. Our mission is really to be the booster for every student, that can help accelerate, help connect them and so forth.”

He then paid tribute to PSJA’s top partner, STC.

“We could not do that without a tremendous partner. We have been on the pathway from 2008, when we graduated two students with an associate’s degree to this past year where we have graduated over 300 with an associate’s degree. From 2008 where a few dozen students had college hours to this last year where the graduating class over 1,400,” King said.

“Seventy percent of the graduating class had college hours. Over 50 percent of the graduating class had at least a semester under their belt. Close to 25 percent of them had college completion, either an associate degree or a certificate. And so, we have moved a long way, but we have got a long way to go.”

King said PSJA set off a decade ago with an audacious goal. “Could we create a system that has the capacity to connect every single student to a successful future, to and thru post-secondary education. I really have to thank Dr. Shirley Reed and South Texas College because this vision has stressed us and has stressed them.”

The stress has come, King said, through trying to figure out how to grow programs and graduate as many students as PSJA and STC have. He pointed out that STC’s workload included many other school districts that wanted the same partnership that PSJA forged.

King pointed out that the journey with STC began 11 years ago “with a crazy idea” of connecting dropouts to college. He said STC immediately said yes.

“We did not start our work with the top ten percent, we started from there and then we opened the STEM Early College High School and they (STC) came right on board. That is the way we started. And then we talked about, how can we scale this and make college and high school basically completely intermingled, where they really become one in the same and where there are on ramps for every student.”

King then paid tribute to the PSJA students.

“Students that are doing dissertations for a PhD, students coming back at 20 as teachers. I think next year we are going to have some aged 19. At 20, going to law school, things like that. But also, students going into great jobs, with associate degrees in welding and auto tech and manufacturing and so forth.”

He said he was also proud of the success of students with special needs and how, through continuing education had found pathways to become photographers. He said they had entered careers that even their teachers did not believe possible.

“We do not know the potential of each child. We should not pre-judge. It is not our job to put a ceiling on the children. It is our job to put ladders and elevators and escalators and boost up, and everything else we can to help them. To open doors and windows and say look out there, there is a path. Which one is the right one for you? You have a stake in this, which one do you want to use?”

King repeated that it is a challenge to have thousands of teenagers and say that every one of them is going to be engaged. “We are not there yet but our goal is to continue working and to get there.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a five-part series of stories from PSJA ISD’s 4th Annual College for All Conference. Part Two, featuring South Texas College President Shirley A. Reed, will be posted in our next issue.