PHARR, RGV – Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD has great raw material to work with in part because its immigrant and colonia students come from hardworking families hungry for success.

This is the view of PSJA Superintendent Daniel King, who has seen the success of his district on various fronts highlighted in a new book.

“We can look at data one way and say we are 99 percent Hispanic and 88 percent economically disadvantaged. But, that is not really the story of the people of the PSJA community. The story is that of a very vibrant community, with people with dreams, people with aspirations, people willing to work hard and commit,” King said. “We are about building on the strengths of our community, the strengths of our people.”

King said his job and that of the teachers and administrators at PSJA is to harness those strengths. “It really is a question of how we harness all the energy. Instead of looking at what we think we are missing, we need to look at what we have and say, how can we build on what have so that families can reach what they want to achieve? We become the facilitator and make the connections for the students and families. We look at where the students could be when maybe they do not know it themselves.”

The new book focusing on PSJA is titled “College Bound and Determined.” It has been produced by the Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) of San Antonio. The introduction on the book cover states: “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 states that 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. The success has caught the eye of Texas Education Commissioner Michael Williams, who paid a visit to the district last October.

PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel King, IDRA's Aurelio M. Montemayor and Hector Bojorquez, and ARISE Director Lourdes Flores are pictured with the 'College Bound & Determined' book.
PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel King, IDRA’s Aurelio M. Montemayor and Hector Bojorquez, and ARISE Director Lourdes Flores are pictured with the ‘College Bound & Determined’ book.

Aurelio M. Montemayor, senior education associate at IDRA, launched College Bound & Determined at a recent news conference at PSJA Thomas Jefferson T-STEM Early College High School. In his remarks, 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.

“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.”

As if to emphasize this point, Lourdes Flores, director of ARISE, a community group that works in colonias in the PSJA area, was present at the news conference. Flores said her group provides independent advice to PSJA and other school districts through its PTA Comunitario. IDRA works closely with ARISE on this project.

In his remarks, Superintendent King pointed out that PSJA, incredibly, is doing a better job of graduating Hispanic high school students with certificates or associate degrees than the statewide average for colleges.

“We tell the students we want them to start college now, while they are in high school. Five years ago we had a dream of having 50 or 60 taking dual enrollment. This semester we have over 2,800 high school students taking college courses while they are in high school. Two years ago it was 1,600. Next Spring I project that number to be about 3,500,” King said.

There is a large banner next to the PSJA stadium that has garnered great respect in the community, King said. It has nothing to do with football but everything to do with the school district’s philosophy. It says, Start College Now, Complete Early, Go Far.

“The Houston Endowment did a study that said that by the age of 24, 25, only 20 percent of students have completed college. For Hispanics that figure is ten percent. This spring, we anticipate close to 350 or even 400 who will have completed a certificate or associate degree while in high school. That is about 20 percent of our graduates. That is double the state average for Hispanics graduating and they are graduating by the age of 18, six years earlier. Within three years we anticipate having about 500 students graduating with associate degrees or certificates. That would be 50 percent of our graduation class. That would be 500 percent better than the state average and five years earlier.”

King said he likes the studies the Houston Endowment does. “We said, let us take that measurement and see where our students are at age 24 or 25. How many of them are making it through the system?” To help their students succeed in college, PSJA has counselors based at South Texas College and UT-Pan American. “It is pretty amazing,” said Hector Bojorquez, an education associate who did many of the interviews for the book on PSJA.

Bojorquez said he hopes other school districts around the state and the nation will take a look at IDRA’s book on PSJA and try to replicate their success. “They should be asking themselves, why can’t this be happening in our school? Although the book studies the data it is plain spoken. I think it is an inspirational book. The more I see the data, the more amazed I am. I have been in education since 1994 and I can tell you that of the students I interviewed for this book, not one of them would have been in college in San Antonio. I interviewed students who were learning English as they were going through South Texas College. It is amazing.”

Dr. María ‘Cuca’ Robledo Montecel is president of IDRA. While she was not at the news conference, she did offer these comments about PSJA. “You notice that there is no deficit thinking and no excuses in this approach. There is no students-cannot-learn or parents-don’t-care or they-do-not-speak-English or we-can’t-do-it,-we-have-too-many-minorities, or they’re-not-college-material. Instead, at PSJA, you find thoughtful, data-based, coherent plans that connect K-12 with higher education and community to improve educational opportunities for all children.”

In his concluding remarks at the news conference, Superintendent King emphasized his main point again: “Our students have just as much potential as anybody else. They have incredible capacity. Our job is to facilitate that. We are saying, start College now, while you are in high school, complete early and go far. You can go as far as you want. We tell students there are many ways to get where you want to go. You might start as a stacker, a laborer, a machine operator but you can become the manager. Sometimes there is too much focus on the obstacles, too much focus on the barriers, on why you can’t. We say how do we get over those barriers? There is more than one way of achieving success. Our young people are incredible.”