SAN JUAN, RGV – A few years ago two border school districts, El Paso ISD and PSJA ISD, did things very differently.

At El Paso, truant officers told selected students to stay at home so that they did not drag down the average TAKS scores. At PSJA, the superintendent, administrators and teachers went out into the community looking for dropouts and dragged them back to school.

Now, the two school districts are in unison with EPISD copying PSJA’s lead and starting a College, Career and Technology Academy so that dropouts can not only complete high school but also get started on community college courses.

“Under the great leadership they have their with Juan Cabrera and their board, El Paso has really dedicated themselves to recovering dropouts , preventing dropouts and helping them to complete high school and also to start college,” said PSJA ISD Superintendent Daniel P. King.

EPISD officials have visited PSJA on two occasions over the past year in order to learn in depth about PSJA’s nationally-renowned dropout recovery program. Superintendent Cabrera visited PSJA, as did his top administrators and El Paso Community College President William Serrata. Serrata knew all about PSJA’s dropout recovery program because prior to moving to El Paso he was vice president for student affairs and enrollment management at South Texas College for over seven years.

Officials with El Paso ISD, El Paso Community College, and Socorro ISD visited Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in August, 2013. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)
Officials with El Paso ISD, El Paso Community College, and Socorro ISD visited Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD in August, 2013. (File photo: RGG/Steve Taylor)

Another visitor to PSJA was state Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso. Rodriguez was raised in Alamo and graduated from PSJA.

“El Paso ISD and the community of students, parents, teachers and stakeholders are in the long process of recovery from the previous administration’s mismanagement, scandals and breach of trust,” Rodríguez told the Guardian.

“Superintendent Danny King invited El Paso ISD board members, administrators, and I to learn from their successes and previous struggles. As a former alumni of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School, I deeply appreciate that PSJA has developed well-earned national and state recognition for its dropout recovery program and early college high schools.”

Rodríguez added that his big hope is that “El Paso area administrators and board members can emulate some of Dr. King’s successes and tailor for the needs of El Paso students and parents.” He said El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley have similar student populations and challenges. “With hard work, commitment to excellence, and the necessary resources we know the sky is the limit for the children of El Paso,” Rodríguez said.

When Dr. King took over at PSJA its dropout rate was the worst in the Valley. He immediately told administrators and teachers to join in him in scouring the streets of Pharr, San Juan and Alamo. They rounded up dropout students and cajoled them into coming back to school. However, they were coming back to a very different school. In partnership with South Texas College, PSJA had, at lightning speed, created a school for 18 to 26-year-olds. At the College, Career and Technology Academy dropouts not only got a second chance at a high school diploma but also a college-going career path though credit recovery and dual credit classes. The number of dropouts was cut by 90 percent.

PSJA’s success with its dropout recovery program led state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, to file legislation to help other school districts emulate that success. Dr. King was invited to speak about his dropout recovery efforts at the U.S. Department of Education’s High School Graduation Initiative in Washington, D.C.

The Intercultural Development Research Association was so impressed with what PSJA was doing it wrote a book about it. It was titled College Bound & Determined. “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,” IDRA’s book stated.

King said he was proud of PSJA administrators and educators for turning things around. “This is an example of the innovative work the PSJA team has done in dropout recovery. Our effort to help those who dropped out complete high school and even start college has been spreading around the state of Texas. It has influenced legislation. Many districts around the state have emulated our model and it has really made a difference around the state,” King told the Guardian.

A new leadership at EPISD leaders decided to take the same approach as PSJA on dropout recovery after the previous regime had sullied the district’s reputation and lost the trust and respect of parents. The district was mired in scandal after a systematic effort by former Superintendent Lorenzo García to “disappear” thousands of students in order to boost TAKS scores. Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, D-El Paso, uncovered the scandal, first at Bowie and then at other high schools. In a guest column in the Guardian in July 2010, Shapleigh explained how the manipulation worked:

“Prior to the school year, targeted students are ‘reclassified.’ Some of the targeted students are then transferred to other schools. Some are classified as ‘special education’ students whose TAKS test will not count. Still other targeted students are kept back in the 9th grade while others are “moved” right into the 11th grade and bypass 10th grade altogether. For seniors, targeted students have attendance records changed and some are directed to online courses that are outside the TAKS system. Still others, in early morning visits to their homes are told by truant officers not to come to class during TAKS. During TAKS testing, several tests are ‘picked up’ for various reasons, so as not to count against TAKS scores,” Shapleigh wrote.

“What is the result? On TAKS test day, less than half of the class actually sits for TAKS. In other words, 55 percent of the class has “disappeared.” We see this pattern in many low performing schools at EPISD. Simply put, here’s the system: “disappear” the bottom half of the class, test the top half, then claim victory on TAKS.”

Shapleigh was slammed by the EPISD board at the time for being disloyal and instigating negative stories in the media. But, eventually, there was a criminal investigation. As the El Paso Times reported, “Superintendent García admitted defrauding the Texas Education Agency and the U.S. Department of Education by inflating state and federal accountability scores at various schools to secure federal No Child Left Behind money and so that he could earn a performance bonus.”

García was sentenced to prison for three and a half years. This has since been reduced.