Pharr -- a Texas border city with a population of 73,000 -- sits so close to Mexico that it's connected to the country via a bridge.
Like many of its neighboring cities along the Texas border, Pharr is home to a large population of immigrants and struggles with high poverty and low educational attainment levels.
And yet, it's also home to one of the most successful superintendents in the country, Daniel King, who oversees the region's Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District.
King started his career in the neighboring town of Hidalgo, just steps from the Rio Grande River. Since becoming a high school principal in the high-poverty Hidalgo Independent School District in 1988, King's focus has always been on college readiness.
As superintendent of that district, he oversaw the creation of the nation’s first "Early College School District," which allows students to earn college credit while in high school, according to the nonprofit Jobs for the Future. What was once one of the lowest performing districts in the state earned state and national recognition for its success.
Now, as head of the PSJA school district, King has launched another ground-breaking endeavor. The district's College, Career and Technology Academy targets older students -- up to age 26 --who have dropped out of high school or delayed getting their diplomas. The effort seeks to reengage those students by treating them more as young adults than high school students by helping them to complete high school requirements before linking them to community college classes.
The Academy has helped improve the district’s graduation rate increase from 62 percent in 2007, when the program debuted, to 90 percent in 2014.
Unsurprisingly, those successes are being hailed as models that can be reproduced by other districts facing similar dropouts challenges. It's an especially critical issue for Texas districts, which lag behind the country in education success, according to a state report.
A longitudinal study found just 20 percent of Texas eighth graders from 2004 completed any kind of college degree or certificate by 2015. Only about 1 in 10 economically disadvantaged students from that cohort completed any kind of higher education or certificate program.
Unsurprisingly, King's success at bucking this trend has put him in the national spotlight. He was named Texas Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators. He was has also testified before a U.S. House committee, been honored at the White House, and featured on the PBS NewsHour.
The Urban Edge interviewed King about his work to improve graduation rates and promote early college education. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Before you came to PSJA ISD, you were at Hidalgo ISD doing innovative work there. Can you talk about your experience there with the College Success for All program?
The community had a very low college-going rate, so I was working on that from the beginning as a high school principal. Later when I became the superintendent, I was contacted by the president of the University of Texas-Pan American and a few other people about the idea of opening an early college high school. My question was, why not open this up to all students?
And ultimately that’s what we did in Hiladgo. To my understanding, we were the first in the nation to come with the concept of making that for all students, instead of having it be a magnet school or a boutique school-type thing. I think somewhere around 95 percent of their high school graduates each year have at least some college hours under their belt, and they have a large number that have associate degrees.
You’ve had a lot of success with these programs, and I think that runs counter-intuitive to what a lot of folks think would happen with a population with these hurdles. Why do you think that wasn’t the case for you?
My way of thinking really is that kids are kids. I think that the young people in any community have tremendous potential. A lot of our students come from backgrounds of poverty. They come from non-English speaking homes, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have aspirations. That doesn’t mean they don’t have great potential. Our job is to help them to see all the possibilities and kind of help open the door to them, not to be one more barrier.
What are some of the challenges to implementing programs like these?
The district I’m in right now is about 10 times larger than Hidalgo, so when you talk about trying to work with large numbers of students, part of the challenge is having enough programs and variety of programs to meet different interests of students. A lot of the careers that are in demand right now are in technical areas. And so to develop those, you need the equipment, you need the expertise, and you need the know-how.
One of the challenging things is to make high school relevant to young people. A lot of times they don’t see the connection between what they study in high school and what they want to do the rest of their lives. A lot of young people whose parents didn’t go to college, whose parents maybe didn’t even go to high school, they might not see the relevance or the connection between what’s going on in high school and the real world and their future and their career. So I think one of the things the early college work does is it gives them an opportunity to start on their career. They get really engaged in their career interest and they start making that connection.
That must be pretty cool to think of the impact you’ve had for so many kids.
Definitely. We see young people that might not have otherwise gone to college and see so many young people who are the first one in their family to go college. At the College Career and Technology Academy, we work with young people to go back and get their high school diploma. We try to engage them in developing a life plan and selecting an area of study and partnering with the community college.
We’ve got some great stories. For example, a young man who we enrolled at age 26 was a high school dropout, and today he has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. Others have gotten a certificate in welding as well as their high school diploma.
Walk me through that process a little bit. Where does that disconnect happen, and then how do you still keep track of them, find them, and get them re-enrolled?
As to how it is they drop out, there’s all kinds of reasons -- anything from just academic struggles in school to all kinds of life problems and situations, things that are happening at home. It's anything from social issues, emotional issues, pregnancy, needing to work, violence in the home. There’s all kinds of reasons that young people don’t finish school and so what this particular campus does is it gives them a second chance.
Every year we very diligently go looking for any student who does not re-enroll. We do a lot of outreach into the community and we find maybe young adults who dropped out some years ago, or sometimes they’re new to our community. Sometimes they’re from a neighboring community and they hear about our program and come and enroll in it.
It’s a separate campus from the regular high school, so they don’t get lost in the shuffle of a regular high school.
What’s the most persuasive way to get them interested in coming back?
It's just them knowing that we really want them back. We do some work on it all year round, but in the month of September, it’s our main mission in the system, and so we have hundreds of team members and volunteers that go and make home visits. Sometimes it takes three or four or five home visits to convince them to come back, that they can do it, that they can make it. A lot of times, it's just about knowing that somebody believes in them and that it’s genuine. We really do want them to come back in.
I’ve gone along with some school officials on those visits in a district here in Houston. It’s pretty impressive and something that I think gets lost in the data. It’s very involved.
I call it detective work because it might take you three or four times of following sort of a trail to find out where that young person actually is. We’ve had some cases where they left the home and we go to where the parents say they’re living ... and it's 'no, they were here for a couple of months but then they moved on.' And so, trying to track them down -- there’s a lot of effort just trying to find them.
Once you’ve made that contact and you’ve got them enrolled, what are their options? Is it optional if they also want to go for an associate degree?
It is optional, and we strongly encourage them. For an associate degree, they have to meet the college readiness standards. Some of them are not at a point where they can do that. In that case, we look at different certification programs that maybe don’t require that, like welding or auto technology. In the meantime we try to work on getting them college ready if possible.
Here’s a chance to brag: how many have gone on to college or gotten certifications? I assume you’re tracking all that.
We opened the campus in 2007, so from 2007 to today, approximately 1,500 18- to 26-year-olds have earned their high school diploma through that campus. I don’t have the numbers on associate degrees and such because it’s very hard to track individual students through higher education. I know [for] associate degrees, it would not be a large number -- certificates would be a few more, and in both cases, it would be in the minority.
What more would you like to be doing or offering?
We have partnered with our local community college, South Texas College, to bring some of those programs into the building where these students are. We have a pretty large welding program, and more recently, we’ve brought in precision manufacturing equipment, so we’re trying to get that program established. Criminal justice is an area of high interest for these young people, as well as the health care fields and a little bit of computer work. So we’re trying to build out those different programs and get enough of both the equipment and the staff to be able to teach those areas.
Beyond the Academy, what else are you working on with the Early College program?
This year, more than 25 percent of our high school graduates either earned an associate degree or community college certificate. I would estimate that over 70 percent of our high school graduates had college hours at graduation this past year.
The program is available at all of our high schools, and we’re trying to grow it to reach the interests of different students. We’re trying to figure out how to work with students that need more assistance on being academically ready.
Those are impressive numbers. What does it mean for students?
I think the impact is huge. Only about 20 percent of Texas' young people have any kind of higher education completion, be that an associate degree or certificate or anything like that. So the fact that here in an area where the demographics are such that they are, having so many of our young people complete a credential by the time they graduate high school ... I think it gives them a head start. It makes it more likely that they will go and complete another level of higher education. Success breeds success.
The educational attainment levels of Hispanic people in the state of Texas is well below that of the Anglo-American population. And the educational attainment levels in our community are very low, compared to the rest of the state or relative to the national average. So if we’re able to turn that completely around, where young people in this community are earning bachelor’s degrees and associate degrees at a level much closer to the national level, then that changes the whole course of their lives. I think it will have a major impact on this community.