An interview Dr. Daniel P. King, Superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District

Editor’s Note: In this “Courageous Connections” feature, IDRA senior education associate, Aurelio Montemayor, M.Ed., interviews Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) school district in south Texas. Dr. King highlights how he used actionable knowledge to keep students in school, graduating college ready. Below is an excerpt of their conversation, edited for space. The full interview is available through the IDRA Classnotes Podcast (via iTunes or http://www.idra.org/resource_center_categories/classnotes-podcast/) and in video at IDRA’s Courageous Connections website (http://www.idra.org/Courageous_Connections/).

Dr. King on Actionable Knowledge: When I first arrived in PSJA in 2007, one of the things that really stood out was the dropout rate, which was double the state average. The district was losing close to 500 students a year. Losing one drop out is unacceptable; 500 was overwhelming. I wanted to know everything we had about them in our system: What was their age and grade level? Were they migrant students or English language learners? I wanted to see if there were any patterns in the data.

One thing that I expected to see and did was a number of students who never made it past the ninth grade. But those were less than half of the problem. What really caught me off guard, and maybe it shouldn’t because I had seen this in statewide data, was that almost 40 percent of dropouts in PSJA were actually seniors. The number of seniors not meeting graduation requirements was increasing, and the district did not have an effective way of handling it. In the class of 2007, a little over 230 seniors had not graduated, mostly failing the science and math exit exams, being a couple of credits short, or both.

Dr. King on Taking Action on the Data: I could have written this off as the previous superintendent’s problem. But it had to be addressed immediately – if we didn’t do something, 230 students who had not graduated in May were going to be lost. What do we do with those students?

My first thought was to do what we were already doing, but do it better and harder. In Hidalgo when I was a high school principal at a small school, I just went out and got these kids and convinced them and their parents to come back. But those were small numbers, and as the principal I could make sure to follow-through and make sure it was taken care of.

In this large district, all three of the comprehensive high schools were struggling in AYP [adequate yearly progress] and were going down those stages with many other issues of discipline, attendance and academic performance. I thought, “If I can put something together and go out and convince these 230 students to come back and I put them into an environment that’s not ready for them, it’s not going to work.”

Dr. King on the Challenges: There are a lot of challenges with this particular type of student. I wanted to design something that would meet this student’s needs. I’d been a high school principal, and I knew the challenges. For example, a student may think: “Since, I only need the TAKS test, why do I need to come to school every day? I don’t need a credit or a class. I only need to study.” But I knew that if a student is weak in math or science, a couple of tutoring sessions and a packet to study on their own was not going to be effective.

Or another student might think: “If I only need one credit, then I only have come one class period.” Their context has changed. Socially, these students have moved on with their lives. They have gotten a job and have parents expecting them to be working. Some are getting married.

From a practical school point of view, there is no per pupil (ADA) funding for one class period, and students must come at least two hours to generate a half-day of funding.

Dr. King on Student Needs Driving the Response: I needed to meet this age group’s needs tied either to a partnership with employers or a partnership with area colleges. If this student only needs to pass one test, why can’t he or she start college classes right now with test preparation part of the day and college courses the rest?

We put together a dual enrollment model with South Texas College, an initiative that began originally aiming for the top 10 percent of students.

When we started with this dropout recovery initiative, many said: “We’ve tried before, and it hasn’t worked.” But we were intense, intensive and intentional. We did newspaper ads, radio and door-to-door – a whole-scale community awareness campaign – and door-to-door invitations to parents and students encouraging students to come back. I personally met with students and parents. There was a lot of excitement.

Dr. King on PSJA’s Solution: Our new campus is called the College Career and Technology Academy. Notice that we gave it a college focus, with future focused words. We enrolled 223 of the 237. That first year, we had 49 complete in December and about 72 in May. More than 120 completed high school in nine months. They had left school, and we recovered them successfully.

We’ve expanded our vision and looked back at the other students we had lost. Fortunately, in 2007 the legislature passed a provision providing full funding to schools for students through the age of 26. We embarked on that very aggressively and succeeded. Schools all over the Valley and Texas have now opened similar schools.

In just under four years, we have graduated well over 700 young people ages 18 to 26 who otherwise would not have a high school diploma. Over 120 were above the age of 21, young adults who were lost for years. We’ve gotten them back, and they earned their high school diplomas.

Our students graduate with an average of six college credits. It gets their feet in the door. All graduate with the college readiness course. We’re strengthening the model, and about half of the students we graduate from this high school continue in college, which is pretty close to the ratio of area high schools.

One example is a 26-year-old young man who took two semesters to complete his high school diploma. He went to STC and soon became the student of the week. He’ll be graduating this spring with his associate degree in criminal justice.

Dr. King on Governance Efficacy: I was able to convince my staff about this for two reasons: renewed vision and proven success. Most people come into the education profession with high ideals of wanting to help young people. Over the years, frustration sets in because of barriers and dead ends. I’ve approached everyone with the message: “We’ve got all the talent here, in our teachers, our administrative team and our students. We can do these things. Our students can achieve their dreams. Our students can do as well as students anywhere else.”

We took on our biggest challenge – dropouts – and turned it completely around. We convinced by boldly going forward, and the success has been amazing. In two years, we went from having double the state dropout rate to half the state rate and from being a drag on the state and the region to leading by bringing up the state dropout average. In three years, we cut the dropout number almost 85 percent from almost 500 to less than 100. Our number of high school graduates has almost doubled from 966 in 2006-07 to 1,800 this last school year. There’s a saying that holds true for teachers, administrators and students: “Nothing motivates like success.”

We applied what we learned to the regular high schools and have dual credit on all campuses now, and we have more than tripled dual enrollment on some campuses. Our goal is for every student to have dual credit by the time they graduate. This spring, we have more than 1,600 students taking dual enrollment out of 7,800 students. We expect 2,000 by next year.

Dr. King on College for Everyone: Our goal is to connect every single student to a meaningful future, college and career ready, and on a college track before they leave us. We pay for transition counselors housed at the local colleges to make sure the student’s first year is successful. Transition from high school to college will be the same as from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school: the automatic, standard expectation for all of our students. We won’t be satisfied until every one of our students is going to college. By the way, 99 percent of our families are Latino and 86 percent are low-income. Our students are just as good as any others across the state.

[©2011, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2011 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]

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