When Daniel P. King took the helm of the 32,000-student school district he leads in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley in 2007, its three high schools had just been singled out as “dropout factories” in a seminal national report.
Three school board members and the outgoing superintendent had recently been indicted in a federal bribery case for accepting cash and other gifts in exchange for awarding contracts. All four were later convicted; two board members served time in federal prison.
Gang-related tensions were running high in the district’s secondary schools, causing violent incidents to flare and attendance to plummet. And 23 high school science teachers had resigned because of a mismanaged school redesign process that had bungled the master schedule.
“The district was in crisis,” says King, 59, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and has spent his entire 36-year career as an educator in that region. “I told the board that if they wanted to individually influence daily operations of the school system, they should not hire me. I needed a lot of leeway.”
A little more than five years later, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school system, located along the Texas border with Mexico, stands out as a promising example of how to turn around a district where low graduation rates and sluggish academic achievement were the norm for years. It’s also one whose demographics—99 percent Hispanic, 90 percent poor, and 41 percent in need of English-language-acquisition services—are more commonly linked to dropping out of high school than entering and finishing college.
The starting point: The graduation rate by the end of the 2006-07 school year was 62 percent, far below Texas’ statewide average of 77 percent. Nearly 500 students (out of a total high school enrollment of 8,000) had dropped out of school that year, and nearly half of them were seniors who had fallen short by just a few credits, hadn’t passed an exit exam, or were derailed by a combination of both, King says.
By last June: The dropout rate had been slashed by nearly 90 percent. More than 1,909 seniors earned diplomas in four years, bumping the district’s graduation rate to 88 percent, roughly 10 percentage points higher than the rate for all of Texas. And about 25 percent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo’s high school students were enrolled in at least one course that could earn them credit for college. Enrollment rates in higher education doubled for the district’s graduates between 2007 and 2010.
“It has been a massive shift in many ways,” says Nora Rivas-Garza, the principal of the 2,000-student Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School, one of five in the district. “But the biggest change is that we went from a system where only the top 10 percent were expected to go to college to one where all students are expected to do so. Everyone hears about higher education, and everyone is pushed, encouraged, and prodded to take those courses that are going to put them on the path to college.”
The first step in turning the district around, King says, was a triage effort to restore order to the high schools, and a push to build relationships with staff members, school board members, parents, and a community still reeling from the fallout of the federal corruption case.
‘Stopping the Bleeding’
King says that in his first several weeks as superintendent, he spent hours inside each high school, listening to the frustrations of teachers who had come to deeply distrust the central office, and coming up with concrete steps to address many of their grievances.
But his most urgent effort in the early weeks of his superintendency, he says, was “stopping the bleeding of dropouts.”
That required an initiative that King and his team called Countdown to Zero, a block-by-block, door-to-door campaign in the summer of 2007 to bring every student who’d dropped out the previous school year back into the district.
In his previous job as the superintendent of the nearby Hidalgo school district, that brand of on-the-ground, intensive effort had paid off, King says. He believed it would work in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, too, even though it’s 10 times the size of Hidalgo.
For a few weeks, the district team fanned out in search of students, and each day, met to tally up who had been located and who had agreed to come back.
King says he and his team knew they had to offer dropouts something other than a return to the comprehensive high schools where they had not succeeded. Foremost in his mind were the more than 237 seniors who had come so close to graduating the previous spring.
“We had to give them something that they would see as a step forward, not a step back,” he says.
That something was community college courses at a new school called PSJA College Career Technology Academy that was separate from the district’s comprehensive high schools. Those courses, taught largely by faculty members from South Texas College in nearby McAllen, would put students on a track to earn credits toward an associate degree or career certificate, King says. The career academy also provides support to students who need to prepare for and pass the state high school exit exam and make up missing high school credits.
King, who already had a strong relationship with the president of South Texas College from his time in Hidalgo, drew on that connection to open up the new school for recovered dropouts in less than two months.
By September 2007, 224 seniors who had left before graduation agreed to come to the new school, King says. And three months later, in December, 49 of them had graduated. By January 2008, the district, with state funding to support its expansion, opened the program to any district dropout up to the age of 26.
Since the academy opened five years ago, more than 1,000 recovered dropouts have returned and graduated, and districts across Texas have replicated the model. One school leader says the results in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo have sent a powerful message to the broader community.
“That recovery school has shown that everyone is going to get an opportunity to have success. It’s not just reserved for those who are going to make it whether Mr. King had ever come here or not,” says Ronnie Cantu, who was elected to the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school board two years ago and is now serving as its president. “These are young people who would have fallen through the cracks in many other systems but got a second chance here.”
Expanding College Access
At the same time that the district was focusing on dropout recovery, it was also attending to an overhaul of the three comprehensive high schools that, like the career academy, would offer all students the opportunity to enroll in community college courses and earn at least 12 college credits by the time they graduated from high school.
Parents and some members of the community were skeptical about the early-college approach at first, Cantu says. Students and their parents had to be convinced that extending education beyond high school would have longer-term payoffs than seeking work as soon as they graduated.
King and his team consistently argued that giving students a head start on earning college credits not only would increase their odds of graduating and going on to higher education, but would also increase their chances of finishing with a degree. And it would save them money.
“In a community with as much poverty as we have here, it can be hard to convince students and their parents to not go out and get a paying job once you graduate,” the veteran superintendent says. “But when you show them how much more they can earn with a degree, and give them a head start toward earning it in high school when they don’t have to pay for it, it’s very effective.”
King had established one of the first early-college high schools in the country in Hidalgo a few years earlier during his first superintendency, using a grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that, as first proposed, would have offered the dual-enrollment opportunity to only half the 800 students in the school. King said he did not want the grant unless the program would be open to all students, because “if it’s good for kids, shouldn’t everyone get a shot?” The foundation eventually agreed.
That all-or-nothing approach is something King still insists on, Principal Rivas-Garza says, which pushes her to keep increasing the numbers of students at her high school participating in dual enrollment. This school year, she expects at least half her 2,000 students to complete at least one college-credit-bearing course.
Across the district this school year, about 2,000 high school students are enrolled in at least one community college course, King says. He vows to keep pushing hard until that number gets closer to 4,000 students. “We are still in the middle of this effort, but I think what we’ve shown here,” he says, “is that districts and communities in dire situations can come together and do what’s best for kids.”
Coverage of leadership, expanded learning time, and arts learning is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2013 edition of Education Week