Putting Dropouts on the Path to College


Between 2007 and 2009, the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in Texas near the Mexican border recovered more than 600 dropouts and put them on a clear pathway to college.

At the center of the district’s strategy to achieve this startling success was a partnership with South Texas College to create the College, Career and Technology Academy. Former dropouts complete a high school diploma through the academy and seamlessly transition into college courses when they are ready. The design is both effective and efficient. Students focus on what they need for graduation and for college readiness, and they begin college courses while finishing their high school requirements.

The College, Career and Technology Academy opened in fall 2007 to serve a defined target population — dropouts who were within three credits of graduating or who only needed to pass portions of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the state’s graduation exit exam. The academy’s design addresses the particular needs of this population, enabling them to come back to school not just to recover credits and pass state exams but also to prepare them for the transition to college.

The school strongly emphasizes the foundational and critical-thinking skills needed for postsecondary success, using a multipronged strategy of small classroom courses, online skills remediation, intensive reading remediation and tutoring. The school is located in its own district building.

Flexible Arrangements
At any time, 250 to 300 students are enrolled in the academy. All start with a one-on-one meeting with a staff member to review what they lack for graduation and talk about what they need to turn around their performance. Students then enroll in a course of study that addresses those gaps.

Staff arrange a flexible schedule that allows this older population — most students are 18 to 26 years old — to meet family and work obligations. The academic program is highly personalized. Each semester, staff organize course schedules and design the curriculum around the needs of incoming students, analyzing results on the state exams to identify specific skill gaps.

The mentoring program pairs each student with an adult who watches out for him or her during the progression toward a high school diploma and college credits. This is accomplished through what is called a mentor course, where groups of students meet regularly with a school staff member. The mentor course addresses readiness for both college and careers, with students visiting colleges, completing interest inventories and developing resumes. Tutoring is available before and after the school day and on Saturdays.

A Collegiate Feel
Students experience themselves as college students rather than high school dropouts. Through the partnership with South Texas College, they are surrounded by opportunities in a postsecondary environment.

As soon as they pass the state’s exit-level English language arts test, they can enroll in selected college courses. The academy offers certificate courses, primarily in career and technical education, in a compressed semester, or “mini-mester,” based on student interests. College courses include medical terminology, welding and business computing technology, among others.

The students also enroll in a college success class offered by South Texas College to ensure they have what it takes to succeed in postsecondary education.

Through a waiver from the state, the College, Career and Technology Academy runs on a college calendar. By taking breaks when the college does, the school can bank days in order to run a summer session. Continuous semesters are vital for re-engaging the target population.

Lili Allen is a program director at Jobs for the Future in Boston, Mass. E-mail: Rebecca Wolfe is a senior project manager at JFF.