Q&A: A Superintendent Behind Early College for All

When Daniel King arrived in Hidalgo, Texas, in 1988 as principal of the single high school, he found low expectations, the most basic curriculum and course offerings, and a complete lack of a college-going culture. Over the ensuing 19 years, including eight as superintendent, he went about changing that.

When he first learned about the concept of early college, the lights went on. “Here was a structured way to take a disadvantaged community of students and seamlessly connect all of them to college,” said King.

Hidalgo SpotlightThe 900-student high school in Hidalgo, Texas, is built around the early college design.

He viewed early college as a way to transform the entire high school, district and community. Today, the 900-student high school in Hidalgo is built around the early college model. Hidalgo was the country’s first early college school district.

When King moved into the superintendency of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in 2007, he looked to the same option to address the low expectations and low performance levels of many students.

He launched a dual-enrollment dropout recovery campus for those 18- to 26-year-olds. Over the past three years, more than 700 high school dropouts and non-completers have obtained their high school diploma through the district’s College, Career and Technology Academy. In that program and throughout the district, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo has used the early college design to stimulate and guide change. In both Hidalgo and Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, says King, “I saw early college as a way to achieve systemic transformation through a disciplined and rigorous process to connect every student to college.”

King shared some of his experiences in the early college movement in an interview with staff members at Jobs for the Future.

Why run the early college concept for all students in the district rather than a single campus?

A middle-class lifestyle or better requires postsecondary education, including some type of degree. Today, college readiness and career readiness are comparable. My goal is to create a seamless connection between high school and our two-year and four-year colleges so practically every student makes a successful transition and obtains a college degree and/or certification.

The work involves increasing the rigor of high school course work; improving the connections; providing transitional support so students are enrolled in college the semester after graduation; and finding ways for colleges to support students through cohorts and similar arrangements.

What were the main hurdles you first encountered?

KING: Skepticism about college for all was probably the main hurdle. Some raised concerns this would detract from the support and preparation for those students who were already on a college track. Convincing funders, community colleges and agencies to take these concepts to scale also took some thought and persuasion. Talking about doing things like this for all students is one thing. To actually do it is completely different.

What opposition — internal or external — did you and your central office face in bringing the early college design to your school districts?

Actual opposition to early college has been minimal because the groundwork was laid first and the rationale was presented in a persuasive manner.

What did you learn in Hidalgo that has helped as you now work to scale up the concept throughout Pharr-San Juan-Alamo?

Both districts serve similar populations — about 99 percent Hispanic, 90 percent economically disadvantaged, more than 50 percent English language learners, many immigrants and migrants. The Hidalgo experience proved it was doable, we just needed to figure out how to take it to scale to impact 8,000 high school students.

We needed to find a way to make this work for students with various interests, backgrounds, skill levels and language proficiencies. This requires establishing a well-designed program and improving the quality of the curriculum, instruction, and counseling and guidance program. It means coming up with a way to design high schools that fit the students and meet their needs, to enhance their aspirations and support them in attaining them.

How important is faculty/staff involvement/buy-in for this concept to work? Was staff training needed? What sort?

KING: Ultimately, it is the teachers and the students who will transform a school or district. Orientation to the concept is important. Building a foundation is important.
We are using the instructional coaching model to train all of our secondary teachers in quality delivery. We have set out to train all core subject teachers in the Advanced Placement program to bring rigor to our curriculum and expectations. Counselors and college transitional specialists are being trained to have all the knowledge, skills and tools to support a successful transition to college for all students.

How important is parental involvement and buy-in for this to work?

This is a must, but it’s the easy part. First of all, the students are our best salespeople. They sell the concept of early college for all to their parents, their peers and everyone they see. We hold all types of orientations and training for parents. They quickly see the advantage and become major advocates.

What key measures are the first you see that verify the concept is working?

In Hidalgo, the first cohort graduated in May 2010. Eighty-five percent of the entire senior class graduated with college credit. The entire focus and culture of the student body has been transformed. The number of graduates enrolling in college after high school has increased dramatically.

In Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, the culture is improving dramatically. The district’s dropout rate has gone from double the state average to half the state average in just two years. The number of high school graduates has gone from 966 to 1,776 in three years. All three high schools had serious problems in the performance of English language learners. All three now have moved out of adequate yearly progress range.

The number of students taking dual-credit courses has tripled, and the number of students enrolling in college after high school is seeing a significant increase. The biggest improvement of all is the attitude and maturity of the students. They see college in their future.

What are the challenges to scaling across the state and across the country?

Scale in a large system and across systems requires quality processes and support structures. You need a strong college partner and external partners, as well. Ours included the Gates Foundation, the Texas High School Project and Jobs for the Future. They bring discipline to the process. They ask hard questions. They also provide support and training.

What advice would you share with school districts exploring the early college design and thinking about implementation?

KING: Done well, it is a great tool for changing the culture of a school, bringing rigor and relevance to teaching and learning, and enhancing the future of our students. In Hidalgo, the entire community was transformed. Parent engagement increased dramatically. Gang activity and other youth problems declined tremendously. And in PSJA, we already see signs of this phenomenon. It is a long-term process and hard work, and it requires system commitment, but it is very rewarding.