Feature                                                      Pages 16-20


A Second-Chance Academy

for Dropouts

A school district in South Texas tailors an early college program to reach students who’ve fallen short 


“Is there any way you can start now?”

A sobering dose of reality hit me that June day in 2007 as I met with Fernando Lopez, school board president in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in South Texas. Seven months earlier, I had agreed to take the helm of the district in midsummer. Faced with setting a new course for the beleaguered district, I knew this would be the biggest challenge of my career.

Daniel King Speak
Daniel King has led an effective frontal assault on the dropout problem as superintendent of a South Texas school district.

The school district had received a barrage of unflattering news media attention over several years due to an ongoing FBI investigation into serious fiscal irregularities. A sense of dread permeated the district along with speculation about the outcome.

Campus discipline and poor academic performance were major concerns. Gang fights had plagued the district’s high schools for more than two decades, and all three comprehensive high schools were in serious trouble with adequate yearly progress. One high school was in Stage 4, and the community was expecting the state to shut down or reconstitute the school.

These issues overshadowed the hard work of many teachers and staff and thousands of students who were eager to learn and create better lives for themselves.

The school district serves more than 30,000 students in the cities of Pharr, San Juan and Alamo, located on the Texas-Mexico border. The student population is 99 percent Hispanic and 90 percent economically disadvantaged.

Triage of Crises
As I looked into the worried face of the board president, I reflected on the breaking news that had been dominating local media outlets for the previous 24 hours. The FBI had arrested three members of the school board and the retiring superintendent on corruption charges. The clouds of suspicion had burst into a torrent of phone calls and angry comments from disenchanted citizens. The already-low morale of district employees plunged to new depths.

The four unindicted board members were anxious for me to take charge of the daily operations as soon as possible. And so I started my new job two weeks earlier than scheduled, with the board and the district under withering fire from citizens and media alike.

I began with preparations for the upcoming school year, starting with triage of the various crises. The biggest was the district’s dropout problem. A staff member in the student serv-ices department provided the latest data, and I dug in.

The district’s longitudinal cohort dropout rate of 18.7 percent for 9th to 12th grades was more than double the state average. The four-year graduation rate was a miserable 62 percent, trailing the state average by almost 16 percentage points. In spite of significant enrollment growth, the yearly total of high school graduates was declining, dropping from 1,129 in 2004 to 966 for the class of 2007.

Targeting Dropouts
We formed an action committee to plan an intensive dropout recovery campaign, Countdown to Zero. In a school district overwhelmed by a daunting array of challenges, most stakeholders were oblivious to this silent epidemic. We decided to go public with the shocking data. Soon television and radio spots, billboards and banners highlighted the crisis and featured the countdown initiative.

Continuing with triage, our first target was the 237 seniors from the prior school year who had failed to earn a high school diploma. Most lacked only their exit exams or a few course credits. If we did not re-engage them promptly, they would be almost impossible to re-engage. District records indicated such students rarely returned to finish their diploma.

In July, we identified and contacted these young people. As preliminary feedback indicated most of these students seemed willing to return, the question became “return to what?” Placing more than 200 highly at-risk nongraduates in dysfunctional high schools that already had failed them was likely to have low yield. These students needed a campus of their own, a school tailored for them, for students who fell a little short of a high school diploma. What a radical idea — a school designed to fit the students!

Recognizing the difficulty of getting a student who only needs to pass a graduation test to attend school on a consistent basis, I came up with a novel solution — “early college” for dropouts. Why not partner with the local community college and start these students on the road to an industry certification or an associate degree while they were completing high school graduation requirements? Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, readily agreed to this joint venture.

Sure to grab attention, the message stuck: “You Didn’t Finish High School? Start College Today!” The campus opened in rented space in a downtown business training center. Of the 237 targeted students, 223 enrolled in Pharr-San Juan-Alamo’s College, Career & Technology Academy under the leadership of then-Principal Leonore Tyler.

Intensive Recovery
With the start of the school year, we implemented the key components of Countdown to Zero, our September recovery campaign. At the end of the first week of school, our data team generates a list of all secondary students who have not returned for the start of the school year. As part of this campaign, all principals receive a count and a list of all students missing from their campus.

 Daniel King walk
Superintendent Daniel King (left) with colleagues participating in his school district's Countdown to Zero Dropout Recovery Walk, where they visited homes of students who had not graduated.

This sparks the beginning of an intensive, month-long recovery drive. Home visits and phone calls are made daily. Every Saturday, hundreds of volunteers (employees, civic groups, municipal employees and other citizens) participate in a strategic effort to track down and bring back or account for every missing student. An updated daily report generates the results of the previous day’s dropout recovery and accounting work. Identified dropouts are encouraged to return to their home campus or enroll in an alternative campus that meets their needs.

Initially, we found it challenging to persuade district employees and community members to volunteer on Saturday mornings to hunt for dropouts. As they experienced success, the word spread, and participation increased. For the last several years, more than 300 volunteers have convened every Saturday in September to join in the effort.

All alternative schools in our district now have been transformed into back-on-track campuses where dual enrollment in community college is one of the key elements. Engaging at-risk students in work toward an industry certification or degree leading to potential high-wage employment is a real motivation for them to complete high school.

In December 2007, the College, Career & Technology Academy produced 49 graduates. This achievement was a game changer in a district desperate for good news. A sense of efficacy built among the district’s staff as the news media trumpeted the success.

A Broader Mission
During the following semester, the academy broadened its mission to recover older dropouts who had been near to high school completion at the point they gave up. Just prior, the Texas Legislature authorized funding for the pursuit of a high school diploma by dropouts up to age 26. Intended to support evening and Saturday programs, the legislation inspired our district’s creation of a full-day campus focused on near-to-graduation high school dropouts and non-completers.

Julio, already 26, was among those who enrolled. He had given up on education. The College, Career & Technology Academy changed that. Today, Julio is a high school graduate and a senior at the University of Texas-Pan American.

In 2012, Joe, a 23-year-old from a neighboring community, enrolled in the academy, now led by Principal Linda Carrillo. He finished his remaining requirements in one semester. The former dropout is now the president of the Student Government Association at South Texas College.

More than 1,100 non-completers and dropouts have graduated from Pharr-San Juan-Alamo as a result of the second-chance academy. Almost 300 were between 21 and 26 years of age. Most graduate with college credit hours. The school district buses students to the community college campus for some classes. College professors also travel to our site, and qualified high school staff serve as adjunct faculty. The district provides two transition counselors at the community college to ensure recent graduates successfully enroll and move to college completion.

Acknowledging this success, the Texas Legislature put its stamp of approval on our district’s model in 2011 and authorized replication around the state. The program has spread to 10 nearby school districts and more than a dozen others throughout Texas. A high school diploma and the opportunity to earn college credit have been a life changer for thousands of young people. Countdown to Zero and the College, Career & Technology Academy have been designated best practices by the Texas Education Agency.

When school opened for 2008-09, the comprehensive high schools in our district featured a key structural change. Transitional communities were opened at each campus to help off-track students catch up to their peers. In a school-within-a-school setting, these students were grouped together and scheduled for classes with some of the district’s best teachers. This added a sheltered setting on the home campus to the portfolio of options we offer for off-track students

In November 2008, I met with the high school principals to initiate our Be on Time program. Each principal was given a list of all 9th, 10th and 11th graders who had fallen behind the cohort with which they had initially entered high school. The principals were responsible for developing an action plan that included a timeline for closing the gap. The goal for that year was to have half of the off-track students catch up to their peers.

Each year thereafter, the target for decreasing the number of off-track students has been incrementally increased by 5 percentage points. The Be on Time initiative has as its ultimate aim an on-time graduation rate of 95 percent.

Dramatic Turnaround
The results of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo’s frontal assault on the dropout problem and focus on on-time graduation have been remarkable. The district’s cohort, or longitudinal, dropout rate for grades 9 to 12 is now 3.2 percent, a decrease of more than 15 percentage points and less than half the state average. Our four-year graduation rate has climbed more than 25 percentage points to reach 87.8 percent, surpassing the state and national averages. Almost all of those who don’t complete on time return for a fifth year of study at the academy campus, and most graduate.

The faculty at the College, Career & Technology Academy have developed specialized skills in serving highly at-risk youth through experience and unique staff development. They use high-yield instructional strategies designed to engage students to lead their learning. Low teacher-pupil ratios and the full-time services of a counselor, a social worker and two campus administrators for only 200-250 students each semester ensures individual attention for each student.

The persistent decline in the annual number of high school graduates also has been dramatically reversed, jumping from 966 in 2007 to 1,317 the following school year, a remarkable 27 percent gain. Subsequent years have witnessed a continued climb, reaching 1,889 in 2012, almost doubling the output from 2007.

As an added bonus, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School, led by Principal Corina Ramirez, turned around just in time (“Stage 5” under adequate yearly progress) to avoid closure. On the district’s campuses, gang fights are a distant memory, and the district is better known for its bold scale-up of Early College for All.

Daniel King is superintendent of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in Pharr, Texas. E-mail: drking@psjaisd.us


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue