Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District Superintendent Daniel King makes an unusual pitch to high school dropouts to get them to re-enroll in the district: He offers them the option to start college while they are finishing high school.
“It’s kind of an oxymoron, but we used an early college philosophy for dropouts,” King told PBS NewsHour. “We brought them back in. Our message was, you didn’t finish high school. Start college today.”
He opened the College, Career, and Technology Academy (CC&T Academy) in 2007. Volunteers go door-to-door to recruit dropouts to attend the school, which now serves students between the ages of 18 to 26. They are able to take dual enrollment courses to earn college credits. This year, there were 70 graduates of the academy , and about 60 percent of them will go on to college.
The South Texas district on the U.S.-Mexico border serves about 32,000 students, 99 percent of whom are Latino and 89 percent are economically disadvantaged.
The college focus also extends to regular students: The district opened up the T-STEM Early College High School to meet the needs of juniors and seniors. Many of the graduates finished school with a two-year degree from South Texas College, a community college, and a high school diploma.
By numerous accounts, the strategy has worked. Education Week recently reported that about 2,000 of the district’s 8,000 high school students are enrolled in a college course each semester, and the four-year graduation rate has increased from 62 percent to 87 percent over the past three years.
The Texas Education Agency featured the district in a best practices guide for school districts.
One student helped by the PSJA district initiative is Jonathan Sanchez, who says he dropped out when he got involved in drugs. He enrolled in the program in January, and takes courses including business computer systems.
“There’s, like, so much going on, it feels like my brain is being occupied the whole time,” he told PBS.