As educators, our primary focus should be preparing our students to succeed in the world that they will confront throughout their entire life. To thrive in this technologically advanced, global society those entering adulthood must, more than ever, complete a postsecondary course of study that prepares them for successful entry into a career pathway with the potential to earn a wage that will support their family and provide opportunities for advancement.
In Texas, and across the country, there are huge gaps in educational attainment between different segments of our population. Economically disadvantaged students and minority (especially Latino and African-American) students do not complete high school or higher education degrees and certifications at the same rate as other groups.
At Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD (PSJA), we serve a student population that is 99% Hispanic and almost 90% economically disadvantaged, but we don’t let those numbers get in our way. Our everyday challenge is to completely shatter the ceiling that typical educational approaches place upon many of these young people. We are committed to create a system that focuses on having every PSJA student “College Ready, College Connected, and College Complete.” It is our goal to give every student the means and tools to be successful in life, and we are reaching this goal with the help of the Early College concept.
The district has focused in a unique way on scaling up early college work by opening a T-STEM Early College High School with approximately 400 students. This school has been designed as a laboratory or incubator for scaling up the Early College model to all high schools in PSJA, serving more than 8,000 students. Using this approach, PSJA is moving all current incoming freshmen districtwide into college connected career pathways to start college work in their area of interest before high school graduation.
High School students at PSJA are engaged in dual and concurrent enrollment, resulting in almost 2,000 students taking college courses each semester. We are transforming a large school district into an Early College High School District connecting every student to a meaningful future through rigorous, relevant academics. To date, PSJA has three designated Early College high schools, and two other comprehensive high schools are in the planning stages to receive the official designation.
PSJA has started a total transformation of high school education, which will ultimately extend to the elementary level and is purposely becoming a system that is completely immersed in a college going culture. We have increased expectations for all students. Our goal is not just to hand out high school diplomas, but to see that our students have the skills they need to move onto college, obtain a college degree and have a prosperous life and career.
Through Early College coursework, students can graduate from high school with at least 12 college hours, a technical certificate, or even an Associate's degree that prepares them for high-wage employment. By having our students start college while still in high school, we are breaking down the barrier between college and high school for a seamless transition, increasing the likelihood that they will obtain a postsecondary degree by saving them time and money.
Guest blogger Dr. Daniel P. King is superintendent of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA). He was named state Superintendent of the Year in 2006 by the Texas Association of School Boards while leading the Hidalgo ISD.
Photograph courtesy of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA), 2012