Early College: "What Are We Waiting For?"

Published jul. 12, 2012

If you missed it over the holiday week, it’s well worth watching PBS NewsHour’s excellent two-part report on South Texas’ Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) school district. This border district is setting a compelling example for how we can make school work for all students—especially the high-poverty, Hispanic students who make up this school system. PSJA engages all students with dynamic teaching, puts them on a clear path to a college degree or credential, and supports their college success even after graduation. All students, including former dropouts, take college classes before they graduate—most of them are the first in their families to do so.

Early results are very encouraging. Nearly twice as many students are graduating compared to five years ago. Students are enrolling in college after graduation at far higher rates. At Jobs for the Future, we see district-wide early college as a transformative model that can change the futures of underserved students across the country. In the words of John Merrow of Learning Matters, producers of the segments, “What are we waiting for?”

Over the past two years, JFF has had the privilege of working with PSJA and its visionary superintendent, Dr. Danny King. He has built on the idea behind JFF’s Early College High School Initiative, expanding it from a small schools concept to a framework for systemic transformation. With our partner Educate Texas, we’ve helped to guide PSJA’s strategy, build more challenging and relevant course sequences for its kids, and change the way teachers teach in the classroom. Through this relationship, we’ve seen firsthand the approaches that make PSJA exceptional.

When Dr. King first started to expand college for all, he didn’t start with the top students. He started with dropouts. As the PBS report notes, Dr. King’s first priority when coming to the district in 2007 was to reverse the district’s dropout rate, then twice the state average. With South Texas College, he opened the College, Career, and Technology Academy, which does not send students back to high school but sends them to college. Through a citywide door-knocking campaign, the district reenrolled nearly every senior who had failed to graduate. At CCTA, students as old as 26 take career-focused college courses while finishing their high school requirements. To date, the school has graduated nearly 900 former dropouts and connected them to college. As Dr. King puts it, “If that kind of student can do it, why can’t all of our students?”

PSJA links education to a real future. Over the past two years, the district has overhauled its course sequences so that students earn college credits in a career pathway that leads toward specific certificates and degrees—aligned to opportunities in their local labor market. Every student takes classes exploring careers in the ninth and tenth grades, then as upperclassmen take college classes in a career pathway—such as pharmacy tech, automotive engineering, or graphic design—as well as core math and English classes at the college level. The beauty of this is they graduate with momentum toward either a technical certificate or an academic course of study—and enter college without the need for remediation. As one young early college student told me last year:

This school gives us a great advantage because they actually treat us like real college students, and that’s what’s giving us a head start. We’re experiencing the college life, that it’s hard, and we’re adapting already to it. So when we go to a bigger university like UTPA or Austin or A&M we already know, "Okay, this is hard. This is tough but I’m already used to it and I can do it."

Of course, you can’t simply put students in college classes and expect them to succeed without the right supports. So PSJA has overhauled instruction in all its high, middle, and elementary schools, using JFF’s Common Instructional Framework, a set of teaching strategies that support and engage kids of all skill levels in college-level work. More students in more classrooms are writing, collaborating, and having academic conversations every day—and taking charge of their learning in a way that will serve them well in college.

Finally, this district recognizes that its responsibility doesn’t end when its graduates go to college. Recognizing low rates of college completion, it has hired counselors housed on the local community college and four-year campuses to help its graduates transition to and stay in college.

Though its work is still just beginning, PSJA is rightfully gaining national attention for the vision it has set. At JFF, we think this vision can be the norm in American education: high schools that help every student transition seamlessly into college, and succeed once they are there.