You Didn’t Finish High School? Start College Today!

Pharr–San Juan–Alamo ISD’s superintendent reveals how his district has revived dropouts’ interest in learning.

In September 2007, Julio Viramontes was working at a fast-food restaurant. For eight years, having failed his high school exit exams, he bounced from one minimum wage job to another.

Today, Viramontes is working to complete his bachelor's degree at the University of Texas–Pan American, having earned his associate's degree from South Texas College in May 2010. He says his success has not only changed his life but also the lives of his wife and children.

Joe Lopez struggled at high schools in two districts before dropping out in 2003. But in spring 2012, he heard about Pharr–San Juan–Alamo Independent School District's College, Career & Technology Academy (CCTA). A newly motivated Lopez managed to complete his remaining high school courses and pass all four of his high school exit exams in one semester. He also completed a "College Success" course that helped him develop goals and a degree plan.

Today, Lopez is student body president at South Texas College and plans to continue his education after he earns his associate's degree.

No Longer Borderline

Viramontes and Lopez are among the more than 1,000 high school dropouts and non-completers in our area who have returned to the classroom and are now thriving in college and their careers. Their success is our success, and here's why.

PSJA ISD serves a community that is almost 90 percent economically disadvantaged. When I took over as super­intendent of schools in July 2007, the district was losing nearly 500 students annually (a dropout rate nearly double the state average) and had a four-year graduation rate of just 62 percent.

District leaders, including the Board of Trustees, viewed this crisis as a top priority that required immediate, yet comprehensive, solutions. So we partnered with South Texas College to open CCTA, a dropout recovery high school that allows 18- to 26-year-old dropouts and non-completers to earn diplomas while also participating in a dual-­enrollment college program. In just five years, the high school has graduated 1,003 students.

We also launched two initiatives to inspire students to stay in school. "Countdown to Zero" is an annual dropout recovery effort that relies on home visits and intense follow-up each fall to ensure that every student continues in school until graduation. "Be on Time" involves intervening with students who have fallen off pace to graduate with their peers.

Already, we have doubled the ­annual output of graduates and raised our four-year graduation rate to 88 percent. Most of our high school students who don't finish in four years transfer to CCTA, rather than dropping out, and go on to earn their diploma.

Today, our dropout rate is less than half the state average, and we are scaling up dual-enrollment and early-college opportunities across the district so that every student has access to post-secondary education before high school graduation. We have doubled the number of students who enroll in community college or a university after they graduate.

As we see it, our students' best is yet to come.

Drop by Drop

Among its achievements, the Pharr–San Juan–Alamo (Texas) Independent School District has:

  • become a state and national model for dropout recovery, having graduated more than 1,000 former dropouts ages 18 to 26 since 2007 and connected them to college;
  • raised four-year graduation rates from 62.4 percent to 87.8 percent in four years;
  • enrolled about 1,700 of its 8,000 high school students in college courses during the 2010–2011 school year; and
  • doubled the number of students enrolling in college after graduation between 2007 and 2011.

For more information about PSJA ISD's efforts, visit jff.org/sites/default/files/ECDS_PSJA_LaunchingECdistricts_032212.pdf.

<p>Hemera/ThinkStockPhoto</p>

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Jan 03 2013

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