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In South Texas, Luring Dropouts Back By Sending Them to College

July 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Hoping to stem a high school dropout crisis, one Texas superintendent is luring many students back to school by giving them a taste of college coursework. Special correspondent John Merrow reports as part of our American Graduate series.
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RAY SUAREZ: Next: another chapter in our series on the high school dropout problem.

The NewsHour’s special correspondent for education, John Merrow, looks at a program that offers dropouts college courses to make learning more stimulating.

This story is part of the American Graduate project.

JOHN MERROW: In the Rio Grande Valley on the Texas-Mexico border, life is hard. Unemployment is higher here than anywhere else in Texas.

Almost all of the 31,600 students in the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District are Hispanic and live in low-income households. If any students do go to college, it’s just about guaranteed they will be the first in their family.

Five years ago, in 2007, close to half of the students dropped out of high school without graduating, just as their parents had done. This was a dropout district.

It's kind of an oxymoron, but we used an early college philosophy for dropouts. We brought them back in. Our message was, you didn't finish high school. Start college today.Daniel King, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District Superintendent

Then Daniel King came to town.

DANIEL KING, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District Superintendent: So, the first thing was, stop the bleeding. Work with the dropout situation.

JOHN MERROW: The new superintendent made a decision. He would lure the dropouts back to school.

DANIEL KING: At the beginning of every year, we identify all the missing students. And we spend the whole month of September combing the neighborhoods, combing the streets, and playing detective work and trying to track down every single missing student.

JOHN MERROW: Volunteers called and visited homes of dropouts, sometimes making dozens of house calls.

DANIEL KING: We have a choice. These can be contributors to our society, or they can be people that depend on the rest of us.

JOHN MERROW: And lo and behold, it worked.

DANIEL KING: There were 237 seniors who did not get a high school diploma because they had failed their exit exams, so were short on credits. We got 223 of them to come back.

JOHN MERROW: What was his incentive? How did he get students to agree to come back to high school?

DANIEL KING: It’s kind of an oxymoron, but we used an early college philosophy for dropouts. We brought them back in. Our message was, you didn’t finish high school. Start college today.

JOHN MERROW: That audacious message bears repeating. High school didn’t work for you, so let’s try college.

It raises an intriguing question. Could the biggest problem in American high schools be that students don’t feel challenged? If students could take college classes while they’re in high school, would they be more likely to go to class, to graduate and continue on to college?

Programs that offer college classes in high schools started appearing in the late 1950s. Today, though reliable numbers are hard to come by, we know that at least 10 percent of high school juniors and seniors are earning college credit.

Superintendent King’s approach may be the boldest and ambitious. To kick off his plan, King created a separate school in this former Wal-Mart store for dropouts age 18-26.

DANIEL KING: Right away, in the summer of 2007, we created a dropout recovery academy. We called it College Career and Technology Academy. We wanted to point the dropouts to college and to meaningful careers.

JOHN MERROW: Most dropout recovery programs offer students the chance to finish what they started, get their high school diploma or their GED. King’s early college approach took remediation to a whole new level. Lure dropouts back to school by offering them a taste of college.

DANIEL KING: What we’re looking at doing is doing education in a different way, where the colleges come together with us and start working with these young people while they’re still in high school

Our goal is to get them to transition into the community college to earn either an associate degree or at least a certificate in a high-wage, how-skill area of employment, so that they can have a future and support their family.

JOHN MERROW: But it may not be easy. Linda Carrillo is principal the academy.

LINDA CARRILLO, Principal, College Career and Technology Academy: A lot of our kids have experience in the past. They come in with low self-esteem. They come in not believing that college is attainable at all. But when our student comes in, we set that mind-set that college is attainable.

Jonathan Sanchez is a senior who had taken a road traveled by many.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ, Student: From pre-K to eighth grade, I was such a good student, like A and B, honor roll, perfect attendance. I guess you could say I was a smart kid.

JOHN MERROW: Then, in high school, he tried to fit in and be cool.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ: It was just way different. Everything is like labeled and it feels like I wanted the labeling of being a rebel. From then on, I went on a downfall. I got within the drugs. I got a conviction, ended up going to juvie after that. It was just like, I was at a standstill. For two years, I was at a standstill.

JOHN MERROW: In January, he enrolled in the academy.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ: I have dual enrollment. I’m taking business computer systems. I’m taking medical billing, like I want to be certified in it. I’m taking an OSHA course. There’s like so much going on, like it feels like my brain is being occupied the whole time.

JOHN MERROW: At the academy, all students complete high school requirements. Some take college classes. Everyone gets connected to college.

WOMAN: You already did an application for spring. You need to do one for fall 2012.

JONATHAN SANCHEZ: It was almost embarrassing to say like, well, I’m in high school. Now it’s like I don’t have to say that anymore. I can say I’m a college student.

JOHN MERROW: This spring, 70 students graduated from the academy. About 60 percent of them will continue on to college, including Jonathan Sanchez.

DANIEL KING: In four and-a-half years, we have graduated 878 students. I’m anticipating by this August, we will have probably our 1000th graduate walk the stage from that campus. These are people that almost all of them would have been without a high school diploma.

JOHN MERROW: Solving the dropout problem was plan A. Plan B was to get all high school students taking college courses.

So, in the fall of 2007, King upped the ante and opened another small school, where juniors and seniors would attend high school and college at the same time.

MAN: What is different about these two things? Same number of protons and different neutrons.

DANIEL KING: We set out from day one that this T-STEM Early College High School would be a laboratory for us, where we would learn systemically how early college works and then we would scale that district-wide.

JOHN MERROW: Students leave high school almost every day to take classes on a college campus. We caught up with senior Raul Morales on the bus headed to South Texas College.

RAUL MORALES, Student: The classes are harder because they expect more from you. And I think that’s something good because, when the teacher expects more from me, I try harder. And I have proven that, because in middle school, my teachers were like, yes, you got a B, you’re good. But now here, I get a B, and my teacher is like, oh, come on, you can do between.

WOMAN: This is a special day for all of us at South Texas College.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN MERROW: King’s plan B seems to be working. This year, 55 of the 80 seniors from this small school received their two-year college degree a week before they got their high school diplomas.

WOMAN: Graduates, you can now move your tassel, and you are a graduate of South Texas College.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JOHN MERROW: Although King has made tremendous progress in two small, highly specialized schools, the real question is whether he can make his plan work in a large comprehensive high school like this, where being cool is a higher priority than earning good grades.

RAY SUAREZ: And John looks at that question in his next report.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.