JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, looks at a program that offers high school dropouts college courses to make learning more challenging.
Last night, he focused on how that idea works in small specialized schools. Tonight, he takes a broader view.
This story is part of the American Graduate project.
JOHN MERROW: Here in this low-income school district on the Texas/Mexico border, superintendent Daniel King is trying something that's never been done.
DANIEL KING, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School District superintendent: We're going to be setting a benchmark this year, and so we have 66 with an associate degree.
JOHN MERROW: He is redesigning his school system so that every one of the 31,600 students in the district will be able to graduate from high school with college credits under their belt.
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.
JOHN MERROW: But it won't be easy. When he came to town just five years ago, barely half of the students were completing high school. He thinks he knows why.
DANIEL KING: Many young people don't see the connection between high school and the rest of their life. And so there's a lot of time in high school that they spend maybe killing time. Well, high school not only needs to be more challenging; it needs to be more real.
MAN: You only have five days to complete this program. That's going to be a whole lot of work.
JOHN MERROW: King believes that if you give students real challenges and opportunities, they will meet them. Free college and industry certification classes are the incentives that he believes will not only entice students to work hard in high school, but also get them on the path to college.
It's working for 18-year-old senior Viviana Hernandez. Viviana spends half the day at a local college taking dual-enrollment classes, getting both high school and college credit for the same class.
VIVIANA HERNANDEZ, STUDENT: There is a big difference between high school classes and college-level courses, because, first, the instructors over there, they require a lot more from you. They expect you to be a college student, college-ready.
So you need to meet their standards. When I started taking college classes, my parents didn't understand my tight schedule, that I needed to study. They wanted me to help out around the house, to look after my sister and my little brother.
JOHN MERROW: Eighty-nine percent of the students live in low-income households. Viviana and her parents are migrant field workers.
VIVIANA HERNANDEZ: Neither of them get a high school education, so they really don't understand or they don't know, like, the stress of going through it or anything like that. All they know is that I get good grades and I'm going to graduate high school.
JOHN MERROW: And maybe college, too.
VIVIANA HERNANDEZ: I stress out a lot with my college work, but it's -- I would rather sit in a college class and take a billion finals than work a day in the fields.
JOHN MERROW: Though some students like Viviana go to college to take classes, for most, college comes to them.
WOMAN: Remember that this is a transferable credit, so make sure you identify that.
JOHN MERROW: Here at Memorial High School, four college professors travel to the campus to teach dual-enrollment classes to juniors and seniors. Qualified high school teachers are also getting approved by the college to teach college classes at the high school.
Principal Judith Solis has noticed a difference.
JUDITH SOLIS, principal, Memorial High School: I see the kids taking college classes because it's a cool thing to do, and it makes them very proud. It makes them very competitive too amongst their classmates.
JOHN MERROW: The new district-wide focus on college is evident. Once a week, students can opt out of the school uniform and wear college T-shirts. Solis feels King's plan solves a bigger problem than making college cool.
JUDITH SOLIS: I think a lot of kids are bored. I think there's kids that are bored. And they're going to find different ways to meet their needs, and sometimes the choices aren't very good. So we're offering something that's more challenging to them, and telling them, step up. You can have college now. It is free. It's your future. What do you want?
JOHN MERROW: Though reliable numbers are hard to come by, we know that at least 10 percent of high school students nationwide are taking dual-enrollment classes.
Traditionally, early college and dual-enrollment programs have served honors students and high achievers. Things could be changing. King's approach, get all high school students to take college classes, could be a new paradigm.
WOMAN: As you know, it is our final for 20301.
JOHN MERROW: In South Texas, early college looks to be a win-win-win-win situation.
WOMAN: Three, two, one, you may begin. Exam starts at 8:25.
JOHN MERROW: Dual-enrollment classes provide the state with a better-educated work force. Colleges receive state funding and incentives to help with their bottom line. Schools get additional state money, too.
But students are the real winners, says economics professor Laura Leal. I asked her if high school students were emotionally ready for college classes.
LAURA LEAL, professor, South Texas College: I think, in this case, they are, because they don't have the cultural shock of being in a dorm, because they're here still at home.
They don't have the culture shock of having mom not there being able to cook their meals and wash their clothes. Students are not really experimenting with life yet. So, emotionally they should be focused and even self-assured that they will do a much better job when they go out there with all those challenges that face a typical college freshman.
JOHN MERROW: High school is the right time to get young people excited about college work, Leal says.
LAURA LEAL: How I like to define it is kind of like the experience that Adam and Eve had before the apple. High school students, they see every challenge as possible. They have their whole future ahead of them.
JOHN MERROW: Her students seem to find benefits beyond the college credits. I caught up with them just after they took their final exam in first-year college economics.
Show me your hand if you think you aced the test. The guys always. . .
JOHN MERROW: Why did you sign up?
STUDENT: It was, of course, to save money also, but I also wanted to challenge myself.
STUDENT: It's an experience that we have to get used to. And we're already going into the real world.
STUDENT: I'm glad I took the classes, because, if not, then, when I did go to, like, a university, I would have, like, been in for a shock.
DANIEL KING: 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: Career and technical certification is a large part of King's plan to prepare students for life after high school.
SAUL M. HERNANDEZ, information technology instructor: College, honestly, is probably not for everyone. But we definitely want to give them the tools necessary to succeed at the college level or again in the career field.
JOHN MERROW: Saul Hernandez is teaching a network cabling class.
SAUL M. HERNANDEZ: These are career-ready classes. These are technical courses to prepare these students for careers in information technology. They walk out with not only their high school diploma, but industry-level certification, so they can hit the job market right after high school, if college is not for them.
If college is for them, then they have an advantage because they're used the rigor of industry, so they can certainly survive the post-secondary education.
JOHN MERROW: Since Superintendent King came to town just five years ago, his plan has shown significant signs of success. In late May, about 40 percent of the district's graduating seniors finished high school with at least three college credits. Across the district, 60 seniors actually received their two-year college degrees a week before they got their high school diplomas.
VIVIANA HERNANDEZ: I never thought I would get this far during high school. I will be earning 77 college hours, and I'm going to be graduating with an associate's in biology.
JOHN MERROW: Superintendent King is confident in that students who start going to college while they're in high school are more likely to continue their education and eventually earn college degrees, contradicting the nation's 46 percent college dropout rate.
For students like Viviana Hernandez, the odds are good.
DANIEL KING: By connecting these young people, we help them and we help all of us. The better-educated this society is, the less individuals that we have that are dependent on the rest of us, the better it is for all of us.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JOHN MERROW: Daniel King's plan is attracting national attention. If it catches on, high school and college could start to look a whole lot different.
JUDY WOODRUFF: To watch part one of John's report on this subject, go to our website, NewsHour.PBS.org.
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.