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In a Texas border town where nearly all high school students live in poverty, the school district is trying an experiment to get more kids into college. Instead of waiting until students graduate to enroll them in higher education, the school is pairing with a local college to offer courses for free. Hari Sreenivasan looks at whether this method for closing the college graduation gap is working.
Next tonight, we continue our series Rethinking College: Closing the Graduation Gap with a story about a unique experiment on the border of Mexico.
There, a high school district and a local college have combined forces to dramatically increase the number of college graduates in the region.
Hari Sreenivasan reports.
When superintendent Daniel King walks the halls of his South Texas high schools…
DANIEL KING, Superintendent, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District:
How it's going? How are you guys doing?
… he's not focused on the fact that nearly all of his students live in poverty or that almost half learned English as a second language. What King talks about almost exclusively is college.
Have you started college classes already?
In a district on the Mexican border where most adults have no college education, Daniel King is intent on ensuring that their children get one before they even leave high school.
What are you going to study?
In the medical field.
In the medical field? Any idea what yet or…
Seven years ago, King's district, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, partnered with South Texas College to offer classes for free to all 8,000-plus high school students.
It brings a lot of purpose to high school, because college becomes something concrete for them.
Are you going to have an associate degree or…
These students have the potential to leave here with two years of college under their belt. So, that's a big economic savings.
This May, nearly 500 seniors graduated with a two-year college degree or certificate.
Are you going to start this summer?
And more than 3,000 high school students were enrolled in college courses.
By 2018, our goal is to have 50 percent have completed an associate degree or certificate by the time they graduate from high school.
The cultural shift in this border region has been so swift, it's changing expectations within families.
Stephanie Castellanos heard about early college while still in middle school.
STEPHANIE CASTELLANOS, Early College Participant:
I said, you know, if it's being offered, and it was like the trend, you know, college for free, let's do it.
In May, Castellanos graduated fifth in her high school class with 60 college credit hours and a two-year associate's degree. It was a different story for Stephanie's older sister, 24-year-old Alex Castellanos, who attended high school just a few years earlier.
ALEX CASTELLANOS, Sister of Stephanie: When I was there, they didn't have the early college. So, once they offered it to her, we were all saying to go for it, because I didn't have that chance.
Their mother, Ivonne Castellanos, raised Stephanie and her siblings after their father, who worked for the Border Patrol, was killed by gunfire in Mexico while off duty. Alex Castellanos took on a job at The Dollar Store after high school, a place where she and her mother still work.
And I felt like it was my responsibility. I had my two little ones, my brother and my sister, and I would help. I had to work to help my mom out, too.
She enrolled in community college, but soon dropped out when she found work and school too much to juggle.
It's not easy to pay your bills and having to pay your school.
Now the family is focused on Stephanie's future.
IVONNE CASTELLANOS, Mother of Stephanie: She's going to be my first kid to go. And so we are excited.
It's her dream. It's everybody's dream.
I have to be a role model for my little brother. I have to go on to college.
GREGORIO GARZA, Teacher, PSJA North High School:
Tell me how you created that circuit.
But how do students handle the extra work? Is high school made easier? Are college courses watered down?
Joel Vargas, who works with early college programs across the country, says the opposite often happens.
JOEL VARGAS, Jobs for the Future: It encourages these young people to step up their game. And I think too many of our high schools are sort of structured with kind of minimal expectations. And you reap what you sow in that regard when you set the bar low.
The courses are definitely more rigorous than the regular high school classes. You have to learn about discipline. You have to learn to study. You know, and it's just a matter of knowing what you're getting into.
Samuel Freeman, political science professor at nearby University of Texas-Pan American, has taught and advised many early college learners from the district.
SAMUEL FREEMAN, University of Texas-Pan American: The vast majority of them are not ready emotionally or intellectually.
He says high-achieving students like Castellanos may do well, but many early college students arrive on campus without the emotional maturity to handle high-level course work.
What happens to many of these early college students when they get here and they walk in their first day of class and they're in junior and senior level courses is they do not have the critical and analytic thinking skills. They do not have the reading skills. They cannot handle the reading load. They don't have the writing skills. They cannot write.
Physics Teacher Gregorio Garza has a different view. He thinks early college prepares students for higher education.
A lot of the students that graduate from high school, if they don't go through the rigor of these AP dual-credit classes when they're in high school, then what happens to them? It's a rude awakening once they get to college. And then a lot of them, you know, they don't end up making it.
How can districts afford this idea? How can you have college classes inside high school classrooms for free?
The state of Texas has good policies in this regard. The state will pay both colleges and high schools. In a way they get a twofer.
How many college hours are you going to have by the end of the semester?
The way Superintendent King sees it, K-12 education in America should be restructured.
What we're doing is, we're bridging high school and college. We have this drastic transition from a system where students get handed right off smoothly to middle school, then on to high school, college, where, all of a sudden, it's sink or swim.
Oscar Plaza, Stephanie's economics professor from South Texas College, agrees.
OSCAR PLAZA, South Texas College:
Most of these students are first-generation college. You have to realize that. So for them to see that path from the very beginning and make that path visible, I think, is very important. And that is a big change.
Stephanie Castellanos says she's ready for the challenge. She will be attending the prestigious University of Texas at Austin this fall and hopes one day to be a lawyer.
I see it as an opportunity to do more for my family. After college, I plan to graduate and come back. My family is my number one priority. I want to give them a better life. I mean, obviously, my mom, they moved over here from Mexico to give us a better life. I just want to do the same. I mean, everything I do is definitely for her.
So far, more than 95 percent of the students who graduated Pharr-San Juan-Alamo District with an associate's degree have gone on to pursue their bachelor's.
For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.
We have more in our series online. More than $31 billion in federal Pell Grants go to low-income college students, but how do those students fare? Our partners at The Hechinger Report investigated whether grantees are making it to graduation at 80 of the country's largest universities. That's on our home page.
PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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