Can Texas lesson help Oregon graduation rates?

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

When it comes to education, every kid counts.

This week, Klamath Community College President Dr. Roberto Gutierrez led a group of 15 state, regional and southern Oregon educators to McAllen, Texas. The purpose of the trip was to learn how that community corrected its dismal high school dropout and graduation rates.

I was fortunate to be asked to travel with the educators to learn how the combined Pharr, San Juan and Alamo Independent School Districts (PSJAISD) were able to so dramatically and rapidly improve their long-standing education and social problems.

The district is located in the Rio Grande River Valley, only 12 miles from the Mexican border. In 2007, its annual high school dropout rate exceeded 19 percent. Only 62 percent of its high school seniors were graduating. A very high percentage of those graduates were not prepared for college courses. Their performance was ranked dead last among all of the school districts in Texas.

Approximately 99 percent of the district’s 32,000 K-12 students are Hispanic. Of them, 42 percent are English Language Learners. More than 70 percent live in poverty.

The trade in illegal drugs in the area was enormous. Gang activity, crime and violence were rampant. Discipline in the schools was virtually non-existent.

We were told that the schools were nearly as dangerous as the streets. Most teachers were demoralized by a largely dysfunctional school administration that simply was not prepared to address the myriad community problems.

In short, the entire school and community culture encouraged student failure.

This was the situation facing Dr. Daniel King when he took the job as superintendent of the school district in 2008. He was hired for the job primarily because he had already successfully addressed similar problems as the superintendent of the nearby, but much smaller, Hidalgo School District.

Dr. King’s vision and courageous management helped to correct the PSJAISD problems in only three short years.

The district’s high school graduation rate reached 86 percent by 2011. Last year, 92 percent of its high school seniors graduated on time. Dr. King told us they are expecting about 94 percent to graduate this year.

The district’s high school dropout rate also plummeted to three percent in 2011. Better still, it has since remained at three percent or less.

Our three-day whirlwind trip to Texas was designed to find out how Dr. King was able to accomplish this phenomenal change in such a short period of time. We wanted to understand how we might replicate that change in Southern Oregon and beyond. What we learned was that his results are even better than they look on paper.

Dr. King recognized that kids generally do not leave school because they are stupid or because they have significant learning disabilities. He understood that most kids drop out of school, or fail to graduate on time, because the education system has failed them, not because they have failed the system.

Many students fall behind because they have missed too many school days. Chronic truancy is the single largest cause of student failure.

Others get off-track for personal, family or legal reasons. Often, intervention by school staff is the only lifeline these students have, even though the problems are not directly related to schools.

Too many of the kids are just so bored from the lack of challenge that they simply quit trying. Others earn enough credits to graduate during the first three years of high school, take most of the senior year off and end up getting into trouble.

A pervasive lack of school discipline leads many students into a sort of in-school, mini-anarchist culture. These kids are almost all destined to drop out or fail to graduate. That same culture causes fear and resentment in other students that results in them leaving school as well.

Dr. King realized that improving outcomes would require changing the school culture in a variety of ways. Students want and must have discipline. They want to be continually challenged to the limits of their abilities. They must be expected to succeed and closely mentored as soon as they drift off-course.

His three-phase solution was both simple and effective.

First, Dr. King joined his staff in personally contacting every kid they could find that had dropped out of school or failed to graduate during the past five years. They tracked these kids relentlessly. They encouraged all of the kids they could find to return to school to enroll in college courses. Of course, that entailed simultaneously finishing their high school coursework and graduating.

He then required his staff and teachers to work individually with each one of these returning students to determine why each one failed to complete their high school curriculum. They were instructed to create individual plans for each student to get back on track. Dr. King did not hire many counselors. He wanted his teachers and administrative staff to make the original student contact, create the plans and follow through to ensure the expected outcomes.

Finally, he “dual enrolled” all of these students in both high school and college courses. This action created both the needed challenge and the incentive to succeed.

Nearly 1,400 of these former dropouts have graduated high school. More than 1,000 are progressing in college courses. Nearly 300 have already graduated college or earned a vocational certificate.

Dr. King is also using dual enrollment and individual education plans to encourage struggling students before they fall behind and drop out. He insists that his staff believes that every kid counts, every time.

It is hard to argue with consistent success.

Graduation rates have risen from 62 percent to the mid-90s.

More than half of the district’s seniors have already earned a full year of college credit before they graduate. Dr. King’s programs are not restricted to “the best” students. Nearly two-thirds of the district’s seniors have earned three or more college credits.

This year, the district is on track to confer two-year college degrees or certificates to about 80 high school seniors before they graduate from high school. Its junior class is on track to earn about 120 college degrees.

The entire education culture has changed dramatically in this school district. It is no longer “cool” to be disruptive and unproductive. The student body is policing its own students through positive peer pressure, and this approach is working beyond expectations.

The schools that we visited are safe, clean and orderly. The students take great pride in their education achievement, as well their discipline and civility. The entire institution is focused on starting college courses early, working hard, graduating from college and completing students’ transitions from poverty to productive middle-class citizens.

The current costs of Dr. King’s successful programs are actually less than the district was spending on the failed system that was in place before he arrived on the scene. The long-term dollar savings from the acceleration of the education progress will be substantial, from elementary schools through university and post graduate studies. The future benefits to students and their families are virtually incalculable.

I cannot identify a single area in Oregon where the social, economic and cultural problems even start to approach the magnitude of the difficulties found in the Rio Grande Valley. Because of that, Dr. King’s programs would work just as well in Klamath County or anywhere in Oregon. We should follow his example and leadership with some of the same fortitude he has displayed in achieving his mission, and never lose sight of the fact that when it comes to education, every kid counts.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls