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
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
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
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
His three-phase solution was both simple
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Please remember--If we do not stand up
for rural Oregon, no one will.
Senate District 28
Address: 900 Court St NE, S-311, Salem,