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Closer to zero: PSJA community on 10th year of counter-dropout initiative

September 18, 2016 GMT

PHARR — A decade ago, the high school dropout rate for the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District was more than double that of the state of Texas as well as that of other Rio Grande Valley districts. That is no longer the case.

PSJA ISD began its transformation in 2006, at a time when its dropout rate was a dismal 18.7 percent — twice the state average and six points more than the regional average back then. The following year, the district welcomed Superintendent Daniel P. King, who worked with other district employees to develop the Countdown to Zero Dropout Recovery Walk.

In 2014, the most recent data available, PSJA ISD’s dropout rate stood at 3.0 percent — less than half of the state and local averages at the time.

For four Saturdays every September, several volunteers for the dropout walk head to the homes of high school students who are at risk of leaving school. Saturday saw about 180 teachers and other community members gather at the PSJA Southwest Early College High School Cafeteria.

The tall, broad room was abuzz early with people rearing to go. Among them was Criola Elizondo, a music teacher at John McKeever Elementary in Alamo. Her eyes filled with tears as she explained why the dropout walk is significant for the community.

“No matter what (the student’s) situation is, PSJA will cover them. It just depends on what their situation is,” the third-year volunteer said. “(PSJA) is sincere about helping them. They want the children to be the very best that they can be.”

One such predicament the ISD prepares for is early parenthood. The Sonya M. Sotomayor Early College High School in San Juan was created for students who have to balance education and family. Another special institution offered by the district is its College, Career and Technology Academy.

“Students would come in and complete their requirements for high school graduation and at the same time they are taking college courses through STC,” said Arianna Hernandez, spokeswoman for the school district.

Those schools, other programs and the walk itself — drawing more than 100 volunteers every week this month — have changed the area for the better, according to King. The walk in particular, he said, is one of the most important actions the district can take to help locally.

“The message we’re trying to send is that everyone matters. No matter what problems, no matter what challenges (students) are facing in life, every one of them matters,” he said. “It makes a difference to that young person, to their family and to their community as a whole.”

This school year’s last Countdown to Zero Dropout Recovery Walk, bringing the 10th anniversary to a close, will take place Saturday, Sept. 24.

mortega@themonitor.com