Superintendent McEntire harnesses technology in Presidio ISD

STEM initiative and early college high school program have contributed to a 97 percent graduation rate
By: | Issue: April, 2015
March 20, 2015

Presidio ISD, a remote, Title I, poverty-stricken Texas border district with a 98 percent Hispanic population, didn’t let limited financial resources block its goal of cultivating college-going ambitions among its nearly 1,400 students.

By leveraging a University of Texas partnership and creating a technology-infused community initiative, Superintendent Dennis McEntire and the district offered students remote access to learning opportunities over 200 miles away.

Presidio ISD’s STEM initiative and early college high school program have contributed to a 97 percent graduation rate with 14 percent of the district’s students entering college as juniors and 24 percent as sophomores.

What challenges did you face in creating your STEM academy?

We are a really isolated, poor border district with 6,000 residents and 1,400 students and the fourth lowest property value in Texas.

With 100 percent receiving free and reduced lunch, 75 percent of our students living in poverty, and 75 percent of our kindergartners being English-language learners, we had to get creative with minimal financial resources. In building a college-going expectation for these first-generation college-goers, we needed to get their skills to the level that they would pass college entrance exams and AP exams.

We realized that we needed to increase our rigor in the classroom, improve the standards and increase expectations by engaging in STEM and technology. Our board and community wanted to build a system of expectations that the kids can buy into easily and which set solid professional development goals for the teachers.

So we decided to create a different model. By creating a virtual space with our tech staffÑlocal kids who have received training and are now the tech departmentÑwe went completely wireless. Our district is a school system with 1,400 kids and 1,500 computers where no one’s connection is ever slow. Our kids receive devices through high school. When they graduate, they can take the computer with them.

Presidio ISD

Superintendent Dennis McEntire
Schools: 3
Students: 1,389
Staff and faculty: 262
Per child expenditure: $6,311
Students on free or reduced-price lunch: 100%
Graduation rate: 97%

We offer a free Wi-Fi network in the community through a filtered, protected system so our students and community can work anytime, anywhere. We brought in high-tech calculators and digital and document cameras, and are completely on laptops for better mobility. We did decide not to go with whiteboards since they were just too high-maintenance for us.

We became designated as a STEM academy in our high school. Next year, we will be a STEM district across all of our schools.

How did Presidio ISD create its early college high school program?

We are 300 miles away from the nearest metropolitan area and far away from the nearest college or university. So we started marketing to and convincing the closest universities’ representatives that they need a dual, online credit system. University of Texas of the Permian BasinÑover 200 miles away from the districtÑwas very interested.

We negotiated a low rate with the university so the courses and books are offered for free for Presidio’s high school students. The district pays $150 to $200 per student for a three-hour course.

With the university professor becoming the teacher of record for that course, the school district realizes savings by not having to hire new teachers for the subjects that are offered online. At the beginning of the semester, our students travel to the college, meet the professors, get books and register.

We offer two classes or six credits for our freshmen to learn how to write a college paper and to be indoctrinated into the college culture. To take courses in the fine arts, such as music appreciation, and English, such as communications, students have to pass the Texas State Initiative exam in that subject before they can enroll.

The college courses are offered as part of instructional classroom time during one facilitated period a day. Two facilitators in the rooms offer support to help students navigate through the virtual system. And by the time the students become juniors, a facilitator is not needed.

We have 250 of 300 high school students taking dual-credit courses. Of those students, 180 are considered early-college high school kids. And two-thirds are considered college students in high school in our very poor, very rural, 98 percent Hispanic community.

Seventy-four percent will go to college and we expect that number to increase to 90 percent when we reach four years into the initiative. A real, feel-good success is that one kid who took one course when they didn’t think they could do it. It opens the door of opportunity for them and their whole world changes.

How do the students’ family members participate in the early college program? How does it work?

For a student to be in early-college high school, the parent must agree to be actively involved. The student needs to create a four-year planÑwhich includes behavioral tenets, courses, the number of meetings, goals and moreÑthat the parent, counselor, student and principal sign.

The plan is prescriptive, detailing which course is being taken, why it is being taken and what the focus will be. If one party wants to change the plan, everyone needs to sign off on the changes. It creates an automatic engagement model. Getting free college to a certain point sure does encourage parents to come to the meetings.

How has the early college program inspired your students?

When kids have success with the program, they feel like they can do anything. Our high school has become quite good at rocketry. And we have a tradition of having students who place within the top 10 slots when competing in various national competitions.

Our “young scientists” have developed experiments that have been selected by NASA and flown into space.

Some of our students are part of a solar-competition group building a solar car for a national Formula One competition in Detroit. They have so much knowledge about what it takes to be an entrepreneur by the time they have raised and managed a $30,000 account to compete.

These students are not going to settle. The old way of teaching is going away. They don’t need knowledge; they have it at their fingertips. Our job is to help them filter and apply the knowledge, set a goal and find the information to support it.