Brief Description of the School

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo High School is a large school in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where some of the poorest counties in the U.S. are located. Low income students make up 80 percent of the student population, 98% of whom are Hispanic (Texas Education Agency, 1993). In the 1991-92 school year, 31 percent of the students passed all tests for the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS).

At the end of the 1991-92 school year, PSJA faced three formidable challenges in the year ahead. First was a transition in grade-level composition. Originally a 9-12 campus for 17 years (1963-1981), the school served only the 10th-12th grades for nine years (1981-1990), and only the 9th and 10th grades during the 1990-91 and 1991-92 school years. In spring 1992, PSJA geared up to become a complete four-year high school again in the 1992-93 year. These transitions in grade-level composition caused significant turnover, which had a destabilizing effect on relationships among staff.

Second, overcrowding was a problem. The school was already crowded when ten of 32 portables were removed from the campus before the start of the 1992-93 year in anticipation of a decline in enrollment that never occurred. The decline was projected because the number of ninth and tenth graders being transferred out was expected to exceed the number of juniors and seniors being transferred in. Although enrollment never actually declined, the ten portables were never replaced.

Third, the sheer size of the school made communication and coordination difficult. Spread out over 40 acres, the school had some 160 professionals, 60 paraprofessionals, and 2500-2800 students. The number of students varied throughout the year, increasing after the start of the school year as migrant students gradually arrived, peaking at the turn of the calendar year, and decreasing thereafter as migrant students gradually departed during the remainder of the school year. Low student attendance and gangs were other problems.

Because of the transitions, overcrowding, and sheer size of the school, many staff did not know each other. Teachers had little input in school decisions and lacked a feeling of ownership. One of the school's strengths, however, was that young staff were willing to learn and implement new teaching strategies.

School Leadership

Because the school was so large, a four-tiered hierarchical structure was in place. Under the principal were seven assistant principals with different areas of responsibility. In addition to managing such areas as security and testing, each assistant principal supervised some of the department heads, who in turn, supervised the teachers. The school was blessed with strong department heads with leadership skills.

The principal had previously held a variety of positions within the district. He taught both first grade and sixth grade before becoming the principal of an elementary school that served grades 3-6. This "intermediate campus," as it was called, was recognized by the State Board of Education in 1988 as an "Academic Recognition Campus." In 1989-90 he became principal of a ninth grade center, and the following year he was asked to take over as principal of PSJA High School. Looking back on it later, he realized how naive he had been about the challenge he accepted. As was typical of high schools, the teachers were focused on their subject areas. At the elementary school, his staff had had a common vision that children could learn and their purpose was to help all students-no exceptions. Students had been their number one priority. They had cared about their students, and they had worked well together. Using his experience at the elementary level to his advantage, he set out to widen the focus at the high school on the whole child and his or her affective development. He sought to heighten teachers' efficacy and sense of responsibility for the success of their students.

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Published in Issues ...about Change Volume 3, Number 2, Changing Mental Frameworks: One High School's Success through a Triad Partnership (1994)