PSJA ISD’s latest $26M renovation mimics college, industry setting

Daniel King, superintendent of PSJA ISD, talks about the new PSJA College and University Center on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, in San Juan. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

SAN JUAN — Some buildings still have the original, yet long-forgotten lockers that served high school students back in the 1960s. But they will soon be gone as the first high school of the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district is undergoing a $26 million renovation to accommodate a new era of learning.

The campus, located right across PSJA High School, will soon be the PSJA College and University Center. The center will house the Collegiate Academies, which consist of the School of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or STEM; the School of Business and Industry; School of Public Service and Health Service; and the School of Arts and Humanities.

The PSJA Collegiate High School program, which accommodates to students who prefer a smaller setting, will also be housed in the campus. It will be the first to be inaugurated in January with a cohort of 100 students.

“This is part of the early college initiative,” said PSJA school district Superintendent Daniel King. “A lot of what this is about is that most of the specialized programs, college programs, we can’t replicate them at every site, so we created a central location where a lot of these programs can be placed and students can be bused in.”

Duplicating equipment and staff for each of the four main fields of study at each and every high school would have been too costly, he said. But by having it all at one location, the district can now offer every student the opportunity to choose a pathway and get college credits and certificates in that area.

Each field is intended to offer students specialties such as Collegiate Academies of Biology, Mathematics or Computer Science, in the STEM program. And each wing will be designed around those fields for complete exposure.

Exposed wiring throughout the entire ceilings and computer servers enclosed by glass walls, can be found in one of the STEM wings where students interested in programming or software design will soon attend.

Those going into health sciences, will be housed in wings that mimic a small hospital setting with patient rooms, surgery rooms and even a pharmacy. These will also have mannequins wired to act as patients and help students and teachers practice protocols.

The manufacturing hopefuls will also enjoy a building full of equipment that mimics what they will find in the field as well as a complete manufacturing line. The same goes for those going into auto technology.

The campus cafeteria is equipped to serve about 1,000 students and will also house a culinary program.

District officials consulted with both higher education and industry partners to assess the needs of each specialty, as far as space, equipment and layout.

“All the programs here are in partnership with (South Texas College) or (the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley),” King said. “So the design of each of the areas we brought our team, faculty and so forth, faculty from STC, UTRGV, (Texas State Technical College) in Harlingen and private industry… to make sure that whatever we design and layout meets the current industry.”

Consideration for a building of this kind started more than five years ago, King said. About three years ago the planning to turn this campus into the new center began and construction started about a year and a half later.

While most of the campus will be functional in January, and some students will be able to start attending classes there, the bulk of some of the more equipment-heavy programs will not be completely ready until August 2019.

In the meantime, King said they are working with high school officials to assess the demand of each program and develop schedules in which their students can begin attending.

The hope is to continue growing the campus once they have a better idea of what fields might need to grow faster depending on demand.

Right now the district has about 9,000 high school students, with graduating cohorts of about 2,000 per year. And while some of the campuses will continue to offer their established college and career programs, King said this campus will allow them to offer more equity as far as opportunities.

“Our goal is to really be pushing the envelope in terms of really trying the best we can to connect every student to a program that leads them to and through a post-secondary credential certificate, associate degree, or whatever,” King said. “We are going to meet the needs of all of them to the best we can in terms of what’s out there in the economy, in higher education … we are trying to be a connector to that.