He has been called a "Valley treasure" and has twice been named the most outstanding school superintendent in Texas. He is known nationwide as a visionary and an innovator in college readiness and dual-language education, and he has been singled out by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for his exemplary work.
But at the heart of it all, Dr. Daniel P. King is still the boy who learned life's earliest lessons at the feet of his Baptist missionary parents and who early on developed a commitment to service and a love for learning so great that he had a difficult time even deciding on a major when he first enrolled at Pan American University in 1972.
Today, King channels his curiosity and call to serve into his role as superintendent of the 32,000-student Pharr-San Juan-Alamo (PSJA) Independent School District that he is transforming from a troubled district with low graduation rates, high dropout rates and low college-going rates into one that is hailed as a model for dropout prevention and college readiness. In recognition of his many achievements and his contributions to society, King has been selected as one of five alumni from The University of Texas-Pan American as a 2014 Pillar of Success to be recognized on March 29 at the sold-out Alumni Ball.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, the fifth of 10 children, Daniel King arrived with his parents in the Rio Grande Valley at age 3.
"My father had decided to enter the ministry, and he was headed to Mexico when he ran short of resources. Somebody directed him to Mr. Howard Butt - the H-E-B headquarters were in Corpus Christi at the time - and Mr. Butt recommended to my dad that, instead of going into Mexico, he establish himself in the Valley and work on both sides of the river," recalled King. "He told my dad that he didn't need to go to Mexico, that Mexico would come to him. That was very foresightful of Mr. Butt because that's actually what you see if you look at the demographics of the Valley from the 1950s to today."
Recalling his early years in Rio Hondo, King said that his family's missionary work focused mainly on the underprivileged. "My dad did a lot of work with the braceros (temporary farmworkers), so I spent a lot of time in the fields - both with his ministry and picking cotton."
After graduating from Rio Hondo High School in 1972, King headed to Pan American University with the encouragement of his parents, two small scholarships and little else. Through an older brother, however, he had learned of a program where students were allowed to live at the Edinburg fire station for free in exchange for helping the all-volunteer fire department fight fires. "I moved into the fire station right off the bat and basically made it on crackers, bologna and stuff like that," he said.
In all, King would spend six years at the fire station, earning his bachelor's degree in physical education in 1976 and a master's in education in 1977.
"Initially, I was probably not as focused and diligent as I should have been. I didn't know what I wanted to do or what I wanted to be. A lot of different majors interested me, and I had trouble choosing what to study," he said. "I guess, growing up with my parents helping people, I wanted to help other kids kind of how I had been given help. I decided that teaching and coaching were how I could have an impact."
As he was nearing graduation with his master's degree, he bought a 10-year-old car and began driving up and down the Valley looking for a job. Finally, a friend told him about "this little town that was opening up a brand new high school, so I headed to Hidalgo where I was hired as a teacher and coach."
That was the beginning of a 37-year career in public education for King that, along the way, has included a variety of teaching, coaching and administrative assignments in Hidalgo, Mission and PSJA, the earning of a Ph.D. in educational administration from The University of Texas at Austin and the transforming of two troubled school districts - Hidalgo ISD with only 3,600 students and PSJA with an enrollment of some 32,000 - into highly successful models that continue to be replicated across the country.
Guided by the challenges and opportunities that have been put in his path, King admits that he has never had a career road map laid out. "I have a passion and a commitment to really impact the kids," he said. "That's what got me to choose my major in college, that's what got me to say when I left Hidalgo after two years that I'm going to come back some day."
After several years honing his skills in Mission as a high school teacher and coach, middle school assistant principal and elementary school principal, he saw an ad in the newspaper for a high school principal position in his old district.
"Since leaving Hidalgo, the lack of college readiness and all the other problems there had weighed on my mind, and I always thought of going back. That ad just stirred up all of those feelings, so I applied and was selected," he said.
"I was hired the second week of July, a few weeks before school was to start. The principal, assistant principal and the counselors had all left, and I found that there was no master schedule. No one could find the students' course selections so we didn't even know what the students were supposed to take, and there was no one who even knew how to do a schedule, including myself."
He went to the principal at Mission High School and to Region 1 to get some help in understanding the scheduling process, and then he locked himself up in the office and spent 12 to 14 hours a day going through every single student transcript, he said.
"I selected all of their courses for them, looking at what they had taken and what they needed to graduate," he said.
The new principal also bumped up the rigor, giving students tougher schedules than they had the year before. "When school started, I had a line that wrapped around the building of upset students and parents," said King, recalling how he spent two weeks meeting with the students one-on-one and selling them on the vision of college.
All of his efforts paid off when, two years later, Hidalgo High School received an award from the governor for being one of the most improved schools in the state and was later recognized as the best open enrollment high school in Texas by Standard and Poor's and U.S. News and World Report.
"When I went to Hidalgo, my message was that there is nothing in the water here that makes our kids less than anybody else," King said. "These kids have the same potential as any others, and our job is to open the doors of opportunity, first of all to let the kids see the possibilities."
After being promoted to assistant superintendent in 1995 and then associate superintendent in 1998, King became superintendent of Hidalgo ISD in 1999, implementing such innovations as an Early College High School that expanded the original and selective Gates Foundation small school model into one that included every student at Hidalgo High School.
Always asking "why not," King began wondering if some of the ideas he had implemented in Hidalgo would translate to a larger school district, so when the superintendent position came open in 2007 at PSJA, a district 10 times larger than Hidalgo, he applied.
Though the problems at PSJA ISD were many at that time, the new superintendent decided his priority would be to address the high dropout rate, which was twice the state average. He implemented a program called Countdown to Zero, which included a visit to the home of all the dropouts who could be found to try to convince them to return to school. Then, in cooperation with South Texas College, he added a new College, Career, and Technical Academy, with the curriculum tailored to help dropouts finish high school while also earning college credit. The appealing message was: "You didn't finish high school. Start college today."
Expanding the "College for All" idea, soon six high schools in the PSJA district, including one that caters to teenage mothers, will have some version of an Early College High School.
King says that what he brings to the table is that he takes concepts that others are using successfully and tweaks or scales them to fit his district. "I tell my team, if there's a wall there, we don't stop at the wall. Can we tunnel under it? Can we get some tools and cut a door through it? Can we get a ladder? Can we go around it? Can we blow the darn thing up? We've done all those things," he said with a smile.
"I've been saying for about 15 years at least that the future of Texas, certainly the future of public education in Texas, is based on how well the border districts and the inner city districts do," King said. "With leaders like Dr. Robert Nelsen (president of UTPA), Dr. Shirley Reed (president of STC) and others in the community, I'm really confident that the Valley is ready to make a breakthrough. We're seeing an acceleration, the stars are aligning. As I've said many times, here in the Valley is where the solutions have to be found."
Special Note: Dr. Daniel King isn't the only UTPA alumnus in his family. His wife, Sara, a biology teacher at PSJA's STEM Early College High School, earned a BS in biology in 2004, and his three oldest daughters are all alumni. Elizabeth King Ruiz and Melissa King Nuñez, teachers who are currently stay at home moms, both hold BA degrees in English, and Stephanie King, the girls power lifting coach at PSJA High School, earned a BS in Criminal Justice. Son, Eduardo Mancha, graduated from PSJA last year with an associate's degree and is now enrolled at UTPA. His two children, who are still in high school at PSJA, junior Valerie Mancha and sophomore Alejandro Mancha, are already earning college credit at STC through dual enrollment.