If she had a magic wand and could change anything about school, Gus Garcia University School seventh-grader Briana Castellanos said she would have more teachers available after school to help with homework.

Eighth-grader Christopher Membreno said he wanted more individualized student support and challenging coursework.

As the students talked, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona jotted down notes, planning to take the suggestions back to Washington with him. U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) and state Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) sat beside him in the Gus Garcia cafeteria, listening to the half dozen middle school students talk about being back in the classroom after months learning remotely.

Cardona and Castro visited the Edgewood Independent School District campus Thursday morning to meet with students and staff and to bolster support for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Agenda, a $3.5 trillion bill that is stalled as moderate Senate Democrats object to its price tag. Broadly, it aims to expand the country’s social safety net and fight climate change. Under its education provisions, the legislation would fund two years of free community college, expand funding for Pell Grants, and provide universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds.

Cardona walked the halls with Castro and Menéndez, stopping in several classrooms to speak with students. Cardona switched to Spanish when talking with some bilingual students and told them that it is important to learn English but not to forget Spanish. Gus Garcia Principal Christopher Bland said those interactions meant a lot to students, 96% of whom are Latino.

After hearing from the students, Cardona said their remarks reinforced what he already knows about what the federal government and schools need to do to help students recover emotionally and academically from the pandemic. That means meeting students’ “holistic needs” by addressing hunger, inadequate housing, and mental health, in addition to academic support.

“They need time to heal together. They need time to build,” he said. “There’s a relational divide that our students are keen on closing, and we sometimes just need to take their lead and make sure we’re engaging them in ways that they want to be there. They’ve gone through a lot.”

U.S. Secretery of Education Miguel Cardona takes a look at school work from a student at Gus Garcia University School.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona takes a look at a student’s work at Gus Garcia University School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Cardona pointed to Gus Garcia as a model that should be replicated across the country. The middle school partnered with Texas A&M University-San Antonio in 2019 to enhance college readiness among students, provide a pathway for aspiring teachers to gain experience, and prepare educators to better serve students. Cardona said he felt the college-ready mindset when he walked into the middle school.

“This Build Back Better Agenda provides resources to expand some of the great things that they’re already doing. That partnership with the college is a pipeline for teachers, giving students an opportunity to have a voice in the development of what they’re learning,” he said. “I’m going to leave the school enthusiastic about the potential of our country and what is possible when you have a president that understands the importance of education and is fighting to make community college accessible to all students.”

The Build Back Better Act would provide two years of free community college for all students, regardless of their family income, at an estimated cost of $108 billion. It also would add $180 billion in Pell Grant funding. Cardona said these provisions would eliminate the “mental barrier” many young students have because they cannot afford college.

“Community college access for all means that children in this school don’t have to worry about putting more debt on their parents when they go to college, and we know community college graduates have on average 21% more income than high school graduates,” he said.

Castro added that free community college is particularly important to San Antonio students, many of whom can’t afford to go to college and must balance work and school when they enroll in higher education.

“Providing free community college means that students will no longer be in that work-school tug-of-war,” he said. “So many thousands and thousands of San Antonio students are in this work-school tug-of-war right now, and a lot of people end up dropping out because work takes up a bigger and bigger chunk of their time.”

Alamo Colleges already offers a tuition-free program for San Antonio students, called Alamo Promise. The program pays any tuition and fees not covered by students’ financial aid for up to three years or until they complete an associate degree.

Additionally, Cardona said, research shows that the proposed free, universal pre-K program “pays for itself more than seven times” over. The White House projects the program would benefit 5 million families and save the average family $13,000 a year in childcare costs.

The legislation also would provide billions of dollars in tuition for low- and middle-income students at historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions. Cardona said this investment would benefit many students who “need to go to places where they see themselves and they feel seen.”

“An investment in education is an investment in our children, and that’s how our country grows,” he said.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.