Students take the pledge to make it to and through college at College Signing Day in May 2015 at Trinity University. Photo Courtesy of SA2020.

“The data is important. But remember, the data represent people.”

That’s how Lumina Foundation opened a session during the Community Partnerships for Attainment conference. I was in St. Louis with some pals from local organizations, Independent School Districts, and the City.

In 2013, San Antonio was among the first 20 cities in America to partner with Lumina Foundation in a mobilization effort designed to increase the number of local residents with postsecondary credentials. San Antonio was selected to join in this mobilization effort because of the SA2020 community target that 50% of adults hold postsecondary degrees by 2020. The Lumina Foundation is committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates and other credentials to 60% by 2025.

During the three-day conference, about 400 people from 75 communities across the country talked their work, commiserated over challenges, and re-inspired each other to double down.

SA2020 has made some very strategic moves with our Lumina funding. In 2014, we launched the Talent Pipeline Task Force. In 2015, released the task force report, outlining strategies and recommendations for connecting education and workforce. Nearly 60% of those recommendations are currently in some level of implementation, owned by community partners who knew that the work was going to be important to moving our community forward. In fact, we were asked to co-present with the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) on some of our work at this conference.

I also had the pleasure of joining a panel discussion with Jamie Merisotis, President & CEO of Lumina Foundation and author of “America Needs Talent,” to discuss themes in his book.

Molly joins Jamie Merisotis, President & CEO of Lumina Foundation, Nelson Araujo, Senior Director of Collective Impact and Diversity, United Way of Southern Nevada, and Mary Gwen Wheeler, Executive Director of 55,000 Degrees for a discussion on Jamie’s book, “America Needs Talent” Photo Courtesy of SA2020.
Molly Cox (second from right) joins (from left) Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation; Nelson Araujo, senior director of Collective Impact and Diversity at United Way of Southern Nevada; and Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees for a discussion on Jamie’s book, “America Needs Talent.” Photo Courtesy of SA2020.

I had imposter syndrome, for sure. What could a woman, who does not provide direct service programs in education, or work in a school district, or run a chamber have to share with this group of super smart, dedicated education and workforce professionals?

So…a story…

In January, SA2020 joined local partners from Girls, Inc., City Year, Trinity University’s College Advising Corps, Excel Beyond the Bell, SAISD, and Project Worth to produce the MLK Commission’s “My City, Our Community Youth Summit” at St. Philip’s College.

During this summit, we avoided workshops that talked at the students and looked to start conversation with students about their dreams and their perceived barriers to those dreams. We talked about creativity, health, education, and leadership. Nearly 100 students, between grades seven through 12, were broken into small conversation groups. Adult facilitators from the above partner groups, as well as individuals from Emerging Leaders Council, Univision, and the community helped moderate the discussions. We then asked the small groups to share one thing they believed the other groups should hear.

Mark Vargas, now a student at St. Mary’s University, lends his voice at SA2020 Visioning Process in December 2010 at St. Mary’s University. Photo Courtesy of SA2020.
Mark Vargas, now a student at St. Mary’s University, lends his voice at SA2020 Visioning Process in December 2010 at St. Mary’s University. Photo Courtesy of SA2020.

Student after student stood up and hit us with truth about school and life from their perspectives.

Eddie, a wiry and quiet eighth grader from Eastside San Antonio, was the spokesperson for his group. He spoke very directly into the microphone. “I need two people from each group to stand up.”

No movement from any of the kids in the room. Then, slowly and apprehensively, two kids from each group – about 25 total – stood up.

“According to statistics, y’all are the only ones from your whole group going to college.”

There was silence. HOLY WHAT??! This was supposed to be inspirational and “Eighth-Grader Eddie” was dropping some realness. He wasn’t done.

“Now, if you wanna go to college, stand up.”

The entire room, all 100 students, stood up. One hundred students knew that college was their next step.

“So…don’t be a statistic,” he concluded.

Then he simply sat down, as though he hadn’t just shaken the room with all his truth. I made eye contact with other adults in the room and muttered the only thing that seemed appropriate, “Drop the mic, Eddie.”

“The data is important. But remember, the data represent people.”

Eddie is San Antonio’s data. And currently, the data show that we aren’t doing so well by Eddie.

While our high school graduation rates are up, college enrollment, college attainment, and certificate credentialing are remaining relatively flat.

I don’t share this to point fingers. That would be shortsighted. I share this because we are collectively failing Eddie.

An estimated 65% of all jobs will need some type of postsecondary education by the year 2020. You read that right. More than half of our jobs will require something beyond high school. So, it’s no longer okay to say, “College isn’t for everyone” – as though it was ever okay to say that. College is needed for everyone – our kids and our community.

According to the #SA2020 Talent Dividend, created by CEOs for Cities, a 1% increase in college attainment rate of the San Antonio region could yield $1.4 billion in total income in the San Antonio metro area.

As the organization charged with creating positive community change as it relates to our collective vision, we know that unless you start with the end in mind, you sometimes get lost. We get lost in education policy and scarce resources. We get lost in the need for talent recruitment and for building our homegrown workforce. We get lost in the need for remedial math classes. We get lost in the cost of a degree.

That’s the complexity of the work in which our community is engaged. It’s similar to peeling back the layers of an onion. You peel…only to find more layers…and sometimes, you just end up crying and stuck with a bunch of peeled layers.

The complexities sometimes stop us from remembering the ultimate outcome.

Together, we agreed that by 2020, San Antonio will have orchestrated one of the greatest turnarounds in education in the United States. San Antonio will provide access to quality education for all students no matter where they live in our city. The city is propelled forward by an approach where students learn, teachers thrive, parents engage, and citizens contribute to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century in a way that rivals any city in America. This San Antonio approach to education develops citizens who are thinkers, problem-solvers, and lifelong learners, prepared to tackle our society’s greatest challenges and proud to call San Antonio their home.

From its inception, SA2020’s source of strength — its foundation — came from the thousands of people who stepped forward to envision, and then create, the city we want. The exceptional city that we want lies within our reach because it lies within us. This is possible when more people in our community have the opportunity to earn a two or four-year degree. This is possible when we connect our community to good-paying jobs, so that more people are given the opportunity to reach their full potential.

SA2020 is about achievement and major progress through people. And not just any people — San Antonians. We are a city on the rise because we are a people on the rise.

We have work to do: you, me, our families, our friends, our neighbors. But this conference has further energized me. This proves that we live in a nation of people who are doing incredible things for students, creating access and opportunity and desperately trying to level the playing field. I learn so much from these communities. This has further shown me that San Antonio is setting a standard. Cities across the nation are looking to us, watching our next move and learning from us. That’s a fact.

This is why I’m asking you to join me in making this city even better for you and me, and perhaps most importantly, for Eddie. If you think you’re doing all you can, then share it. Tell people how you’re contributing and get them in on it, too. Fire people up. But, if you’re stuck and unsure how to jump in, here are just a few ideas to plug in:

  1. Find an organization that is working in education and volunteer with or make a donation to them. We have a handy-dandy list of partner organizations to start with right here.
  2. Own a business? Connect with SAWorks and give students an opportunity to experience working with you.
  3. Read to, or with, your kids. Every day. Don’t know where to start? The San Antonio Book Festival will be here before you know it – let an author read to your kids, then find that author’s book at your public library.
  4. Don’t have a kid to read to? San Antonio Youth Literacy can solve that problem for you. They’ll make you a reading buddy to a couple of second graders. SAReads also has a ways for you to plug in. They both happen to be SA2020 partners.
  5. Are your kids super young? Like eight or younger? Check out ReadyKidsSA for resources so you get them started on the right foot.
  6. Drive your kids over to Café College. Ask one of the fine folks there what you need to do to get your kids started on the pathway to college.
  7. Don’t have kids? Mentor. Start with Communities in Schools or Big Brother Big Sisters.
  8. Volunteer as a family. Volunteerism is positively correlated to more successful academics. Start with these SA2020 partners who offer family-friendly opportunities.
  9. Take your family to an arts or cultural activity: go to a show, see an exhibit, check out Luminaria. Research shows that students who have access to arts– in or out of school– have higher rates of college enrollment and attainment. Start with these SA2020 partners who impact the arts.
  10. Advocate for holistic policies– transportation, education, economic competitiveness, infrastructure, parks, health, arts, culture, sustainability, community safety, family well-being– all of these are interconnected. Ask your district council member to consider all implications of policies and budgets and help them see if they ultimately help us get to an equitable community that provides opportunity for all.

This is hard work. It’s going to take time, and we’re not always going to see immediate results. But in a community that can envision such a bold future for itself, I know we’re willing to put in the effort.

Remember, Eddie needs you.

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*Top Image: Students take the pledge to make it to and through college at College Signing Day in May 2015 at Trinity University. Photo Courtesy of SA2020. 

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Molly Cox

After a decade with SA2020, Molly Cox founded Molly Cox Consulting in March 2021. She is in the current cohort of The University of Texas at Austin LBJ Women’s Campaign School.