The federal government has opted not to renew a $400,000-a-year grant that has enabled Communities In Schools-San Antonio (CISSA) to prepare South San Antonio High School students for college.

City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), who benefitted from the TRiO Upward Bound college readiness program as a South San High School student, said Monday he is working to encourage businesses and philanthropists to support what he deems “a vital educational program.”

CISSA had been a recipient of the U.S Department of Education program’s funding for more than 20 years. The Upward Bound grant, up for renewal every five years, specifically helps high school students from low-income families and those aspiring to be the first in their family to attend college.

But in the latest application for funding renewal, CISSA’s score of 94 was not within the top tier of scoring. Felisha Sanchez, CISSA marketing director, said this grant process has gotten more competitive.

“[The advisors] are prepping the students to be ready and competitive through their senior year,” CISSA CEO Jessica Weaver said. CISSA’s Upward Bound program has served mainly South San, and some students at Somerset High School.

The program’s goal is to raise the rate at which participants enroll in and graduate from postsecondary educational institutions.

The federal funds have allowed CISSA to dedicate a staff member to working with college advisors who follow participating students as they advance through grades nine through 12.

The program entails university visits, college preparation courses, tutoring, and internships. It also enables participants to spend weeks in the summer on a college campus, giving them an idea of what it’s like to live and study away from home.

For many high school students from low-income families, the mere thought of being a college student living away from home for the first time can be a daunting prospect, made more challenging by lack of support or readiness, Weaver said.

“It’s a big change to leave home,” she added. “This helps to not only get a scholarship and leave, but be prepared.”

Weaver expressed gratitude that Communities In Schools has received Upward Bound money for so many years. But she is concerned that the current and future student participants will not be as well-prepared for the college experience without those funds.

A total of 64 students are part of the current cohort. CISSA staffers informed participating students and their parents about the loss of the grant over the last few days.

“The loss is really big,” Weaver said. “The grant is an opportunity for a first generation of kids in their family to get around obstacles.”

Weaver said many students over the years have been awarded a variety of scholarships, totaling millions of dollars, based largely on their participation in Upward Bound.

“That’s due to support from college advisors who help them [navigate] through the [application] system,” she added.

A handful of CISSA’s Upward Bound participants have received scholarships from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, including Saldaña, a former Upward Bound participant who received a full Gates Millennium scholarship.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Saldaña went on to Stanford University, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in political science and communication. He also earned a fifth-year master’s degree in policy, organization and leadership studies from Stanford’s School of Education.

Saldaña often credits Communities In Schools’ involvement at South San, especially the Upward Bound-funded activities, for his pre-collegiate academic success.

“It’s a big blow not to have that money committed,” Saldaña said. “I wouldn’t have been successful without the Upward Bound program.”

Saldaña said teenagers who want to attend college, but don’t have family members with postsecondary education, must clear an extra hurdle.

“You’re looking around to adults for mentors. When you have Upward Bound at your school, you don’t have to look far,” he added.

When Saldaña was in college, he lived in a dorm. He understands that many parents struggle with the notion of their child moving away for college, but explained that Upward Bound facilitates the entire process.

Brandon Estrada is another Upward Bound alumnus and Gates Foundation scholarship recipient from South San. Now in his fifth year at the University of Texas at Austin, he’s using the scholarship money to advance his studies in aerospace engineering.

Brandon’s brother Blake, who is starting his junior year at South San, has been going through the Upward Bound program as well. He recently gained college campus living experience in New York City.

The brothers’ mother, Yolanda Estrada, said Upward Bound has helped her sons immeasurably.

“I’m not college-educated and neither is my husband. When Brandon said he wanted to go to college, we had no idea how to start an application for college,” she recalled.

Yolanda said Blake and his fellow Upward Bound participants are disappointed by the prospect of losing the program at South San.

“The news was a blow to the students,” she said. “These kids have come so far and sacrificed every summer. They benefit from the program. It’s better to give these kids the tools now. They just need the opportunity.”

David Abundis, director of federal and state programs for the South San Antonio Independent School District (SSAISD), said the district has enjoyed its partnership with CISSA and TRiO Upward Bound.

“SSAISD will continue to seek opportunities and partnerships with outside agencies, along with internal district programs, to provide support for our students to ensure they have the tools and preparation not only to get into college, but also to graduate from a university,” he added.

But supporters of Communities In Schools and Upward Bound are rallying public support to replace some of the lost grant funding. Saldaña said he is contacting area corporations and philanthropists. Whataburger is stepping up to the plate with a $10,000 gift, Weaver said.

“There’s a community of philanthropists who care about education,” the councilman said. “I’ll be calling foundations and foundation leaders and tell[ing] them this program works and that it has a proven track record.”

The loss of the Upward Bound grant is “difficult to replace,” Weaver said. CISSA, however, plans to keep a staff member in place to manage pre-college activities moving forward.

“We’re not going to let that experience go to waste,” she said. “We’ve seen talent result from it.”

Abundis said South San ISD is looking at its 2017-2018 budget to see whether the district or the high school could provide financial support for Upward Bound.

“The district will reach out to community partners and foundations to share the program’s success in South San in hopes of attracting funding for the program,” he added. “We will use South San/Upward Bound alumni, social media, and political affiliations to publicize how valuable the program is for the students of SSAISD.”

Saldaña also hopes that the public recognizes the positive impact programs such as Upward Bound can make in a student’s life, especially in a socioeconomically disadvantaged community.

“This is a great time for [corporations and donors] to come in and save the day for a community that tends to get overlooked,” he added.

Individuals and businesses interested in supporting Communities In Schools and Upward Bound may contact Weaver at JWeaver@CISSA.org.

Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.