Bekah S. McNeel

Where are the gaps in college and career readiness in San Antonio’s education system? What are your recommendations to close them?

These were the questions posed at UTSA’s P-20 summit. While panelists were asked to give a formal reply, showcasing the most innovative and collaborative minds in education and business, the questions are really posed to the entire community to stir conversations and ultimately to spur action.

“P-20” stands for pre-K through PhD-level education. The one-day summit took place at the UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures, with the stated purpose to “promote and empower stakeholders to support P-20 students within the Bexar County community, ultimately supporting the vision of a college-and-career-ready culture.”

P-20 Assistant Vice President Rachel Ruiz. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
P-20 Assistant Vice President Rachel Ruiz. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Dr. Rachel Ruiz, assistant vice president of UTSA’s Office of P-20 Initiatives chaired the planning of the summit. She and her team placed stakeholders at each table to engage parents, students and community members. Between panel discussions, participants were encouraged to give feedback and pose questions.

“We really did want to hear the (community) voices,” Ruiz said.

Christopher Sierra, a teacher at Hawthorne Academy, agreed. Coming from within the education system, he said it was refreshing to hear from business leaders and community members who were not parents or teachers.

His daughter, Maria Sierra, is entering her freshman year at Young Women’s Leadership Academy. “It’s good to talk about what I’m going into,” she said.

Father and daughter agreed that the hard work required at prep schools and other rigorous programs are hurdles for parents and prospective students alike. However, Christopher sees it as giving kids a “long term shot at happiness.”

He also was happy to see the conversation broadened to include career readiness. Four-year universities are not the path for everyone, and many businesses are seeking workers with technical skills that require advanced training. By attending to the actual needs of local businesses and the actual aptitudes of students, more targeted and effective programs can be put in place.

The result can be more skilled workers in higher paying jobs. And in the end, businesses benefit from having the workforce they want right in their backyard – colleges do as well.

Torro Flores, Miguel Garza, and Naftali Medina play during the P-20 Summit at UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Even the music was provided by passionate educators. Torro Flores, a music teacher at Harlandale, played with Miguel Garza, who works in the UTSA writing center and Naftali Medina. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Colleges are usually not tied to local pools of talent, in fact many take pride in their national and international student profiles. But even as it grows, UTSA has stayed true to its original mission to prioritize local community education. University educators see first hand the number of college applicants who read seven and eight years below grade level. They know the demand for remedial classes. These are the symptoms of the overall gaps in college-readiness.

Maria Sierra and District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña
Maria Sierra and District four Councilman Rey Saldaña. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Rather than simply remediating students who come to college unprepared, UTSA’s P-20 program is an effort at getting to the source of the gaps. But it will take more than one school to bridge the gap.

“It would have taken a Herculean effort,” said District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña, “They said, ‘We can’t go it alone.’”

Across all three panels a common thread wove through the comments and feedback: parents.

If parents are not convinced of the value of their child’s education, there is little that a school or program can do to help. The cultural shift that would result in a majority of graduates being college-and-career-ready hinges in large part on parental participation. Which will take, according to Saldaña, creative communication.

The challenge will be first to persuade parents of the importance of their children’s education, and then to facilitate their involvement.

Right now, many resources remain untapped because of gaps in stakeholder communication. Alamo Academies, charter schools, and Café College are all valuable assets, however Saldaña and others have found that often those who need them have no idea that they exist. Strategic communication would not only coordinate efforts of institutions, but it would maximize exposure to individual families by going where they are.

This is the idea behind P-20’s Mobile Go Center, essentially a computer lab on wheels that allows parents and students to research college admissions, get help filling out the FAFSA, and apply for grants. Rather than staying within the walls of educational institutions, where many parents feel intimidated or disenfranchised, the Mobile Go Center goes to churches, community centers and other places where conversation is more natural. This allows them to win over skeptics as well, by connecting education to issues that are important to them.

But both Ruiz and Saldaña acknowledged that the efforts toward engaging parents are just beginning, and have a long way to go. And more collaborating is in the future.  It is slow, monotonous work to beat the drums of real progress, but that’s the commitment of those participating in conversations like the P-20 summit.

As Saldaña said, “The only way to effect change is persistence.”

Throughout the day community participants heard from leaders in K-12, higher education, and the private sector about the needs they perceive and solutions they propose. Among those leaders were superintendents from Northside Independent School District (ISD), Harlandale ISD, Southwest ISD, and Alamo Academies; administrators from Texas A&M University at San Antonio, Alamo Colleges, UTSA, and Trinity; and business experts from USAA, Toyota, H-E-B and Rackspace Hosting.

Mayor Julián Castro addressed the group during the luncheon as well. P-20 Assistant Vice President Ruiz said that Castro’s leadership style made him ideal for this moment. Indeed, collaborative efforts like SA2020 have proven the vital role that communication and conversation will play in San Antonio’s future.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.