Three Memorial High School seniors who designed an award-winning app to help middle-schoolers select the most appropriate high school for their future careers are now planning their own next academic and career steps.

For at least two of the three students at the Edgewood Independent School District campus, that means continuing their studies in college – and possibly pursuing jobs – in the science, technology, engineering and math field. The third student, who has found a passion in coding through his STEM courses, doesn’t necessarily see college as his next step.

The local champions of the national Congressional App Challenge competition — Alejandra Duran, Jennifer Salazar, and Luis Martinez — created “Choose Your School,” an app that helps area middle schoolers choose a high school based on academic preferences, such as fine arts, STEM and business and industry. Those general preferences are similar to academic majors in college, identified so high schoolers can then select courses that align with future career opportunities.

All three are students in the STEM curriculum track at Memorial High School. Although they approached the curriculum track in different ways, they were uniquely shaped by their studies.

Duran said she didn’t necessarily have a choice in the matter, having been placed in the STEM path by the district. After almost four years taking classes in this field, though, she has developed an interest in becoming a computer scientist or mechanical engineer.

She has applied to a number of Texas schools, including the University of Texas San Antonio, Texas Tech University, and Texas A&M San Antonio.

“If I have the chance to go somewhere outside of San Antonio, I would,” Duran said.

Salazar, who chose the STEM track to go to a different high school than Kennedy, where she was zoned, feels similarly about her future. She wants to attend Texas A&M University to pursue a bachelor’s degree in accounting. She said she might like to return to San Antonio to help local businesses get a start.

“I just realized I would want to go into this degree,” Salazar said, although she remains unsure about her plans beyond college graduation.

Martinez said he initially chose the STEM track because of a cousin who works with computers. He became interested in coding through his engineering math class with teacher Javier Uribe. There, he learned to code, and helped create the winning app.

He also works as the programmer for the district’s robotics team of which Duran and Salazar are also members. This year, they are working to create a robot that picks up foam blocks, deposits them in a container and balances on a narrow beam, a challenge made up for a regional robotics competition.

In terms of plans post-high school graduation, Martinez isn’t set on college. He thinks about working in construction, where he said his dad, who works in construction, can help establish him.

In five years, Martinez wants to have sold, one, or hopefully two starter homes, because it allows you to launch a career on a smaller scale.

“If that falls through, I’ll be in college,” he said. “Probably.”

Engineering projects adorn the walls of a Memorial High School classroom including one project titled 'The Martyr' by Jennifer Salazar and Luis Martinez.
Engineering projects adorn the walls of a Memorial High School classroom including one project titled “The Martyr” by Jennifer Salazar and Luis Martinez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Only slightly more than 40 percent of Edgewood ISD graduates end up enrolled at a Texas institutions of higher education. Of those, only 30.3 percent complete one year without remediation, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Edgewood ISD serves a high-poverty student population that face a number of challenges. Nine of 10 students are economically disadvantaged; nearly a fifth are English Language Learners.

Only 52 percent of the class of 2015 was tested for the SAT or ACT, with barely anyone – only 2.4 percent – scoring at or above criterion.

Director of Edgewood Fine Arts Academy Michaela Steele said students from Edgewood do face obstacles when it comes to college, but the district works to ease the transition from high school to higher education. Much of this effort centers around strengthening curriculum and connections with alumni.

The district has started creating cohorts at Texas universities so students who are uneasy about leaving home for college will have a built-in support system once they arrive. Last year, Edgewood ISD alumni even returned to speak with eighth graders about their own pathways in STEM post-graduation.

Edgewood ISD is also trying to support students facing challenges outside of the school’s control. Financially, the most pressing problems arise when students can’t afford to attend college without aid.

“Our primary focus is to provide enough financial aid so that the student going to college is not a drain on the family,” Steele said. The district does this by meeting with students and parents to give them tips on applying for scholarships, and sometimes even completing the applications with them.

A secondary problem comes when a student may be playing a key role in supporting the family through his or her own job. Without that student, the family might not be able to support itself.

“It is sort of outside the scope of education, but it is not outside the scope of our community,” Steele said. She described a former student who had plans to attend college outside of San Antonio, but ended up enrolling at University of Texas at San Antonio after his father was injured in a workplace accident and couldn’t earn an income for seven months.

No stranger to these challenges, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) presents a success story for many on the Westside. Born within the confines of Edgewood ISD, on Plainview Drive, Castro graduated from Jefferson High School before going on to matriculate from Stanford University and Harvard Law School.

He returned to Edgewood ISD, where his father taught for more than two decades, to congratulate Duran, Salazar, and Martinez and deliver encouragement to current students earlier this month.

“I hope that you will always try your best to believe in yourself that when you say you want to be a doctor or engineer or computer scientist, or design games for Microsoft or EA Sports or whatever, that you can do that,” Castro said. “If you say you want to get into Harvard, you can get into Harvard.”

Congressman Joaquin Castro (TX-20) recognizes winners of the Congressional App Challenge.
U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-San Antonio) recognizes winners of the Congressional App Challenge. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

At a time when district students have more opportunities to attend college and travel outside San Antonio, through challenges like the one Castro came to the district to celebrate, basic support is often what is most needed to bolster student achievement.

When the congressman visited the district, he announced the competition could lead to winning teams visiting Washington, D.C. to meet with other champion app creators from around the country.

While Castro is San Antonio and the Westside’s poster child, the opportunities he touted won’t necessarily make a huge impact on the Edgewood students, who aren’t sure they could take advantage of it.

The students and Edgewood officials have not heard further details about the travel opportunity. Following the ceremony, Martinez said he likely couldn’t even take off enough time from his part-time job to make the trip.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.