Bekah S. McNeel

Last night at the Witte Museum, heroes of education in San Antonio gathered together to celebrate inspiring success stories in the San Antonio Independent School under the leadership of Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez.

Those in attendance at the SAISD Foundation Inspire Awards were ushered onto the grounds by students from some of the district’s top magnet programs: the International Baccalaureate at Burbank High School, Law and Health Professions at Fox Tech High School, and the Business and Finance Program at Lanier High School. Event chairwoman Suzanne Peterson looked over the capacity crowd in the museum’s event center and talked about the community’s shared responsibility of educating students in a large, urban school district.

“The needs are high. Thankfully the energy of our teachers is higher,” Peterson said.

That is what the Inspire Awards celebrate. Those alumni and teachers who have brought their best to the students of SAISD, despite significant challenges. The mission of the SAISD Foundation is to support SAISD to become one of the nation’s leading urban school districts through educational excellence and innovation. (Full disclosure, Robert Rivard is a board member of the SAISD Foundation and a donor.)

Former Texas Congressman Charlie Gonzalez
Former Texas Congressman and current Chief of a Engagement for VIA, Charles Gonzalez.

Distinguished alumni were recognized for  leadership, excellence, and service.  Standing ovations affirmed the choices of honorees.

Former U.S. Congressman and current Chief of Engagement for VIA Charles Gonzalez  was on hand as emcee for the evening.

The Leadership Award went to Sonia M. Rodriguez, alumna of Burbank High School and trichair of SA2020.

As an attorney at Branton, Hall, Rodriguez, Cruz, and member of the advisory board for the district’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), Rodriguez is a vocal supporter of education for young women in the city of San Antonio.

SA2020 CEO Darryl Byrd and President of H-E-B’s San Antonio Food and Drug Division Suzanne Wade introduced Rodriguez as both advocate and role model.

Sonia M. Rodriguez
Sonia M. Rodriguez

“The girls at YWLA see themselves in Sonia,” Wade said.

Rodriguez herself credited her nine-year-old son with the best definition of leadership: “Leadership means taking the first step to do the right thing.”

The Excellence Award went to UTSA President Dr. Ricardo Romo, alumnus of Fox Tech High School. Kenneth Wilson, president of Bank of America for South Texas, and former state Sen. and Texas Tech University System Chancellor John T. Montford introduced the man who requires no introduction in this city, recalling his standout record as a track star at Lanier and then the University of Texas, his work as artist behind the camera, and as a nationally recognized urban studies scholar.

And then there’s his work as president of UTSA. Since Romo’s arrival in 1999, the number of Ph.D programs has grown from 3 to 24, while more than 30,000 students can now choose from 133 undergraduate and 51 graduate degree programs.

Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., University President and Photographer.
UTSA President Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., and photographer. Photo by Al Rendon.

“But he never makes it feel like it’s all about him,” said Montford. “It’s always about the students.”

Romo highlighted UTSA’s singular goal — beyond  the pressures to increase funding, programming, and other quantitative statistics.

“We will be Tier 1 when we elevate our students to the highest level,” Romo said.

Two Service Awards were given. One went to Dr. Joe Bernal, alumnus of Lanier High School, and a former state senator who carried legislation to create UTSA and the UT Health Science Center. Bernal is a major figure in civil rights and education reform in South Texas.

Senator Leticia Van De Putte and Dr. Maria “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, CEO and president of the Intercultural Development Research Association, praised Bernal for a life of service to students here and throughout Texas.

She cited Bernal’s commitment to “opportunity, fairness, and common sense.” He served in the military, education and research, both chambers of the State legislature, various boards and commissions, and as an advocate for immigrants and the disadvantaged.

Joe Bernal. Courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin.
Joe Bernal. Courtesy of the U.S. Latino & Latina World War II Oral History Project. University of Texas at Austin.

Bernal’s name has been attached to legislation that hastened local desegregation, planning periods for teachers, free kindergarten, bilingual education, and the creation of UTSA and the UT Health Science Center.

For all his achievements, Bernal had many to thank.

“You can’t change the world by yourself,” Bernal said.

The other Service Award was given to a “Friend of SAISD,” the 80/20 Foundation, responsible for bringing CodeHS, a web-based platform developed by Stanford University graduates to teach students how to write computer code, to Highlands High School. The Foundation was formed by Rackspace co-founder and Chairman Graham Weston.

Byrd, filling in for District One Councilman Diego Bernal, honored the 80/20 Foundation, represented by Weston (via video) and Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez. Both spoke about the foundation’s goal to bring increased vitality to the city center, and the importance of STEM education and quality inner city public schools.

Gomez, spinning off a favorite quote of Weston, closed by saying to the teachers present,”You are on a winning team. You are on an inspiring mission. You are valued.”

Finally, district educators were honored with Innovation Awards, much like the Innovation Grants given out during the school year.

Superintendent Perez called each of the eight finalists to the stage. Each finalist received a $500 mini-grant for their school or program.

Four winners were recognized individually.

Dr. Traci Smith, principal of Herff Elementary School
Dr. Traci Smith, principal of Herff Elementary School

Traci Smith, principal of Herff Elementary School, took literacy outside the walls of her school with a mobile library program over the summer.

Throughout the school year she utilized support from the SAISD Foundation to fund a Saturday, “Reading with the Principal” program.

“I’ve been here for two years, and in my 30 years working in education, these have been the best,” Smith said.

Paul Pereamusic teacher Maverick Elementary School seems to be everywhere on campus. “I’m the trashcan guy. You need a trashcan, I’ll find you one. Whatever you need, I’ll find it,” Perea said.

Music, science, ecology and service are all areas where Perea has enriched the offerings at his school. A grant from the SAISD Foundation allowed him to purchase guitars for a group of interested students, a program which he has since expanded to include parents as a way of improving attendance.

Perea’s school newscast program is getting kids excited about  science.  focuses on his students’ moral and ethical development as well, teaching them to care for others they meet in the community and out in the world. He takes kids to visit nursing homes with their guitars.

Lawrence Scott is a counselor at Burbank High School who hails from San Antonio’s Eastside and knows what a difference it makes to students when adults believe in them.

Scott helps students create their own music in his studio club, which is now a course taught in the school. Students have become DJ’s, cut their own albums, and updated the school song. Scott is hyperlocal: an honored SAISD educator and alumnus of  SAISD and UTSA.

Blanca Gebhart has long been one of the most loved teachers at Bonham Academy. As a dual-language kindergarten teacher she sees the classroom as part community and part playground, encouraging the children to engage their social and creative energies as they encounter new information. Gebhart involves the parents in many ways, creating an environment where students see home and school coming together to support them.

“My inspiration is my students,” Gebhart said.

Before the awards, I asked a representative of a local college readiness program what he thought was needed for high school students to attain college readiness.

“The teachers need to believe in them…” he replied.

Looking around the room, there was no doubt that the teachers not only believed in their students, but were committed to giving them the best.

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.