(From left) Natalie Herrera Diaz, Ida Keller, Loretta Nieto, and Pedro Fuentes.
(From left) Natalie Herrera Diaz, Ida Keller, Loretta Nieto, and Pedro Fuentes leave graduation practice to eat breakfast with the rest of their senior class at Southside High School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Tucked behind Southside High School’s cafeteria is the multicolored “Go Center,” named for the purpose of the room – helping Southside Independent School District’s graduating seniors prepare to go to college. The space, plastered with college posters and inspirational quotes, houses Minnie Rodriguez, the district’s Go Center technician, who works with students to submit college applications, apply for scholarships, and prepare for life after graduation.

The numbers show those efforts have been successful: Southside’s class of 2018 has been awarded $4.4 million in scholarships, up from $1.8 million awarded to the class of 2017, a 144 percent increase, and as of the students’ last day of class, 215 of the 344 graduates are signed up to attend orientation sessions at 32 different colleges or universities, Rodriguez said.

Both the amount of scholarships and number of college commitments are subject to change throughout the summer, Rodriguez said, but based on her four years of experience, she expects an increase following Southside’s graduation ceremony on June 9.

In a school district where 81 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, Southside officials have started an early college high school, worked to promote college attendance by placing a greater emphasis on taking students on college tours and applying for scholarships, and provided college admission testing free of charge.

Those efforts are necessary because many Southside students face financial and family-related obstacles on their path to college. Being the first in their family to attend college, deaths of close family members, pregnancies, and poverty were among the challenges students who spoke to the Rivard Report said they and their classmates face in getting a higher education.

Senior Pedro Fuentes is one student who benefited greatly from his scholarship applications. He plans on attending St. Mary’s University in the fall to study business, and is the recipient of more than $300,000 in scholarships. Notably, Fuentes is the first student from Southside to receive funding from the Greehey Scholars Program, which promises a four-year scholarship to cover the cost of tuition, on-campus housing, and outside activities.

Fuentes originally planned to attend the University of Texas at Austin, but he said tuition costs altered his decision. Rodriguez encouraged him to find “backups to [his] backups to [his] backups,” and pushed him to explore all options. When Fuentes learned he had been accepted into the Greehey Scholars Program and would have college paid for, he felt like he had to take the offer.

That kind of hands-on advising is characteristic of how Southside’s college counseling office works, Fuentes said, because the counselors push students to apply to as many schools and for as many scholarships as possible. This year, 203 students – more than ever before – completed the federal form to apply for financial aid. Each week, Rodriguez sends out new scholarship opportunities to students and brings classes in to work with her in the Go Center.

“I’m often on the phone with a student, coaching them on what to ask or how to fill out an application,” Rodriguez said. “You know how colleges talk – sometimes it needs to be translated to be understandable.”

When students hear back from schools or about scholarships, Rodriguez announces each acceptance over the school’s public address system during morning announcements. She keeps a binder with records of successful applications so she can point students toward schools with more generous scholarship offerings for the next school year.

Rodriguez also works with students to prepare for and take the SAT. The class of 2016 was the first to have every student sit for either the SAT or ACT. In the classes of 2015 and 2014, the majority of students took the SAT, but in 2013 and before, only about half Southside’s students took the exam.

“[Giving everyone the exam for free] really allows [students] to start thinking about going to a four-year university,” lead counselor Leticia Santos told the Rivard Report. “Some of them get their results back and see how smart they are and start thinking about going to a university.”

Ida Keller will attend Baylor University in the fall to study computer science. Neither of her parents attended college and both have been supportive of Keller’s pursuit of a post-secondary education.

“They said, ‘You have to go somewhere, whether it’s somewhere local like Palo Alto College, or Harvard University,’ which is the biggest name,” Keller said.

Keller began looking at universities during her freshman year and applied to Baylor on a whim. She didn’t think the private university in Waco would offer her much in financial aid or accept all of her credits from dual-credit classes, but when she got an email saying she would be offered close to $80,000 the first year, she thought, “Yes, that’s what I need.”

She is one of about 50 students in the first class of graduates from Southside’s Early College High School, which allows students to earn an associate’s degree from Palo Alto College before graduating from high school. Keller thinks she will be able to graduate with a bachelor’s degree by 2020, saving tens of thousands of dollars in tuition costs.

She and her fellow early college graduates have been pushed from the beginning to pursue higher education, Keller said. College counselors stress that higher education is the best way to break the cycle of poverty that is prevalent for Southside students.

Southside High School students sit in their assigned seats while practicing for their graduation ceremony.
Southside High School students sit in their assigned seats while practicing for their graduation ceremony. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Keller said her motivation to go to college has encouraged her younger cousins and brother to do the same.

“I told my brother that before he even graduates high school, I’m going to have two degrees and a diploma,” Keller said. “And then I can even maybe go on to getting a master’s degree or doctorate.”

Rodriguez’s eventual goal is to have 100 percent of her students attend college or university upon graduation. At the end of this school year, 63 percent had made the commitment, with all but three saying they would attend a school in Texas, according to Southside ISD spokesman Randy Escamilla.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board keeps track of students enrolled in Texas institutions of higher education. The class of 2017 had 150 graduates enroll in Texas schools, with the majority attending two-year Palo Alto College. That’s about 46 percent of Southside graduates attending a Texas school.

Historically, the number of Southside graduates enrolling in Texas institutions of higher education has stayed consistently between 40 and 50 percent.

If all class of 2018 students who have committed to attending schools actually enroll, the class of 2018 would show about a 35 percent increase over the previous year.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.