When you imagine a parent seeking out the best school for their child, what do you see? Is it long drives to magnet schools? Financial strain to get into the “good district?” Nervously waiting to see if your child scores big in the charter school lottery?

Anne Ortiz wanted the best high school experience for her daughter after she graduated from Tafolla Middle School. So she did her homework, explored her options, and then sent her to Sam Houston High School.

It was an unexpected choice, for many reasons, but it proved to be the right one. Yahterie-Anne Sykes Ortiz is headed to the University of Notre Dame next fall to study computer science. She has more than $60,000 of yearly scholarships.

Yahterie-Anne is undeniably brilliant, scoring in the top 95% and 98% in reading and writing on the PSAT. It would be difficult to imagine her not succeeding. However, at Sam Houston she connected to some resources that set her on a particular track and helped her make the most of her quick, analytical mind.

One of those resources was Sam Houston’s Engineering Career Institute, where students can choose between engineering design and computer science. Yahterie-Anne, a lifelong tinkerer, always thought she wanted to go into mechanical engineering. She quickly learned that computer science was more interesting to her after a summer programming course through iD Tech Camp at Trinity University.

“It just clicked,” she said.

Another resource was Jason Mims, a Sam Houston alum and community activist who takes special interest in high performing students at his alma mater. Mims met Yahterie-Anne when he was looking for a student to help him co-write a guide to academic success for high school students. The project appealed to Yahterie-Anne, and soon she and her mother were meeting regularly with Mims to discuss options for higher education.

One only has to be in the room with Mims for a short time before Notre Dame comes up, as he is very passionate about his university.

“I had it on my heart to see someone from my zip code show back up on campus,” he said.

Yahterie-Anne poses with Notre Dame alum Jason Mims. Photo by Scott Ball.
Yahterie-Anne poses with Notre Dame alum Jason Mims. Photo by Scott Ball.

Only one student from Sam Houston had applied to Notre Dame in the past six years, Mims said, and she had not been accepted. Looking at the hundreds of empty seats in the auditorium at Sam Houston, Mims said, “If you have, after six years, enough graduates to fill this auditorium, shouldn’t at least one be going to Notre Dame?”

He tries not to push any one school, even his beloved Notre Dame, too much because he wants students to make the right decision for themselves. But when the Notre Dame gospel choir came to San Antonio, Mims seized the chance to pitch the school to Yahterie-Anne. Four students from the choir went out to dinner with Mims, Anne, and Yahterie-Anne, and talked about the Notre Dame experience.

Yahterie-Anne decided to apply to Notre Dame, along with twelve other schools. Her mother insisted that she apply out of state, and make at least one campus visit to an out-of-state school before she applied. To Anne, the out-of-state experience is invaluable. After graduating from San Antonio Independent School District’s Burbank High School she joined the military, and felt that living in different places enriched her own life.

“You get a different perspective,” she said.

She didn’t want her daughter to have to move schools every few years, so she got out of the military when Yahterie-Anne started school and took a job with Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

They settled on the Westside, and Anne took an active role in her daughter’s education, seeking out programs and enrichment wherever she could. When it was time to consider high schools, mother and daughter attended a magnet fair, where all of SAISD’s magnet programs were on display. Lanier High School and Highlands High School also had engineering magnets, but Sam Houston emerged as the top choice for Yahterie-Anne.

Yahteri-Anne Sykes Ortiz (r) visits Notre Dame with her mother (center) and sister. Courtesy Photo.
Yahterie-Anne Sykes Ortiz (right) visits Notre Dame with her mother (center) and sister. Photo courtesy of Anne Ortiz.

Again, it may come as a surprise that a parent as involved as Anne would agree with her daughter’s particular choice.

Of all the schools in SAISD, Sam Houston is not one that comes to mind when you hear the term “choice school.” Located on the Eastside, the school was given a score of “2” out of 10 on greatschools.org. According to the Texas Education Agency’s accountability research data, when the class of 2014 started high school at Sam Houston in 2010, their class had 257 ninth graders. Only 138 students graduated from Sam Houston in 2014, about 53% of their freshmen class size. Most of those missing students transferred out to other schools, and around 30 dropped out.

Contrast that with both Alamo Heights High School (Alamo Heights ISD) and Churchill High School (North East ISD), where the 2014 graduates represented 88% of their own class size as freshmen.

While community members actively defend Sam Houston, saying it doesn’t deserve it’s bad reputation, it is not typically a destination school.

Anne saw something different. First, she saw students who looked like her daughter. Yahterie-Anne is a dark-skinned Puerto Rican. Her father is black. At Tafolla, where 97% of students identify as Hispanic, she was becoming subject to racial teasing. At Sam Houston, by contrast, 45% identify as black, and Anne knew she would have more support amid whatever racial tension existed.

That in and of itself was not enough for Anne, of course. She liked the engineering magnet as well. Then, at the fair, she met Kirsten Redmon, a Sam Houston student who would go on to West Point. This year Redmon was named MVP of the West Point women’s rugby team. She’s an impressive young lady to say the least.

“If (Kirsten Redmon) can come out of here, something’s working,” Anne said.

Her insight was rewarded. Yahterie-Anne flourished from day one. There have been frustrations, Anne said, but she simply persists. She feels that any involved parent is going to fight the same battles, wherever their children go to school. Administration doesn’t always communicate. It’s easier to say “no” than to say “let’s figure it out.”

None of this daunted Anne. When Yahterie-Anne was in 10th grade, and it was time to get serious about her resumé and college applications, Anne quit her job to concentrate on her daughter’s education. She spent a lot of time hunting down resources.

“San Antonio has a lot of opportunities,” she said, “but they’re not advertised.”

In the wake of her mother’s advocacy, Yahterie-Anne participated in the Alamo College’s EDGE program, and iD Tech Camp. She has had a paid internship with CPS for the past two summers. This year she placed first in the state (small school division) Academic Decathlon for Language and Literature. Her coach, Veronica Marines, was named Academic Decathlon Coach of the Year.

Yahterie-Anne takes online classes, and gets up at 4:30 a.m. to catch a 6:30 a.m. bus to Alamo Academies Advanced Technology and Manufacturing Academy, where she is earning college credit, then busses back across town for her normal school day.

Yahterie-Anne takes all of this in stride. She has seen hard work pay off time and time again, and now she’s taking that confidence with her as she embarks on the college adventure.


Top image: Sam Houston High School senior Yahterie-Anne sits for a photo in the schools auditorium. Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

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