In recent years, many of San Antonio School District’s highest achieving students didn’t know that Yale University was an option. They didn’t know that the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Cornell University, California Institute of Technology, and Reed College also should be on their list of target schools.

As part of their ongoing GEAR UP initiative, SAISD will host their first “Students on the Rise” event on April 5, 6-8 p.m. on the Fox Tech campus. The event will connect students to those Top Tier universities that offer 100% financial assistance, and broaden the district-wide conversation about potential student achievement.

“We hope this event will help build on our community momentum, so that more community members can see firsthand that it’s a new day in SAISD,” said Seth Rau, legislative coordinator for SAISD.

The entrance to Fox Tech High School. Photo by Scott Ball.
The entrance to Fox Tech High School. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Rau, an alumnus of Tufts University, has been instrumental in coordination the “Students on the Rise” events, reaching out to alumni networks across the city.

SAISD is offering “Students on the Rise” in collaboration with groups and individuals including state Sen. José Menéndez, the Intercultural Development Research Association, Ivy Plus San Antonio, Teach For America, and City Year, as well as current and retired educators and community members.

District officials expect to host more than 1,000 of the district’s highest-performing juniors and sophomores and their parents, as well as local alumni from at least 30 of the 62 top institutions identified by U.S. News and World Report as offering full financial assistance for economically disadvantaged students.

After an address from superintendent Pedro Martinez, the students will have small-group time with the alumni and recruitment representatives. They can ask about academic rigor, campus life, and the hurdles of moving far away from home. For even the brightest, highest-achieving students in SAISD, leaving home can be a major hurdle. In addition to placing a financial burden on their family, something students in low-income areas are reluctant to do, they often have higher anxiety levels about leaving their support network.

For middle class families, the prestige, expectation, and family history of attending certain institutions often overrides that anxiety. For first generation college students, they face a leap into the unknown, leaving behind family responsibilities and multi-generational traditions that have shaped their lives.

Right now, 90% of SAISD graduates who plan to attend college enroll in local universities. While those options are improving, a robust brain trust needs to be built from a wide selection of research and liberal arts institutions, to create the diversity of ideas needed to drive innovation. While some students will inevitably stay in the the region where they attend school, due to career network opportunities, they will still have a connection to San Antonio.

Connecting with alumni can help students see that not only is it possible to attend elite universities, but the road can lead back to San Antonio at the end. Not only does SAISD want to see more students attend these universities, but they would like many of these students to return and invest in their city.

First, however, the students have to know their options.

“This event will help propel the district towards reaching its goal of having 10% of students attend Tier I schools by 2020,” said Rau.

While some schools like Yale and Princeton may have brand recognition as aspirational schools, others like Williams College and Claremont McKenna College are not as obvious. SAISD will need to train school counselors and teachers on the variety of options available to these high performing students.

“It is part of a larger shift towards college and career readiness in the district,” said Rau.

Nadia Balderas poses for a photo with a Yale University flag after being accepted into the Ivy League school this year. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Nadia Balderas poses for a photo with a Yale University flag after being accepted into the Ivy League school this year. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Readiness will truly show itself not in how many students are accepted to top universities, but how many students achieve their bachelor’s degree. SAISD plans to extend their support to students throughout their college experience. Whether its rigor, homesickness, or time management, or the occasional freshmen-on-the-loose syndrome, a strong network of support back home can be advantageous. It’s good to know that the people who got you there are still rooting for you, expecting your to succeed.

District leaders are working with the team at KIPP University Prep to develop strong followup services for students once they are in college, similar to the charter school’s KIPP Through College program. With counselors following up, connecting students to other KIPPsters in similar situations, and touching base at home over the holidays, the network fills the gaps that persist through college graduation.   

SAISD also wants to improve college readiness to reduce economic burden. Many times students’ college careers outlast their scholarships. The district wants students to go in with as many credits as they can achieve, with as few remedial classes as possible so that every class counts as they race the financial clock to graduation.

For many in SAISD, “Students on the Rise” will crack open a door to a future they had not imagined. Once that door is open, the district hopes to support them as they walk into the beyond with confidence.

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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.