Bekah S. McNeel

For a handful of Alamo Colleges students earning their associates degree this May, it will be the first diploma that they receive. A few weeks later, they will obtain their second when they graduate from high school.

If you had to read that last paragraph a few times, it’s probably because it doesn’t seem to make sense. However, for students saving as much as $80,000 by entering university with 70 credit hours, it makes a lot of sense.

Travis Early College High School graduates are poised for success. At an SAISD Foundation breakfast on March 27, guests were greeted by a host of well-dressed high school juniors and seniors and ushered into the library to learn more about what may be the most radical approach to college readiness they will ever see.

Travis Early College High School
Travis Early College High School Credit: Bekah McNeel for the San Antonio Report

Principal Orlando Vera welcomed guests and introduced the school community, including the man he calls the “guru of college readiness,” Jeff Blum, an SAISD educator who retired after 42 years of service and then returned to work at Travis specifically to help students – most of which are the first in their families to apply for college admission – navigate the complex process of applications for admission and scholarships.

Together, Blum and others there impose rigorous deadlines on juniors and seniors who apply to a minimum of five universities, fill out FAFSAs, and finally apply for what has so far amounted to $2.5 million dollars in financial aid.

Principal Orlando Vera speaks to guests at Travis Early College High School
Principal Orlando Vera speaks to guests at Travis Early College High School

Surprisingly, Vera reported that Travis is not operating at capacity. The in-district charter school has room for an estimated 50 more students in its incoming freshman class, which would bring the total student body to 400.

Vera told visitors that Travis competes for the same students sought by other charter and magnet schools, Catholic schools, and others.

However, there’s certainly more than enough need in SAISD for college preparation, and Wednesday’s meeting was meant to focus  SAISD Foundation board members to spread the word about this vital resource for ambitious SAISD students and their families.

The Texas Education Agency (TEA) has granted Travis an exemplary rating every year that it has been evaluated. Actual student outcomes are a more meaningful gauge of the program’s success. In 2012 the first batch of graduates walked the stage with an average of 42 college credits. Some had as many as 70. They had begun accumulating hours as early as their freshman year, attending San Antonio College next door to Travis’s Main Avenue campus. Out of 63 graduating seniors this semester, 57 already have been admitted to four-year universities, Vera said.

Two recent graduates, John Hernandez and Olivia Caldwell, were on hand to share the experience at Travis and now as fulltime students at the University of Incarnate Word, which they entered as juniors.

“College is almost easier,” said Hernandez. “At Travis we had to balance high school and college. When we got to Incarnate Word it was much simpler.”

Upcoming graduate Nancy Vargas was pleasantly surprised when she visited an honors calculus class at University of Rochester. She was expecting to be intimidated, but instead she tracked with the instructor and even knew some of the answers before the students in the class.

Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it.
Maritza Alvarez and Nancy Vargas are college bound and loving it.

What did catch Vargas by surprise on that visit was the annual cost, which exceeds $60,000. Thanks to her two years worth of credits, as well as promised scholarships and grants, she expects to pay less than $20,000 for her degree. She had to shift her perspective on what was possible in order to accommodate the opportunity. Rather than saving up to buy a car, she’ll be paying roughly the same amount of money for an education. A change of plans that leaves the science, math and tech-savvy student all smiles.

All systems are "go" at Travis Early College High School.
All systems are “go” at Travis Early College High School.

Vargas has her sights set on Computer Engineering, while classmate Maritza Alvarez will be headed to the University of Texas at Austin to study neuropsychology. While she had always been interested in psychiatry and psychology, it was her exposure to the sciences at Travis that opened her eyes to the breadth of scientific inquiry.

Midway through the student led tour of the campus, a class of sophomores spilled out into the hallway. Their teacher explained that they were released early in order to make it to the nearby SAC campus in time for their next class. Having a community college right next door has proved pretty handy, as students walk from high school to college and back.

The students enrolled at Travis are sacrificing a lot of free time and intellectual comfort, but what they gain is almost immeasurable in terms of learning, confidence and opportunity. Once exposed to a widened scope of sciences, humanities and fine arts, many students find themselves reaching higher, setting more ambitious goals and pursing new paths.

For students enrolled at Travis, “high school is a time of maturing,” said Alvarez, “both intellectually and emotionally.”

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.