The University of Texas-University Charter School System (UT-UCS) is slated to open its 23rd campus at Seton Home in time for the 2016-17 school year.

Seton Home, part of Catholic Charities, serves teen mothers who are typically placed there by the Department of Family and Protective Services due to neglect and abuse. As a result thereof, many of the teens have significant gaps in their education, and are often one to two grades behind. Currently, the Seton Home girls attend local public or charter schools outside of the Seton Home campus.

On-site tutoring has been provided year-round through volunteer programs from the Junior League of San Antonio and the Women of AT&T. Engaging the young mothers in this program has caused a noticeable improvement in their schooling and in their social and parenting skills.

Through the support of San Antonio Independent School District, the Goldsbury Foundation, the Harvey E. Najim Foundation and wide-reaching community support, the volunteer program expanded to include education case managers, therapists, and a summer school that is now in its seventh year of operation.

The new UT-University Charter School will use the three classrooms of the Dr. Leslie Parks Education Center at Seton Home. Donated by the Harvey E. Najim Foundation in memory of Dr. Parks, the classrooms are currently used for tutoring and summer school.

The buildings where the UT-Charter School classes will be held. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
The buildings where the UT-Charter School classes will be held. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

In the first year of Seton Home’s charter school program, graduation rates increased from 75% to 95%, with rates now holding steady between 95-100%.

Certified teachers lead eight-week summer sessions in English and math. Students currently receive credit which is eligible to be included in their transcripts.

“Our math teacher has said that Seton Home students work harder in the eight weeks of summer school than many of his high school students (do all semester),” said Tiffany Walker, executive director of Seton Home.

The proximity to their babies allows the girls to stay focused on their instruction and process the materials faster, thus leading to accelerated progress, Walker explained. She described seeing teenagers with so many responsibilities and barriers take advantage of the education opportunities as “rewarding.” Some girls have even asked to come back to the summer school after they have returned to live in their homes.

“You see a light bulb go off and they really dig into their education. There is a mind shift and their hopes change from ‘going home’ to ‘going to college.’ I think that they are empowered by their achievements in the education program,” Walker added. “They are no longer victims, but survivors going on to do great things.”

When UT-UCS approached Seton Home to expand their education program by adding the charter school to their campus, Walker said she jumped at the opportunity.

“Our moms are trying hard to earn their credits and graduate high school before they leave Seton Home,” she said.

The girls have busy schedules and limited bonding time with their babies as they often attend school from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Walker said. The program also requires them to take comprehensive service courses such as parenting education, counseling, and money management. The UT- University Charter School will enable mothers to focus on instruction that has proven to be effective in Seton Home’s summer school, with the difference of school days being shorter and allowing for more bonding time.

The UT-University Charter School has trained all of their staff in a trauma-informed care approach that aligns with Seton Home’s model and will allow for a collaborative approach to educating students in an environment that is sensitive to their past traumatic experiences and current needs, Walker continued.

“It is a win-win for our students and we hope that this will open up more opportunities to reach their goals to finish high school and go onto college or a vocational school. Seton Home’s goal is to provide a healing environment and opportunities for self-sufficiency so that when they leave Seton Home, the young families are free from abuse and poverty.”

The UT-University Charter School will help reach that goal, she said.

Seton Home mothers work in what will be the new UT-Charter School classrooms. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Seton Home mothers work in what will be the new UT-Charter School classrooms. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

To motivate the girls to enroll in the voluntary program, they were given a tour of the University of Texas at Austin in early June. For many, this was their first opportunity to tour a Big 12 university. The students are excited about the prospect of attending the UT-UCS this coming school year and many are now proudly sporting the university’s orange t-shirts.

“UT-UCS will affect my future by helping me graduate in a timely manner and help me focus on my educational goals, said Lucy Johnson, a student whose name has been changed for privacy protection. “I want my daughter to see me walk across the stage.”

UT-UCS was originally the University Charter School (UCS) and opened in the second year of charter schools in Texas, making it a second-generation charter school. The original charter was submitted to Texas Education Agency (TEA), which funds the school, on Jan. 9, 1998.

Like all public state-supported charter schools, students are provided with all-grade level curricula mandated by the state.

The Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) provide the framework and focus for all courses. Students are required to take and reach mastery on STAAR, the state assessment exam. All students must attain the same minimum standards for public school graduates in Texas and they must accrue a minimum of 22 credits and pass five end of courses exams.

(Read More: Panel Backpedals on Swapping Out STAAR Tests)

A Seton Home math teacher tutors a student in algebra. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
A Seton Home math teacher tutors a student in algebra. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

According to the UT-UCS’s vision statement, “In full partnership with our communities, the University of Texas-University Charter School’s vision is to provide the best educational system for students with specialized learning needs in unique settings where each student will achieve academic, social and emotional success.”

UT-UCS typically looks for partners that put children first and that have a vision and mission similar to their own. Location, facilities available, and the fiscal impact on both the district and facility are also taken into consideration. Finally, TEA must approve the application requesting expansion to a new campus location.

Each UT-UCS school is an entirely new concept because each facility and the population served is unique. All teachers are selected based on their educational background, prior experience working with diverse populations, and a clear passion for the job. All teachers must be certified in their field by the State Board of Educator Certification (SBEC) and once hired, are employees of the University of Texas.

For more information on UT-UCS, click here.

Top Image: A Seton Home mother works on a booklet for her child.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

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Kathy Hamilton is a reformed foreign journalist who, along with her son, is rediscovering her hometown.