Valero Energy Foundation, the local energy company’s philanthropic arm, has awarded a five-year, $8.4 million grant to the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) to better prepare students for college.

Grant money, which started going to the school district this year, funds SAISD’s Pipeline for College Success program, an initiative aimed at increasing the number of students who enroll in and complete college.

The grant will support two College Bound advisors at each of the district’s seven traditional high schools. Advisors’ goals include:

  • College preparedness
  • Increasing the number of students going to two- and four-year educational institutions
  • Tripling the number of students participating in college tours
  • Establishing an office that tracks SAISD graduates through college completion.

Also, SAISD will pay to have an additional College Bound advisor for each of the district’s four non-traditional high schools.

Officials from Valero, the school district, and its nonprofit SAISD Foundation were joined by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and other community leaders in a press conference Wednesday at Valero headquarters.

Valero and SAISD officials said Pipeline for College Success will be key in helping the district achieve its five-year college goals, which call for seeing 80 percent of graduates attend college, 50 percent attend a four-year university, and 10 percent enroll in a Tier 1 university – all by 2020.

Joe Gorder, Valero chairman, president, and chief executive officer, said education creates opportunities and acts an equalizer.

In 2015, Valero granted KIPP San Antonio Public Schools $3 million to support its KIPP Through College (KTC) program. Through that grant KIPP has been collaborating with SAISD, sharing best educational practices with the goal of improving the district’s student college-completion rates.

This partnership started with a pilot program at Jefferson High School, based on aspects of the KTC program and includes ongoing professional development for counselors and advisors at all SAISD high schools.

“What we have here with KIPP and the San Antonio Independent School District are incredibly passionate teams who care about their students [and] who truly want what’s best for them,” Gorder said.

The new advisors will work to best prepare juniors and seniors for post-high school academic success.

This will allow current college-readiness counselors at each high school to focus on engaging freshmen and sophomores in college readiness activities, Valero and SAISD officials said.

College application and preparedness are time-consuming and can easily overwhlem students, Gorder said. But the Jefferson pilot, he added, has already proven successful: 53 percent of the school’s graduates were accepted into four-year universities just this past year, whereas only 26 percent were accepted following the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said this increased support for college readiness advisors, and counselors in his district will help them better guide all students, regardless of whether those students plan to attend a four-year university or decide to go an alternate route, such as attending community college or delaying their studies for a while.

“All of our students deserve a chance,” Martinez said. “Every one of them will have a post-secondary plan. Every one of them can really strive to reach their dream.”

Nirenberg said the partnership between KIPP and SAISD will better prepare the city’s youth for their entry into the local workforce.

“We know that a well-trained, well-educated workforce makes a huge difference to companies looking for the right place to expand or to move, and it’s no secret we’re not where we need to be right now in San Antonio,” he said. “But I’m confident that we’re headed there.”

Wolff echoed Nirenberg’s sentiments, applauding private and public sector partnerships’ support of local early-college and workforce preparedness.

“We all try to do our part,” he saidd. “I think we’re all headed in the right direction.”

Dozens of current high school juniors from across SAISD attended Wednesday’s announcement. They heard from State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), a Jefferson graduate and former City Council member, who recalled how a high school counselor told him to be “more realistic” when he aspired to attend the University of Michigan.

Bernal earned undergraduate, master’s, and law degrees from Michigan.

This program should encourage SAISD students to be aspirational and “dream as big as we can,” he said.

“If we give you guys the chance, if we open the doors just a little bit, you’ll come and show the world that the talent we have in this district and this city is as good as anywhere else, and this ensures more of our students have that chance,” Bernal added. “This is what investing looks like.”

One of the attending juniors, Jude Tovar from Highlands High School, said he felt honored that one of San Antonio’s biggest companies was investing in his school district to better prepare students for college and beyond. Tovar aspires to be a pre-medical student at Rice University.

“I’m very honored. It means lot,” he said. “It shows they have a lot of faith in us. I just want to make them proud.”

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.