Valero gives $8.4 million boost to SAISD college readiness program

ByAlia Malik
KIPP San Antonio students

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The Valero Energy Foundation on Wednesday gave $8.4 million to the San Antonio Independent School District to fund college visits all over the country for hundreds of high school juniors, and to provide advisers to help students through college.

With the grant funding, SAISD is creating a program called Pipeline for College Success, the biggest expansion yet of an initiative that retired Brackenridge High School teacher Walter Brown started on his own years ago.

It involves a partnership with the KIPP charter school network, which is training SAISD counselors and advisers to follow the KIPP Through College model by helping the district’s graduates navigate college registration, financial aid, housing and textbook purchases.

The partnership with KIPP began as a pilot program at Jefferson High School, funded with part of a $3 million grant from the Valero Energy Foundation that supported KIPP Through College. The number of Jefferson graduates accepted into four-year colleges more than doubled between 2015 and 2016, said Joe Gorder, CEO of Valero Energy and chairman of the company’s charitable foundation

The expanded Pipeline for College Success appears to be the most substantial partnership yet forged between a traditional and charter school district in Bexar County. The willingness of KIPP and SAISD leaders to collaborate helped convince the Valero Energy Foundation to award the five-year grant, Gorder said at a Wednesday press conference at Valero’s headquarters.

“Rarely do you get great coordination between a school like KIPP and a public school district,” Gorder said. “There tends to be a lot of competition there.”

Valero’s grant will allow about 250 students per year to visit colleges in their chosen region of the country. Qualifying students will primarily be low-income and the first in their families to attend college, with SAT scores of at least 1000 and a grade point average of at least 95 percent, said Victoria Bustos, SAISD’s executive director of student support.

It’s an exponential increase in resources for SAISD to help low-income students get into top colleges. Until two years ago, Brown handpicked about 10 students per year for college tours, paid for by fundraising and some of his own money. Brown often drove them in his own van. A couple of times, Brown said, the Valero Energy Foundation kicked in $1,500 when he was short on funds for the tours. With funding from a different grant, SAISD took about 80 students on college visits last year, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said — sometimes with air travel.

Katrina Muñoz, 17, a senior at Sam Houston High School, went on a district-sponsored trip to colleges in the Midwest. She is applying to Denison University, Miami University of Ohio and Missouri State University, as well as the University of Texas at Austin, Baylor University and Trinity University. Without SAISD’s guidance, Muñoz said, she would not have made the college visits.

“I wouldn’t have known how to prepare myself,” Muñoz said. “I wouldn’t have had the courage.”

Brown, 72, continues to advise SAISD college readiness initiatives, stressing the importance of colleges that meet the full financial needs of students. It’s an effort, he said, that should be replicated on every campus: talk students through the application process for admissions and financial aid and prepare them for the academic and social cultures of prestigious colleges.

The grant will pay for two new college advisers at each of the district’s seven comprehensive high schools, a Postsecondary Support Office to track students through college and a data analyst, Bustos said. SAISD will pay for one new college adviser at each of its several smaller specialty high schools.

The Pipeline for College Success program is part of SAISD’s five-year turnaround plan, which calls for 80 percent of district graduates to attend college — 50 percent at four-year institutions and 10 percent at top-200 “Tier One” institutions — by 2020.