At KIPP’s high school in downtown San Antonio late last semester, soft music played as Peter Vandermeer’s class of seniors filled out college applications online.
Six miles north, students at San Antonio Independent School District’s Jefferson High School were getting help from their own college advisors trained in the same techniques.
KIPP charter schools and San Antonio ISD are in year three of a five year experiment: Can the charter school’s method of getting students “to and through college” be replicated by the much larger district?
The partnership, funded through a private grant from Valero Energy, is showing early signs of success, but it’s unclear whether the program will last once the funding dries up.
Vandermeer is the college advisor for KIPP’s 140 seniors, and he sees them three class periods a week to help research schools, fill out applications and apply for scholarships.
“With that comes kind of data-driven research where they create a wishlist of schools that not only they can definitely get into, but some of the more challenging ones that they might have fewer odds of getting into,” Vandermeer said. “We also want them to be applying to schools that historically have a high graduation rate for students of color.”
KIPP senior Jaqueline Hernandez applied to more than a dozen schools before December.
“It’s like one step more toward your future, so like you have to really put the effort into everything you’re doing right now,” said Hernandez during class, as she put together the finishing touches on an application to Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
Once a student is in college, three KIPP staff members, including Roy Feliciano, continue to advise them and visit them on campus to ask them how they’re doing.
“To the point of: ‘How many hours are sleeping? Do you know your GPA? Have you looked at your degree plan, because you say you want to have this major? Are you struggling in this major and are there other options?’ ” Feliciano said.
The support is intense because KIPP wants all of its students to beat the odds.
According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 15 percent of people from low-income families earn college degrees by the time they’re 26. Black and Latino students also graduate from college at disproportionately low rates.
And, according to KIPP, the added support is working. The national charter school system says about 50 percent of its alumni, most of whom come from low-income families, earn college degrees.
“We’re not happy with 50 percent, but it’s a lot better than what would happen if we weren’t involved,” said Ruben Rodriguez, the director of the college counseling program at KIPP San Antonio.
But the extra support also comes at an extra cost. KIPP San Antonio’s college counseling department is funded through a five year, $3 million grant from Valero Energy.
In 2015, KIPP pitched the grant to Valero as a way to not only support the charter school, but also launch a similar college program at San Antonio ISD. Earlier that year, SAISD had set a goal of increasing the number of its students who go onto college.
KIPP’s schools are within the footprint of SAISD, and like the charter school, more than 85 percent of its students are classified as “economically disadvantaged” by the state. More than 90 percent of their students are Latino.
Historically, charters and districts are more likely to compete than share information. But Rodriguez said getting more students to college is a win for everyone.
“It was a really easy decision for us because these are the same kids from our community,” Rodriguez said.
Last school year, KIPP piloted the program by embedding a college counselor at SAISD’s Jefferson High School. With the counselor’s help, the number of Jefferson graduates accepted into four-year universities doubled, from 26 percent to 53 percent.
That inspired Valero Energy to write an $8.4 million check to SAISD to expand the program. The district used the grant to hire 18 college counselors before the 2017-2018 school year.
At Jefferson, for example, students can now get college help from two full-time counselors and a part-time financial aid advisor.
Some of the funding is also being used to hire two staff members to support graduates once they’re in college, and to increase the number of high school juniors who can go on college tours.
Ambitious District Goals
SAISD wants most of its graduates to go on to college by 2020. Victoria Bustos, the district's student support director, said the extra staff will help achieve that goal. But she’s not sure how they’ll be able to pay for the counselors once the grant ends in 2022.
“This is a question I wake up thinking about every day: How are we building the system, ” Bustos said, “because it’s a five year grant and we want to sustain our programs.”
Education policy professor Huriya of the University of Texas at Austin said that’s a valid concern, because most foundations like to support new projects that promise a big impact.“The goal from the funder’s perspective, I think, is that this program will be launched thanks to their kind of start up funding or funding for several years, and then if it’s proven successful the district or the state will opt to continue it and find funds to do that,” Jabbar said. “Given how limited and tight school budgets are, I don’t know if that’s possible.”
Valero CEO Joe Gorder said if the program is successful, money will follow.
“Whether it be provided by Valero or other private partnerships, the funding will be there,” Gorder said. “It’s not our intention to create something that dies. But I’m also not willing today to say that we’re going to fund 8.4 million a year into perpetuity.”
By the district’s definition of success, there’s a long ways to go and not much time.
SAISD wants to have 80 percent of its graduates go to college by 2020. According to the district, just 54 percent of the class of 2017 enrolled in college this fall.
Even though the goals are ambitious, Bustos believes they’re possible.
“Students will rise to the level of your expectations,” Bustos said.
The district also faces potentially higher barriers to encourage students to go to college because it serves all of the students within its boundaries, unlike KIPP, where parents choose to send their children knowing its a college prep charter school.
But Rodriguez also said it’s all about setting expectations.
“The piece that is the same across KIPP and SAISD is that the path needs to be there,” Rodriguez said. “All we have to do is make sure that they know (their options) so they know what’s behind that door.”
Updated 12:30 p.m.: An alternate headline was added to better reflect the content of the story.