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Far From Home: Students Most Likely To Succeed

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Princeton University's Firestone Library; "Song of the Vowels"

In high poverty schools like Storm Elementary in San Antonio Independent School District, it’s not uncommon to see college pennants adorning the halls, and college T-shirts incorporated into the school uniform. At Storm, each class is named after a university. The third grade is the University of Arizona. Second grade is Trinity University. Kindergarten is Rice University.

This is the second of a five-part special report, "Far From Home."

It’s never too early to start talking about college, says Storm Principal Jackie Navarre. Especially if the kids you are talking to will be the first in their families to go to college.

WATCH | 'Far From Home'


Storm Elementary serves the highest poverty zip code in San Antonio: 78207. It sits across from a public housing project and a church called, “Last Chance Ministries.” Kids don’t know much about life outside the neighborhood, Navar said.

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“A lot of the educators (at Storm) are first-generation college students, which is why we’re all so passionate about bringing college readiness into our schools,” Navarre said. “... All we want for our kids on the West Side of San Antonio is really just to have pride in themselves and to know that there’s something beyond Brady Street or beyond Zarzamora Street — beyond San Antonio that they have the brains, they have the wisdom, they have the grit that it takes to leave San Antonio, and leave Texas and go to these bigger places.”

Credit Bekah McNeel / Contributed photo
Contributed photo
Art Martinez is an advisor at Burbank High School.

KIPP Public Charter Schools also start talking about college in elementary school. As students move into high school, the network has developed a high-touch method of helping first-gen students find their best college fit and obtain their bachelor’s degree. KIPP Through College begins working with students their junior year to understand their strengths, weaknesses, and ambitions. Advisors like Ruben Rodriguez monitor the students throughout a year-long college matching course and meet with their parents to try to get a good idea of where to direct the students.

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“We have a focus on character traits as well, and those character traits go through from K all the way through 12th (grade),” Rodriguez said. “The expectation is that we prepare our students in that social intelligence aspect as well as in academics so that they are ready to leave.”

Academic Matchmaking

Low income and minority students are often “under-matched,” meaning they are steered toward less competitive colleges than their grades and test scores would suggest. It happens when counselors assume that students won’t be able to afford competitive schools, or that they won’t want to leave their families.

Ironically, when students are under-matched, Rodriguez said, that can hurt their chances of graduating. While it might seem like going to a less competitive college would be easier, and thus make it easier to graduate, research shows the opposite. Education researchers from the University of Buffalo conducted a study using data from the US Dept of Education and found that while black students were most likely to be undermatched, Hispanic students who were undermatched were the less likely than other races to graduate on time.

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Advisors have a theory: if a student stays close to home, or chooses as less competitive college because of family responsibilities, they are staying in contact with the very things that will make it harder to graduate. Sometimes getting away, and getting into a competitive academic atmosphere can help a student focus.

Credit Contributed photo
Sierra Gonzales celebrates her acceptance to Princeton University.

Because KIPP Through College has a mandate to increase the college graduation rate of KIPP alumni, Rodriguez and his team obsess over the institutions’ graduation rate for students of color. For instance, they encouraged Anjelica Espinoza to look at Skidmore College in New York where she could double major in dance and pre-med. Skidmore graduates 80 percent of its students of color. As appealing as local institutions are for San Antonio students, only Trinity University has a minority graduation rate close to 80 percent. 

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Trinity could have been a good option for Julio Martinez. The school recruited him to play soccer, but his grades weren’t strong enough to get into the highly competitive school. It was the College of New Rochelle, also in New York, that ended up offering him a spot on the soccer team and sufficient financial aid. The College of New Rochelle is also a good fit because Julio Martinez will be among plenty of other first-gen students. Forty-one percent of his classmates at CNR are first-gen students. Most of the players on his soccer team are Latino, and he says that they speak Spanish most of the time when they hang out socially.

“I speak more Spanish here than I did at home,” he said.

For Anjelica Espinoza, Skidmore College was a complete unknown, but she had a highly specific major, or combination of majors, dance and pre-med. Her advisor, Eduardo Sesatty, pointed her toward Skidmore because it was a smaller, diverse campus with a high graduation rate for students of color (80 percent) and strong dance and pre-med programs.

“He just told me, ‘Apply, it’ll be good for you,’ ” Espinoza said.

She humored him, applied, and was accepted. Skidmore flew her out for a campus preview, and she realized that was where she wanted to be.

“I fell in love with it,” she said.

Sierra Gonzales was in the opposite situation. She still isn’t sure what major she wants. For her, Princeton was a guarantee that no matter what she eventually chose to study, a degree from Princeton would hold its value. Now, in the midst of intense rigor, she sometimes wishes she’d chosen an easier path but keeps her eye on the goal: a Princeton degree.

“Adjusting to this has been hard,” Gonzales said, “But it’ll happen.”

Credit Contributed photo
Julio Martinez in New York City.

All In The Family

KIPP’s intensive college support system eventually caught the eye of San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who enlisted the help of KIPP San Antonio Founder Mark Larson to replicate some of those services within San Antonio ISD.

When it comes to getting students to and through college, Martinez and Larson have both said publicly that charters and traditional districts need to get over their differences and help each other.

San Antonio ISD even hired Sesatty, the KIPP Through College counselor who worked with Julio Martinez and Anjelica Espinoza. He joins advisors like Art Martinez, who works with students at Burbank High School. Because Burbank has an International Baccalaureate program, the school’s connection with competitive colleges like Columbia University and Middlebury University predates the revamped advising process. Art Martinez often invites Burbank alumni, who are attending or have graduated from elite universities, to speak to his juniors and seniors.  

Getting students to think about college as the natural next step in their academic career is one hurdle. However, if they can get parents on board, Art Martinez says that’s really when college becomes a possibility.

“It was so great for them to go and actually see what's happening. To me, that was the most exciting part,” he said. “... Breaking down some of those barriers confirming some of their thoughts and ideas but having them think of their own. Now you make up your own idea of how an out-of-state school looks. That was so cool."

For parents, the advisors said, it all boils down to two words: compadrazgo and confianza.  

Art Martinez says it’s worth the extra effort to include parents on school-sponsored college visits so that they can start feeling comfortable on the campuses, learning the jargon, and creating their own memories around the college experience. When he takes a group of 40 students with high PSAT scores on a college tour of the West Coast, he took nine of the parents along as well.

Credit Bekah McNeel / Contributed photo
Contributed photo
KIPP Public Charter Schools advisor Ruben Rodriguez .

  “Almost everybody said, ‘This wasn't as bad as I thought’ or ‘my child can do this,’ ” Art Martinez said.

After 10 years in college advising, that was music to his ears. A lot of times parents doubt that their students can thrive away from home. They fear for their safety — particularly their female students.

“Sometimes with their females, it can be a little harder,” said Art Martinez, and it helps to see safety measures on campus.

“It was really, really amazing and enlightening to see (the parents) so excited and taken aback when they talked to some of these college reps and they assure them there's a first-year engagement program,” he said. “We spoke to students that were first-gen from all over the country. We even had undocumented students as well come in and talk about their journey.”

All of this builds “confianza,” he said, the idea of comfort or trust in an institution.

To build compadrazgo — the sense that there’s a surrogate parent or godparent, their student can turn to for support — parents look to college faculty and staff.

This is the second in a three-part series. In the next installment of the Far From Home series, we’ll look at how colleges and universities are improving the way first-gen students and their families are welcomed into the college experience.

The "Far From Home" series is funded by an Education Writers Association reporting fellowship.
Bekah McNeel is an education reporter based out of San Antonio and can be reached at bekah.mcneel@gmail.com