On Oct. 2, Jefferson High School cheerleaders lined the sidewalk of their school to welcome dignitaries to the high-profile launch of the Alamo Colleges’ free tuition program, AlamoPROMISE.
The community college district invited seniors at the event to “save their seat” in the program by filling out a short online form. But as of Dec. 6 — almost a week after the preferred deadline — only 63 Jefferson seniors out of the roughly 350 enrolled had let the Alamo Colleges know they’re interested.
Most of the other high schools in the San Antonio Independent School District had similarly low numbers, including schools that arguably need the program most. Just 26 seniors have signed up at Sam Houston; less than 80 at Lanier. Both are located in neighborhoods where census data shows most adults don’t have college degrees.
Meanwhile, more than 50% of seniors have saved a seat in most of the other school districts with eligible high schools. According to the Alamo Colleges, every senior at Karen Wagner High School in the Judson school district has saved a seat. Southwest, East Central, Harlandale and Judson all had at least three out of four seniors signed up.
Edgewood, which has a similar population of students to Lanier and Sam Houston, has signed up more than 60% of its students.
Stephanie Vasquez, chief program officer for AlamoPROMISE, said she’s very aware of SAISD’s low numbers, and the community college system is working collaboratively with the district to get more of its students signed up before the final Save Your Seat deadline on Feb. 14.
“(Overall) we’re on target with where we’d expect to be,” Vasquez said. “We know some of our ISD partners came out really strong out of the gate in terms of the outreach efforts for Promise. And then with some of our ISD partners we’re still working on strengthening that relationship.”
As of Dec. 6, a total of 5,785 seniors from the 25 high schools in the first AlamoPROMISE cohort had filled out the Save Your Seat form. It lets the community college system know the student might be interested, but doesn’t commit them to going to one of the system’s five schools. The Alamo Colleges District is expecting to enroll around 3,000 students.
One of the goals of AlamoPROMISE is to boost San Antonio’s college-going rates. Vasquez said increasing access to college in neighborhoods like Sam Houston and Lanier is an important part of reaching that goal.
“Part of the message of this program, and the strength of it, is carrying the message into communities that have historically been underserved when it comes to higher education,” Vasquez said.
Eduardo Sesatty, director of postsecondary initiatives at SAISD, said the district believes in that message and is “fully on board.” He said his department is about to make a “tactical shift” to focus on PROMISE, but its first priority this fall has been helping students apply to four-year universities because they have earlier deadlines than the Alamo Colleges.
“We know that AlamoPROMISE is a game changer (for our students),” Sesatty said. “We know that the numbers are low compared to other schools. We also know that we still have a lot of time to be able to take care of that.”
Most students who apply to four-year colleges won’t receive their financial aid packets until May or June, so they won’t know if they can afford to go to their first-choice school until after the deadline for AlamoPROMISE.
For that reason, Sesatty acknowledged that it’s a good idea to save a seat in the free tuition program even if students have been accepted into other schools.
“That is the strategy: Can we open all of the options? That’s why I talk a lot about the pacing,” Sesatty said.
About one-third of the high schools in the first phase of AlamoPROMISE are in SAISD. Sesatty said the district is committed to ensuring about 1,000 SAISD seniors save a seat before the final deadline in February.
Sam Houston Principal Mateen Diop said those numbers will include “most, if not all” of his seniors.
Out of all the neighborhood high schools eligible for AlamoPROMISE next year, SAISD’s Sam Houston High School had the lowest rate of participation before the preferred deadline. Young Women’s Leadership Academy’s numbers are lower, but all of its seniors have already received college acceptance letters. The selective magnet school sets an expectation for its students to enroll in four-year universities.
We love celebrating our students! All 49 seniors have officially been accepted to college! We will add each acceptance to the board as they come in for our younger students to see what is possible! #CollegeBound #YWPNsisterhood #FriendsThemedSeniorYear https://t.co/7ot9uLYsHV
— YWLA San Antonio (@ywlasatx) December 18, 2019
Like the district as a whole, Diop said his school’s college advisors focused first on earlier deadlines, especially the federal financial aid form and applications to selective four-year universities.
“That’s our major push in the fall: to get those early applications in, and get those early acceptances because that’s where the scholarship monies come in. So those students who are showing that kind of resolve, and parents that are pushing — that’s what we do first,” Diop said.
Diop said Sam Houston has a strong relationship with the Alamo Colleges, especially St. Philip’s, its East Side neighbor, and the two schools will be working closely together in the coming weeks to help students fill out the Save Your Seat form during alumni visits and other personal interactions.
“We know that college really is a game changer. It can really disrupt poverty, and this is one of the highest poverty neighborhoods in San Antonio,” Diop said. “The ones who can go to four-year colleges, we’re trying to push them into four-year colleges. And then the ones who maybe they don’t know what they want to do … we’re trying to push them into any college that fits them.”
While Sam Houston participated in the district-wide Save Your Seat event at the Alamo Convocation Center earlier this semester, Diop said that may not have been the best method to for his students.
“As the principal here, I can control these four walls. I can control what happens in my building. When we leave and go to a huge event like that it’s kind of hit or miss. I mean, some may have a cell phone and some may not, and some may not be able to do it or we can’t really focus on them the way we want,” Diop said. “The beauty of what we do here is when they’re in our college hub they get personalized attention. One on one. And a lot of times that’s what our kids need.”