On May 30, a student mariachi band played as a river barge carrying 19 high school seniors docked at the Pearl Amphitheater. Their festive arrival to the Advanced Learning Academy’s (ALA) graduation ceremony was also symbolic, as San Antonio ISD trustee Steve Lecholop and ALA principal Kathy Bieser pointed out. These students were pioneers, striking off on an adventure. An adventure that will lead to even greater adventures.
“Advanced Learning Academy’s pioneer class sitting in front of me is an impressive group,” Principal Bieser said. “They are impressive not just for their accomplishments, but for the decisions they have made along the way.”
Theirs was a bond forged in shared risk, innovation, and accomplishment. Each of the 19 seniors left other high schools to attend ALA in the Fall of 2017. That in itself is not an easy decision. They left behind comfortable settings and friends in favor of new challenges and opportunities.
According to class valedictorian Emmanuel Mendez, the choice was the right one. “I think the liberal arts approach to learning at ALA is different than what I would have experienced at a traditional high school,” Emmanuel said in a feature on the district website. “We have project-based learning in every class, and we really get to express ourselves.” Emmanuel has his choice of colleges, and is currently making his decision. He plans to study either mechanical engineering or chemistry.
All 19 ALA graduates have been accepted and will be attending college in the fall. Collectively, they were offered just shy of $3 million in scholarships, $550,000 of which they accepted to attend the colleges and universities of their choice, which include Northwestern University, Texas State University, Austin College, and St. Mary’s University.
The students know they will be forging new paths, but by now, they said, they are used to it. This class of students designed their own electives and created traditions for those classes that followed. They met with elected representatives, attended camp at the H-E-B Foundation in Leakey, Texas, and fostered inside jokes and class culture through their project-based learning experiences. Students were also handed the keys to the city through courses like ExploreSA, which many of them mentioned as a favorite.
City Education Partners has taken a hands-on approach to partnership with ALA as it grew to meet the needs, desires, and goals of these students. City Education Partners’ philanthropic support made the launch of the school possible and continues to support the Teaching and School Leadership interns within the school.
Watching the familial, joyful atmosphere at the graduation, evoked a powerful reflection on why City Education Partners was founded, and why we do what we do. When we decided to collaborate with Trinity University and SAISD to launch ALA in 2016, this really is what we had in mind. The community came together to create and design a new public school unlike any other available in the city’s urban core, while also serving as a learning laboratory for future Trinity University Teaching and Principal Interns.
Schools like ALA offer not just academic success, but the edifying, personal development along the way. These students thrived being part of something special, they wore it proudly in their bilingual speeches, tight hugs, and teenage giggles. Their academic success is real, but it will be made more effective and vibrant because they had a school that met their needs as whole people.
This is the kind of celebration we aim to see over and over again - the kind that will grow a student-centric heritage that propels graduates forward to a bright future, and one of belonging and identity.