Restorative Practices: My Experience with Student-Led Healing Circles

Restorative Practices: My Experience with Student-Led Healing Circles

In November of last year, I was invited by Derrick Brown, Principal of the Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA) and a Cohort 3 member of UP Partnership’s Restorative Practices Collaborative (RPC), to sit in on a restorative justice healing circle. Principal Brown began implementing healing circles in his school after a visit to Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) alongside UP Partnership staff and other Bexar County community members.

Going into the visit, he believed punitive discipline – such as in school or out of school suspensions – was how distracting behaviors should be addressed. The visit to OUSD, however, helped him realize there are other ways to think about addressing behaviors and getting to the root cause of why students act the way they do in situations.

I asked him if there was one moment, one thing that made the benefits of restorative justice clear and he told me that no school in OUSD had a security guard on campus.

“That was a real eye opener,” he explained. “We visited OUSD a few months after the Uvalde school shooting and I was shocked that no campus in the district had security guards because they don’t need them. Students have ways to make amends, accept differences and work through difficult situations in a healing manner and I want my school to be that way as well.”

Brown’s passion and enthusiasm about a different approach to discipline is now obvious when you listen to him speak about restorative justice and the impact it has already had on the young men who attend YMLA. He is the same way when he talks about the impact he wants to have on his students and the school itself.

The hallways of the YMLA are a testament to the past and the possibilities of the future. The school building itself was one of the first public schools in San Antonio to open its doors and from 1933 until the end of the 1969-1970 school year, it was known as Wheatley High School, an all Black school. The school went through a few name changes —in 1972, it became Emerson Middle School and was renamed Wheatley High School in 1988 — before the Young Men’s Leadership Academy opened in 2015 and the name was changed to reflect the new school.

Pictures of the school throughout the years, as well as those of Black leaders, both nationally and locally, remind us that we have come a long way, but there is still much to do. Hanging from the walls in every hallway are pennant flags from colleges and universities across the nation — a daily visual reminder that the future is wide open for the young men at the school.

As we neared the door to the healing circle room, Principal Brown explained that he set up his room exactly like a school at OUSD had theirs set up. He wants the space to be inviting, calming, somewhere where the outside world fades away so students can fully focus on being present during circle time.

There are two doors to the room — one you enter through and the other you exit through. The idea is students walk into the room with their anger, hurt, disagreements but, when they exit, they leave all of those negative thoughts and feelings behind and emerge heard, healed and with the knowledge of how to handle difficult situations in the future.

Walking through the entrance door, I was no longer in a school hallway but, rather, in a tranquil oasis of calm and relaxation. The walls of the room are draped with see through white curtains and strings of white lights. There are plants throughout the space and an indoor water fountain that provides the comfort of hearing running water.

“It is a unique and welcoming environment and a calming place because it is filled with positive energy,” said one 6th grade student that participated in the circle.

I have, previously, taken part in healing circles with adults, but none in a space like Principal Brown created and none that included students. The reason that day’s circle was being held was to address an argument that happened between three students during lunch time that resulted in name calling.

In the center of the room, there are twelve pillows arranged in a circle on the floor. In the middle of the pillow circle is a ceramic base topped with a decorative art piece.

As the three students involved in the conflict got comfortable in the circle, Principal Brown started circle time off with a brief explanation of what it means and the outcome he would like to see from the restorative time together. He subsequently introduced two circle leaders, from the 6th and 8th grade, who were there to guide the students through the restorative process. These are also lessons that Principal Brown refined through his training time in RPC.

For the remainder of the session, the two student circle leaders explored the incident in question, the root causes of why each young man reacted how they did, tools and techniques that can be used in future situations that will deescalate emotions and behaviors and how each person would like to the repair the relationships that had been broken.

“I came into the circle because of an argument I had with someone that turned physical,” explained an 8th grade student. “From the circle, I learned what to do better in situations, how to be a better person and how to help other kids who have disagreements.”

For the 6th grade student, “This group is about helping kids that make mistakes to get out of trouble and restore a relationship that was important to them that had been damaged by harm.”

As adults, our emotions and triggers are usually complex and layered that may take a lot of work to address but for these young men, their answers were straightforward, honest, trusting of the restorative process and the desire to return to friendship was real.

Although the circle only took no more than 20 minutes in its entirety, each young man was able to speak for himself, listen to each other and collaboratively create an environment where healing took precedence over anger. At the end of the circle the boys were laughing with each other, truly enjoying the return to friendship.

This is what restorative practices are meant to do. With heavy roots in indigenous culture, restorative practices aim to address harmful behavior in a manner that emphasizes community impact and allows those who have harmed, to have a voice in the healing process.

“RPC is a unique program that addresses the needs of the whole student in Bexar County,” explains Suzette Solorzano, UP Partnership’s K12 and Justice Senior Manager of Coaching and Facilitation, who oversees the Restorative Practices Collaborative. “Our work is one that focuses on building community and fostering a sense of belonging while keeping students in class learning. Through processes like circles, students walk away feeling connected, valued and respected within their school community.”

RPC and the My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio network work is primarily rooted in the equity pillar of Healing which, along with Access and Voice, are the must HAVEs for equity amongst Bexar County’s young people.

Tied to the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, in which more than 90 cross-sector community partners have made actionable commitments toward the equity pillars that prioritize providing young people with the developmental relationships and healing supports they need to reach the plan’s North Star Goal of increasing the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in a postsecondary degree or credential program to 70% by 2030.

If your organization is ready to join in on the Future Ready movement or the Restorative Practices Collaborative, click here to find out more information on how you can become a Future Ready partner. You can also follow our progress by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media.

Future Ready partners guide local high school juniors and seniors with options for their post-high school success

Future Ready partners guide local high school juniors and seniors with options for their post-high school success

On Jan. 19 and 26, partners in UP Partnership’s system’s change networks Diplomás, Excel Beyond the Bell San Antonio and My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio, in collaboration with Workforce Solutions Alamo, hosted the annual Future Ready Youth Summit which brought together approximately 800 high school students from CAST Schools, Edgewood, East Central, Harlandale, Judson, Northside, San Antonio, Southwest and Lytle Independent School Districts at Northeast Lakeview College. Programming at the summit provided college and career planning guidance to students in attendance.

Future Ready Partners from local school districts, colleges and universities and youth development organizations came together to co-create and facilitate the summit’s programming, which included career and degree pathways, college 101 and financial aid guidance.

With a diverse student population in attendance, many had some idea of what careers they wanted to pursue and the dream colleges they wanted to attend. Some professions mentioned by students in attendance included business, book editor, construction, mechanic, medicine, plumbing steganography, teaching and video game design.

According to student interviews, attendees had college and university aspirations that varied from in-state institutions such as the University of Texas at San Antonio, to out-of-state institutions, and even international elite schools such as Oxford University in England, according to young people interviewed at the event.

Some attendees didn’t yet have any college or career plans after graduation. For one student, they didn’t feel future ready “when I go outside my family and home.” For another, they felt like they are “walking alone in trying to figure out a plan for after high school graduation and the person [they] want to be in the future.”

Still others accredited not being ready for life beyond high school to their lack of general knowledge like how to get a credit and/or debit card, how to prepare for college, the possible financial burden of student loans or not having enough details about career pathways.

Career and Degree Pathway sessions offered insights about career possibilities, degree options, setting career goals, internships, paid work experiences, apprenticeships, diversity and cultural differences in career choices and the importance of professional networking.

“I learned that the highest paying jobs are currently those in the engineering field,” said one high school junior. “The presenter also spoke about his own personal experience with trade schools which made me realize that there are other educational options I can explore aside from only attending a college or university.”

College 101 explored college course opportunities, which included topics such as degree plans, general courses, major and minor selection, electives and course load; college beyond the classroom, which included information on activities such as student government, community activities, club, societies, extracurriculars, greek life and studying abroad; as well as information on funding a college degree, which included topics such as scholarships, loans, grants and general financial literacy.

“In College 101, I learned about all the possible degree pathways and all of the extracurricular activities that are offered,” one junior said. “I didn’t know that you could take college courses for fun.”

For one senior, learning about the opportunity to study abroad was exciting. “I didn’t know that colleges offered students the chance to study in another country,” he said. “That is definitely something that I am interested in exploring when I go to college.”

For other seniors, the importance of time management and making a sustainable schedule was an important insight they gained. As one explained, “College is very different from high school. You get to make your own schedule, choose what classes you are going to take, and it is important to think about time management as well.”

Other students took away different lessons from the summit.

“I learned that it is important to focus on yourself first- I need to know what career I want to pursue and the best postsecondary options to reach that goal,” explained one junior..

For another junior “ I still have time to figure out the best college or university that fits into my needs. I don’t need to rush into any decisions right now.”

One major insight for a senior was the importance of having a mentor. “For me, having a mentor who can help guide me through this process is extremely helpful,” they said. “That way, if there is something I don’t know or understand, I will have someone who can help me.”

In addition to sessions they attended, the students listened to inspiring stories from Keynote Speakers that included San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg; Dr. Tangila Dove, Northeast Lakeview College’s Vice President of Student Success; Warren Hurd, Northeast Lakeview College’s Vice President of College Services; Gable Crowder, Big Brothers Big Sisters of South Texas’ Director of Community Engagement; Dr. Ryan Lugalia-Hollon, UP Partnership’s CEO; and Dr. Emily Calderón Galdeano, UP Partnership’s Chief Impact and Strategy Officer.

Providing access to information and resources about college readiness, the college admissions process and career pathways, aligns with the Access pillar of the Future Ready Bexar County Plan. This community-wide plan brings together more than 90 cross-sector partners working toward the plan’s collective North Star goal — to increase the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in postsecondary degree or credential programs to 70% by 2030. It focuses on three equity pillars of Healing, Access and Voice — the must HAVEs for equity amongst Bexar County’s young people.

A BIG thank you to everyone that made the Future Ready Youth Summit a success:
Alamo Colleges District: Dr. Christina Cortez, Bridgedette Garza and Miriam Magdaleno; American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions: Viviana Gorena Guillen and Robert Bruce Prior; Bexar County: Amy Halstead; Communities In Schools of San Antonio: Darla-Nicole Acosta; Girls Inc. of San Antonio: Tyla Oliver and Karina Ortiz; Good Samaritan Community Services: Patrice Owens; Northeast Lakeview College: Rebecca Alejos; SEE to ACT: Hayden de Maisoneuve Yates and Donna Hunnicutt-Rodriguez; San Antonio College: Dr. Samuel Byndom and Bertha Castellanos; San Antonio Education Partnership: Salvador Acosta and Aliaha Austin-Holmes; San Antonio ISD: Andrew Cervantes, Dustin Nieto and Dr. Jessica Perales; Texas A&M University San Antonio: Alissa Meyer; Trinity University: Nicole Fratto Garcia; Trinity Advising Corps: Eduardo Reyes Acosta, Joshua Anaya Karina Calderon and Fatima Perez; University of Texas at San Antonio: Nallely Castillo, Taylor Cole, Victoria Gorena, Maricela Luevano, Victoria Margo, Mike Rubio and Chanell Williams; University of the Incarnate Word: Jessica de La Rosa and Dr. Diana Sanchez; Workforce Solutions Alamo (WSA): Sandra Rodriguez, as well as WSA’s Hire Ability and YES! Program; and YWCA San Antonio: Crystal Ellis and Abigail Teveni, as well as representatives from: Bexar County Sheriff Department; BiblioTech; Big Brothers and Big Sisters of South Texas; Boy With A Ball; Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas; DreamSA; The Dream.US; greater:SATX; Northwest Vista College; Our Lady of the Lake University; Palo Alto College; St. Philip’s College; Southwest Research Institute; Students of Service – San Antonio.

If your organization is ready to join in on the Future Ready movement, click here to find out more information on how you can become a Future Ready partner. You can also follow our progress by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media.

New initiative saves a spot at UTSA for high-achieving SAISD juniors

New initiative saves a spot at University of Texas San Antonio for high-achieving San Antonio ISD juniors

UP Partnership facilitated connection through Equitable Enrollment Collaborative and Future Ready Plan

The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) and San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) today announced a new pathway that will provide high-achieving students from SAISD high schools with direct admission to UTSA as early as their junior year. The new program aims to remove barriers for SAISD students who want to pursue a college degree, helping them feel confident that they have a top-quality institution secured to pursue their bachelor’s degree once they graduate from high school.

The direct admission program is open to all SAISD students who are in the top 25% of their high school graduating class at the end of their fifth semester—the fall semester of their junior year. UTSA will accept the first cohort of students in Fall 2024.

“UTSA is deeply committed to growing the workforce and positively impacting the economic development of San Antonio by preparing students to succeed in the jobs of the future,” said UTSA President Taylor Eighmy.

“We have enjoyed a strong partnership with SAISD for many years, but this new program is especially exemplary of UTSA’s keen focus on student success and its desire to make higher education more accessible, especially for those from underserved communities.”

Nearly 75% percent of SAISD’s students come from families that are economically disadvantaged.

“We are committed to providing transformational learning experiences for our students, and this partnership with UTSA will help our students more easily access the life-changing tool of postsecondary education,” said SAISD superintendent Jaime Aquino.

“We are proud of this partnership that offers our students exceptional support as they enroll and persist in their studies at UTSA.”

Many SAISD high school graduates who matriculate to UTSA will be eligible for UTSA Bold Promise, a tuition and assistance program for eligible Texas residents with annual household incomes of $70,000 or less. The program covers 100% of UTSA’s tuition and mandatory fees. This financial aid is crucial in eliminating one of the biggest barriers for students striving to obtain a college degree.

“Graduates who earn college degrees are consistently shown to have more career possibilities, higher earnings overall and a better quality of life,” said Lynn Barnes, UTSA senior vice provost for strategic enrollment. UTSA is committed to providing high-quality, affordable education for anyone who wishes to pursue a degree. We’re excited to help the San Antonio ISD students and families understand the educational opportunities available to them and how to make them a reality.”

Last fall, 62% of students ages 16 to 24 who graduated from U.S. high schools were enrolled in colleges or universities, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Fall 2019, prior to the pandemic, the college enrollment rate in the United States was 66%.

SAISD has experienced similar trends. This fall, 80% of the district’s 2023 graduating class applied to college, 50% of those students were admitted and 64% enrolled in either a two-year or four-year institution. By contrast, prior to the pandemic, 94% of the district’s 2019 graduating seniors applied to college, 74% were admitted and 52% enrolled in college.

“This is one of the strategic partnerships we are proud to have as we continue to grow our postsecondary enrollment numbers past our pre-pandemic rates,” said Dustin Nieto, coordinator for postsecondary services at SAISD.

To launch the new direct admission program, SAISD notified more than 700 high achieving SAISD juniors about the opportunity to be offered direct admission by UTSA. More than 400 of those students indicated they were interested in joining UTSA’s Fall 2024 entering class. Of those, 282 have already completed or are completing UTSA’s admission application.

One of those students is Angie Martinez, a senior at Brackenridge High School. Martinez, who is the first in her family to graduate from high school and attend college, was overcome with the opportunity her admission offer provided.

“When I had that message last year about the direct admission to UTSA, I started crying,” Martinez said. “It was the first school that accepted me. I got so excited. I cried, and I told my mom about it, and she cried as well. UTSA was a first choice. I wanted to be near home and it’s such a good school. For financial stuff as well, they give a lot of good opportunities.”

In addition to their direct admission, SAISD students who choose to matriculate to UTSA would also earn direct admission to the UTSA Honors College, which is home to 2,000-plus high-achieving students across all majors. The college is home to one of the most unique experiential honors curricula in the nation.

That possibility is extremely attractive to Yasmin Perez, a Jefferson High School senior, who will major in mechanical engineering.

“It interests me just being in a tight-knit community,” Perez said. “In high school I’ve been in the IB program, which is also a really small program. Having a smaller group that I can interact with more, maybe have more interaction with my professors, that’s something that I really value.”

At the same time, SAISD students who accept their invitations to the UTSA Honors College will receive a $1,500 stipend each semester if they choose to live on campus, independent of financial need. First-year students in the UTSA Honors College live in Guadalupe Hall, one of the university’s newest living-learning communities.

The new early notification system allows the institution’s admissions staff to have additional touchpoints, support and communication opportunities throughout the enrollment process with SAISD students, many of whom, like Perez, are among the first generations in their families to attend college.

“They’ve been really helpful showing you the process of the steps,” Perez said. “UTSA sends me a lot of emails. They’re very precise on what they send you, so I really benefit from that. It has not just been emails. They’ve also called, whether it is reminding me about the scholarships, the honors college or dorming — just them checking up, reassuring you.”

SAISD and UTSA began discussing the concept for the direct admission program in August 2022, including how they might collaborate to pre-qualify SAISD students for automatic admission to UTSA by streamlining processes and removing barriers to data sharing.

Aquino and Eighmy are members of the board of directors of UP Partnership, a San Antonio nonprofit that aims to increase economic mobility for young people through higher education. UP Partnership created opportunities for UTSA and SAISD to conceptualize, discuss and design their direct admission program as the lead driver of a communitywide strategic plan called Future Ready Bexar County.

Through the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, UP Partnership works with more than 90 institutional partners to create equitable, data-driven solutions that prepare Bexar County students for the future with an aligned North Star goal that calls for 70% of Bexar County high school graduates to be in a degree or credential program by 2030.

“As the driver of the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, we consistently challenge our institutional partners to think differently about how they work in order to set our community’s young people up for a better future,” said Briana Hagalgans, UP Partnership director of K12 and Postsecondary. 

Future Ready Bexar County celebrates nearly $114 million in funding

Future Ready Bexar County celebrates nearly $114 million in funding

Participating organizations convene to organize and amplify efforts into 2024

SAN ANTONIO – Today, Future Ready Bexar County partners gathered to celebrate a historic almost $114 million in funding received by local anchor partners and national philanthropic investor Blue Meridian Partners. These investments will help the strategic community plan enter its next phase – which scales, deepens and strengthens initial community efforts to achieve the plan’s North Star goal of increasing the percentage of Bexar County high school graduates enrolling in a postsecondary degree or credential program to 70% by 2030. Reaching this goal through this first-ever countywide alignment will significantly improve the economic mobility of San Antonio youth and can have positive ripple effects for the future. Local nonprofit UP Partnership serves as Future Ready’s convening and coordinating backbone organization and drives the strategic plan’s progress across more than 90 institutional partners aligned with the plan’s goals.

The event served as a convening of the plan’s Coordinating Committee and the Joint Leadership Table (JOLT), which will lead the community organizations through the next phase of the Future Ready plan. During the next six years, these efforts will be boosted with funding, enabling the aligned organizations to expand, deepen and strengthen initial countywide efforts.

“This is a monumental investment in Bexar County’s children and youth, which will, no doubt, have a positive impact on our region’s future,” said UP Partnership Chair of the Board Elaine Mendoza. “This private investment in Bexar County’s young people is geared toward strategic efforts of Future Ready Bexar County partners who are working together to increase San Antonio’s economic well-being.”

When the Future Ready Bexar County Plan launched in 2022, UP Partnership provided leaders across San Antonio and Bexar County with the shared vision, language, goals, metrics, support, and initial convenings needed to drive aligned contributions toward the Plan’s North Star. During this phase, more than 90 institutional partners made concrete action commitments to scaling Healing, Access, and Voice for young people who undergo their services. These three focus areas are mutually agreed upon must-haves for advancing equity.

“Through its equity pillars of Healing, Access and Voice, the Future Ready Bexar County Plan is a national model for how we can strengthen every aspect of our city to better support children and youth,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

Funding Specifics

Of the almost $114 million, $64 million of private capital comes primarily from four of the local Future Ready Bexar County anchor partner institutions – United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County, the Charles Butt Foundation, the H. E. Butt Foundation and the San Antonio Area Foundation (SAAFdn), as well as additional support from USAA, the Greater Texas Foundation and the Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas, Inc. 

Through successful implementation, this next phase of the Future Ready plan could unlock up to $330 million in public resources through 2030, which includes Pell Grants, College, Career and Military Readiness state funds, and local public dollar alignment. The City of San Antonio Department of Human Services will work with our youth-serving delegate agency partners to contribute to Future Ready Bexar County outcomes.

A catalyzing investment of $50 million is coming from national philanthropic investor Blue Meridian Partners, which identifies, invests in, and scales up strategies that target drivers of poverty from cradle to career.

“We believe that Future Ready Bexar County is poised to uproot multiple difficult challenges confronting youth and families in poverty in the San Antonio area,” said Othello Meadows, a Managing Director at Blue Meridian.  “The vision set by UP Partnership and its dozens of committed community partners exemplifies why we invest in place-based partnerships through our Place Matters portfolio

In 2020, Blue Meridian provided UP Partnership and the San Antonio Area Foundation an $8 million investment across two years, which was used for planning and to lay the groundwork for the current work, as well as invest in community-based organizations helping to ensure young people’s recovery from the COVID pandemic.

Anchor Partners and their roles

Today’s event formally introduced the Coordinating Committee of anchor partner institutions that will coordinate the private capital to create a shared operating environment for child and youth-serving partners across Bexar County to fulfill their Future Ready action commitments, uproot isolation between sectors and drive communitywide progress. Together, they will create a connected and relationship-rich city that helps young people thrive. The next phase will be supported by anchor partner institutions and intermediaries supporting the multiple school districts that will play a key ecosystem-level role in the plan implementation. These institutions are fully committed to achieving the Future Ready North Star goal and equity pillars, including embedding a postsecondary-going culture across Bexar County institutions and the community. 

Each anchor partner has a defined role in coordinating, organizing and advancing the work of the Future Ready Plan across the more than 90 partner institutions. 

The anchor partner institutions include United Way of San Antonio & Bexar County, San Antonio Area Foundation, H. E. Butt Foundation, Communities In Schools of San Antonio, CAST Schools Network, Charles Butt Foundation, and Alamo Colleges District.

Our commitment ensures students will have resource-rich learning environments that drive high-quality learning experiences, pushing us closer to meeting Future Ready Bexar County’s North Star of 70% postsecondary enrollment by the year 2030,” said Chris Martin, the CEO of United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County. 

Similarly, SAAFdn’s funding focuses on youth-focused grants supporting Future Ready initiatives.

“The Area Foundation will coordinate $25 million in funds to help Future Ready partners fulfill their action commitments to Healing, Access, and Voice,” said Lisa Brunsvold, the foundation’s interim CEO. 

Additional funding from the H. E. Butt Foundation has a similar focus.

“Our focus will be to invest in building the organizational and leadership capacity of Future Ready partners committed to advancing Healing, Access, and Voice pillars at scale,” says H. E. Butt Foundation’s President and CEO David Rogers.

Other anchor partners focus on campus-driven initiatives and coordination. 

“Communities In Schools of San Antonio is dedicated to coordinating resources and services between partners and campuses, ensuring the districts and post-secondary programs have the resources they need to meet the North Star goal by 2030,” said Communities In Schools of San Antonio President & CEO Jessica Weaver.

Additionally, funding from the Charles Butt Foundation will support anchor partner CAST Schools to strengthen and scale platforms for youth voice. CAST will ensure Future Ready strategies integrate the experiences and values of those most directly affected, young people themselves, in determining the terms of their future – thereby increasing local buy-in, engagement, impact, and sustainability of investment.

“CAST Schools advance Future Ready activities focused on youth voice by working to showcase, document, and expand practices that engage young people in shared decision making and co-creation,” said Jeanne Russell, CAST Schools Executive Director. “We’re looking forward to participating, along with our youth, in the Joint Leadership Table, growing signature community-wide programs such as Speak Up Speak Out, and supporting youth-led research, grantmaking, and advocacy.”

Anchor Partner Alamo Colleges District leads efforts for expanding multiple early pathways to post-secondary enrollment. 

The Alamo Colleges District is proud to advance the work of the Future Ready Plan alongside our partners. Our work will focus on enhancing economic and social mobility for our students by providing an expanded reach of our comprehensive advising services with partnering school districts and youth development agencies,” said Alamo Colleges District Chancellor Mike Flores.

To ensure these efforts meet their intended goals, bimonthly Joint Leadership Table meetings comprised of a senior leader, a youth leader and an additional institutional representative from each Future Ready partner promotes, shares and circulates successes in advancing goals tied to the plan’s equity pillars.

Bexar County’s impact on young people presented on a national stage at annual collective impact conference

Bexar County's impact on young people presented on a national stage at annual collective impact conference

In a standing room only session at StriveTogether’s 2023 Cradle to Career Network Convening in San Francisco, Calif. Future Ready Bexar County partners Amy Contreras, Assistant to Director at the City of San Antonio’s Workforce Development Office, Dr. Jeniffer Richardson, DM, MAOM, Senior Vice President, Strategic and Policy Initiatives at United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County and Dr. Emily Calderón Galdeano, Ed.D., Chief Impact and Strategy Officer at UP Partnership, led a panel session entitled “Working Together: How Government Leaders and Community Organizations are Collaborating for Long-Lasting Change.” 

The session focused primarily on how Bexar County is working collaboratively through the Future Ready Bexar County Plan to increase economic mobility for young people through a shared North Star goal of increasing the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in a postsecondary degree or credential program to 70% by 2030. Team San Antonio shared how cross-sector community partners have come together to help address the postsecondary barriers faced by young people in our community and improve their opportunities and outcomes in life.

This was just one of many examples of San Antonio shining its light at StriveTogether’s Cradle to Career Network Convening. For the past 12 years, StriveTogether has convenednational partners and community leaders for three days of connecting, learning and collective thought partnership focused on creating positive changes for young people across the country. 

This year, UP Partnership staff was joined by several key Future Ready Bexar County partners including the San Antonio Area Foundation, United Way of San Antonio, CAST Schools Network, City of San Antonio Workforce Development, and Bexar County Juvenile Justice. Along with Contreras and Richardson, Team San Antonio also included Jennifer Cook, Director of Strategy and Impact at the San Antonio Area Foundation, Andrea Figueroa, Senior Program Officer of Youth Success at the San Antonio Area Foundation, Jennifer Maestas, Community and Educator Engagement Manager at CAST Schools Network and Holly Pompa, Trauma-Informed Program Manager at Bexar County.

Team San Antonio joined over 500 national participants for plenaries, sessions and workshops designed to further align on the importance of continued collective impact work — ensuring that all young people have equitable pathways to the best possible successes in life.

It was also a celebration for Team San Antonio, as UP Partnership and Bexar County were once again recognized for becoming one of the most recent communities in the StriveTogether national network to receive the Systems Transformation designation, joining six other StriveTogether communities in the country: Appalachian Cradle-to-Career Partnership (Berea, KY), E3 Alliance (Austin, TX), Higher Expectations for Racine County (Racine, WI), Learn to Earn Dayton (Dayton, OH), Northfield Promise (Northfield, MN), Promise Partnership of Salt Lake (Salt Lake City, UT) and Spartanburg Academic Movement (Spartanburg, SC). 

Through the StriveTogether’s Theory of Action™, communities complete an assessment of their civic infrastructure and progress toward aligning resources around better and more equitable outcomes for young people. The Systems Transformation designation is the top designation a community can reach as it advances through Exploring, Emerging, Sustaining, Systems Change and Systems Transformation designations.

The Systems Transformation designation, and the continued work in Bexar County, could not have been done without the hard work of the partners who have made actionable commitments to the Future Ready Bexar County Plan that are rooted in the equity pillars of Healing, Access and Voice — the must HAVEs for equity amongst Bexar County’s young people.

Team San Antonio partners appreciated the convening for providing “opportunities to learn more about youth development focused work and connect with others who are engaged in collective impact work,” said Richardson.

Contreras added that she was pleased with the “large number of trainings offered, which provided a variety of best practices from which to learn.”

Pompa looked forward to the convening and “meeting with, and learning from, people who are working toward similar advancements of opportunities and equity for young people.” Ultimately, “the convening was a joy to attend. I only wish there had been more days so that I could attend more sessions.”

While partners learned and celebrated accomplishments, UP Partnership staff shared insights, challenges and achievements of work being completed in San Antonio. Three additional sessions highlighted the work that is being done both internally, and through two of UP Partnership’s continuous improvement collaboratives that support and scale the commitment to young people in Bexar County. Those sessions included:

Fostering Organizational Change Through Communities of Practice,” led by Shelby Drayton, K12 and Youth Development’s Senior Manager of Coaching and Facilitation at UP Partnership and Dr. Miray Seward, PhD, Research Scientist at Search Institute. Participants learned about UP Partnership and Search Institute’s partnership within the Excel Academy to catalyze a youth-serving ecosystem that centers around developmental relationships, racial equity and the Results Count Framework to promote organizational change.
Internal Systems Transformation: HR, Finance and Development,” led by UP Partnership team members Kimberly Sama, Chief Finance and Operations Officer, J’Shcarla Adkins, Senior Manager of Finance and Operations, Patrick Farris, Manager of Development and Grants, Brandon Henson, Director of Finance and Operations and Kristen Kitler, HR Manager of Team Success. Together, they created a unique space for backbone staff focused on internal organizational health to share best practices, tools, and resources. This session provided a foundation for relationship-building and collaborative internal systems design and operational experience-sharing, responding to universal challenges facing non-profit and collective impact organizations.
Journey Toward Equitable Enrollment in Bexar County,” led by UP Partnership team members Briana Hagelgans, Ed.D., Director of K12 and Postsecondary, and Lowell Butler, Ed.D., K12 and Postsecondary Senior Manager of Coaching and Facilitation. They discussed the creation and evolution of the Equitable Enrollment Collaborative, which consists of 20 partner organizations representing K-12, higher education and nonprofit organizations, as it works to actively dissolve barriers in postsecondary enrollment for young people in Bexar County.

UP Partnership’s Equitable Enrollment Collaborative works with community organizations to ensure access for Bexar County’s young people

UP Partnership’s Equitable Enrollment Collaborative works with community organizations to ensure access for Bexar County's young people

Today, many young people in Bexar County still face significant barriers to enrolling in, and attaining, a postsecondary education. Disproportionately, it is marginalized student groups — students of color, students from low-income families — that are most likely to experience those barriers.

While it is clear that postsecondary education offers the greatest potential to alter the outcomes of young people and their communities, in 2020 only 50% of all young people graduating high school in Bexar County enrolled in a college, university or credential program after high school graduation.

Addressing those barriers is where UP Partnership’s Equitable Enrollment Collaborative (EEC) focuses their efforts. 

The EEC supports the advancement of more equitable enrollment strategies for the young people in Bexar County. 

Briana Hagelgans, Ed.D., UP Partnership’s Director of K12 and Postsecondary, the department that leads the EEC’s convenings said that “through EEC, leaders from two- and four- year higher educational institutions, representatives from Bexar County school districts and community based leaders work together to address the challenges to postsecondary enrollment,” in an effort to drive toward the Future Ready Bexar County Plan’s collective North Star goal of increasing the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in a postsecondary degree or credential program to 70% by 2030.

“Together, we can work through barriers that students commonly face when navigating their transition into postsecondary,” Hagelgans added.

The Beginnings of the Equitable Enrollment Collaborative

Initially started in 2021 as a joint initiative between Diplomás and My Brother’s Keeper San Antonio, two of UP Partnership’s systems change networks, the EEC offered a space for secondary and postsecondary professionals to convene and begin building formal and actionable strategies to increase postsecondary enrollment and success for students of color — especially young men of color — and Dreamer students that would lead to a living-wage career and economic mobility.

During its first two years, the EEC supported local school districts, institutions of higher education and community based organizations in analyzing their internal data college application and enrollment data. 

By tracking the number of students completing college applications and the number of students completing financial aid applications (FAFSA or TASFA), EEC members could see where gaps and barriers existed within their own organizations and begin the shift in policies and programs to systematically close those gaps and remove those barriers. 

There were many successes during the initial work of the EEC including:

One local school district identified lower college-going rates among its Emergent Bilingual students and launched a strategy to deliver college advising in multiple languages.
Another partner led “Senior Saturdays” to help young people and their families navigate FAFSA applications and they were also able to meet with enrollment advisors from a local higher education institution building cross-sector bridges to support student success.
One university partner hosted six mini-summits engaging a total of 309 students from four EEC school districts. These mini-summits contributed to the university’s enrollment of 254 Dreamer students for that fall semester.

According to Texas A&M University – San Antonio’s Executive Director of Student Success, who is a member of the EEC, the efforts were “[creating] the kind of environment where high school Dreamers can picture themselves [in college],” and the work being done plays an important role in building “a direct pipeline to higher education.”

Evolution of EEC under Future Ready Bexar County

In 2022, UP Partnership looked in depth at the EEC and realized that the focus of the collaborative needed to change in order to meet the Future Ready North Star enrollment goal. While institutions were successfully implementing changes to increase equitable enrollment, that existing model of work could not be scaled to its full potential across Bexar County.

As part of EEC’s evolution, UP Partnership actively garnered input from its partners on what the next phase of the EEC should look like in an effort to reach a collective equitable postsecondary enrollment strategy.After much discussion, it was decided that, moving forward, the EEC’s way of thinking would shift from “what we can change in our own institution” to “what can we change together across institutions.”

The work to remove barriers 

The EEC is now heavily responsible for scaling the Future Ready Bexar County Plan’s equity pillar of Access, which along with Healing and Voice, has been identified as the must HAVEs amongst Bexar County’s young people. 

To do this, they are addressing three major barriers young people face to postsecondary enrollment in Bexar County. These barriers were identified in discussions with EEC partners on the next phase of scaling the collaborative’s work:

1: There is no clear and aligned definition of what “college readiness” is in Bexar County.

As community partners began coming together to advance collaborative postsecondary work, a pattern emerged of students not being adequately prepared for postsecondary opportunities because different institutions used different formal definitions of “college readiness.” 

Local school districts refer to the definition of the Texas Education Agency, while institutions of higher education use the definition of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Those separate definitions are a major barrier to shared data measurement and strategic partnerships between secondary and postsecondary institutions.

To address this barrier, the EEC brought Future Ready community partners together in conversations that led to  the adoption of three established K12 and higher education metrics of “college readiness” to support the building of a shared advising framework and curriculum in an effort to create alignment in practices and policies across community partners. 

2: There is a lack of clarity around student pathways from K-12 to Postsecondary Education or Credential Training.


Through its work in Bexar County, the EEC holds the closest focus on the Future Ready Bexar County Plan’s North Star goal of reaching 70% postsecondary enrollment by 2030. To that end, the collaborative fosters partner-initiated policies and programs that secure pathways for all young people in the community to have access to postsecondary enrollment opportunities and success. 

Direct admissions initiatives are one pathway for postsecondary enrollment and the groundwork for successful initiatives that provide access for Bexar County’s young people to get affordable two-year and four-year degrees.  These opportunities are accessible through Alamo Colleges Foundation’s AlamoPROMISE, the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Bold Promise, both of the institutions’ Promise-to-Promise and Texas A&M – San Antonio’s Achiever Promise.

“What this work shows is that all community partners believe in graduating high school seniors in Bexar County as we help them move forward to postsecondary enrollment and success,” said one Future Ready partner at the Future Ready Bexar County Leadership Table held in July of this year.

3: There is a lack of alignment on how partners track and integrate data about postsecondary barriers and readiness.

Data is a vital component to drive collaborative work forward but often, cross-sector partners either don’t have access to others’ data or the data collection, metrics, descriptions and use vary by individual organizations. The EEC is striving toward standardizing data and data collection so that community partners can access it in one central location.

The ultimate goal for collecting, analyzing and sharing data is a real-time data integration model that helps community partners identify early indicators of at-risk students, evaluate the effectiveness of programs and interventions both in and out of school and track college and career readiness and students’ engagement with community youth development organizations.

Initial work on this model began this past January with the EEC leading a discovery phase with six local school districts to identify the presence of college advisors and resources across high school grades 9-12. This phase revealed that the current college advising system — grades served, content and models — is not the same across Bexar County school districts. Identifying these inconsistencies has allowed partners to begin advancing strategies to address those existing gaps.

Additional work continued through a needs assessment of Future Ready partners around a shared problem — how to transition more students into postsecondary programs starting in high school that will lead to credentials of value.

This included landscape mapping for two different school districts that examined high-quality advising and support and explored career centered pathway programs, such as dual credit, advanced placement and/or college prep, that lead to a postsecondary or credential enrollment.

The results showed that Bexar County has a rich landscape of pathway programs, which were particularly notable across the community partners that participated in this assessment. It also yielded ways to improve existing pathway programs, with the community partners using that information to scale their work in Bexar County.

By working together in collaboration, the work of the Equitable Enrollment Collaborative strives to better the future for all young people in Bexar County and these tests of change are a continuation of cross-sector collaboration, through which our community can  create more equitable access to postsecondary opportunities for our young people.

If your organization is ready to join in on the Future Ready movement, please contact to find out more information on how you can become a Future Ready partner.You can also follow our progress by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media.

Bexar County Network Receives National Recognition for Advancing Education Initiatives for Young People

Bexar County Network Receives National Recognition for Advancing Education Initiatives for Young People

In recognition of its impact on the lives of young people across Bexar County, StriveTogether has designated UP Partnership as a “Systems Transformation” Cradle to Career Network member, the top designation for communities in its national network, making it one of six total communities to do so in the country. 

In Systems Transformation communities, cradle-to-career partnerships work with systems leaders to make fundamental and lasting shifts in policies, practices, resources and power structures. The goal for these changes is to eliminate racial and ethnic inequities, so that every Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian youth and all youth experiencing poverty have the opportunity to reach their full potential, from cradle to career.

“For more than 14 years, UP Partnership has brought together Bexar County community partners to find common ground for the larger goal of improving youth outcomes,” explains Dr. Emily Calderón Galdeano, Chief Impact and Strategy Officer at UP Partnership. “In more recent years, UP has rallied community partners around clear, focused goals. The Systems Transformation designation is due, in large part, to our community partners working together across those years to ensure more equitable outcomes for young people. Our partners’ shared dedication to improvement is why our countywide efforts have seen success.”

Through StriveTogether, UP Partnership is part of a national movement to help every child succeed in life, regardless of race, ethnicity, zip code or circumstance. The StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network is closing gaps and creating opportunities across education, health, housing and more. Through thorough evaluation of UP Partnership, StriveTogether found that the organization and its partners have demonstrated clear evidence that Bexar County is changing systems to advance equity and improve results for young people.

“I’m thrilled to announce Bexar County as our most recent community to prove it’s making a measurable difference for every child,” StriveTogether’s President and CEO Jennifer Blatz said. “UP Partnership has reached an important milestone in galvanizing the community around a common vision and effective data use. They are a clear leader in our network of nearly 70 communities across the country, all of whom are taking bold steps to improve how systems serve young people and their families.”

UP Partnership is the anchor organization of the Future Ready Bexar County Plan, a strategic community initiative launched in April of 2022, which has brought together nearly 90 cross-sector partner organizations in a collaborative effort to reach a collective North Star goal — to increase the percentage of Bexar County High School graduates enrolling in postsecondary degree or credential program to 70% by 2030. 

“This Future Ready Bexar County plan is the first, in my experience, that had a convener in UP Partnership to bring everyone together around a unified North Star and enable us to coordinate all our efforts in a way that, we anticipate, is going to have the intended effect in the most efficient way,” said UP Partnership board member Roland Toscano, Superintendent, East Central ISD.

The plan is centered around three equity pillars — healing, access and voice — the must HAVEs for equity amongst Bexar County’s young people. Partner commitments to these pillars are the result of years of collective work that ultimately led to the top Systems Transformation designation. 

“The UP Partnership board of directors consists of cross-sector community members who have adopted the Future Ready Bexar County plan as the strategic plan for the organization,” said Elanie Mendoza, Chair, UP Partnership board of directors. “We are witnessing the results of what can be accomplished if everyone in the community is united under a collective North Star goal. To date, nearly 90 community partners have already dedicated themselves to improving equitable outcomes for young people in Bexar County. We know this work cannot be done in isolation.  We also know, to be successful, community partners must come together in the space of community impact to drive real sustainable change.”

To join the national network, communities complete an assessment of their civic infrastructure development. This process measures progress against a continuum of quality benchmarks, known as StriveTogether’s Theory of Action™. This proven framework has five designations — Exploring, Emerging, Sustaining, Systems Change and Systems Transformation — that indicate progress toward aligning resources around better and more equitable outcomes for young people.

Additional quotes from Bexar County Leaders on this announcement: 

“This announcement combined with our collective efforts through Future Ready Bexar County will help us, as a community, move toward getting 70% of our young people enrolled into postsecondary or credential programs by 2030. That is a mere seven years away, but it is an important goal for us to seek,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

“Our key is to ensure that we work with others to address one of the main challenges in our city, which is having credentialed talent, having individuals that may be seeking an industry based certification, a two-year degree or a bachelorette degree.” UP Partnership board member Dr. Mike Flores, Chancellor, Alamo Colleges District explains. “That two-year degree is the difference between struggle and success. It allows a student, and often their families, to be able to plan for the future. That is possible because of the work and alignment that we have through UP Partnership,” he concludes. 

About StriveTogether

StriveTogether is a national movement with a clear purpose: help every child succeed in school and in life from cradle-to-career, regardless of race, ethnicity, zip code or circumstance. In partnership with 70 communities across the country, StriveTogether shares resources and best practices to put more young people on the path to economic mobility. Together, the StriveTogether Cradle to Career network reaches 14 million young people — including 8 million children of color and nearly one in five children living in poverty in the United States.

About UP Partnership

Founded in 2009, UP Partnership is a San Antonio-based nonprofit that convenes partners in Bexar County that provide healing, access and voice to local young people to create equitable systems and ensure that all young people in Bexar County are ready for the future. UP Partnership believes that making sure all of our young people are future ready is our entire community’s responsibility. The mission is ambitious, challenging — and achievable — if we organize our efforts. UP Partnership drives the countywide strategy through collaboration, data sharing and advocacy. 

SA Worx is putting in the work to ensure that Bexar County student’s are career ready

SA Worx is putting in the work to ensure that Bexar County student’s are career ready

SA Worx, the workforce development arm of the economic development organization greater:SATX, works to ensure San Antonio is the top choice for employers and community members to fulfill the employment needs of local and regional companies. They work with various community partners to create a sustainable and scalable employee talent base.

SA Worx’s ultimate goal, as explained by Romanita Matta-Barrera, Chief Workforce Officer, is to give students in Bexar County and surrounding communities first-hand, real-life, work experience that will prepare for whatever training or career path they choose and keep that pool of employees in our community. 

The importance of this work is “the backbone of economic development in our area,” says Matta-Barrera. “Working with community partners toward a unified strategy will create systematic change in our workforce and economic sphere in our region.”

2022 was a big year for SA Worx,  according to Matta-Barrera, with the organization working on marquee projects like priority digital badging and securing partnerships with industry leaders such as Accenture, the Dee Howard Foundation, Delta Systems, H-E-B, Navistar, the San Antonio Museum of Science and Technology (SAMSAT) and USAA.

In conjunction with Ignite Mindshift, the organization worked with a total of 130 students in Highlands High School and CAST Lead within East Central ISD, to provide 95 digital badges on topics such as identity and personal brand and communicating with confidence. 

These experiences led to positive outcomes for students, SA Worx told UP Partnership. 

One student, who suffers from extreme anxiety, felt she could find a way to control her anxiety in the future and was moved by the experience and a hearing impaired student spoke about how he would not let his hearing impairment hold him back, Matta-Barrera shared.

Furthermore, many students, who were struggling in math, reported they had an action plan to review and complete missing assignments and/or seek out tutoring on the subject. 

Through their community partnerships, the organization is able to offer summer internships in a range of positions, in companies from various industries and sectors. Last year, the program had 116 participants interning at 19 employer partners across the community. Going into this summer, they hope to engage 250 students, having already secured more than 60 opportunities at companies like Methodist Healthcare Ministries, USAA and Southwest Research Institute.

The lessons and impact of those internships goes beyond the student participants to include those professionals who supervise the work being done. Created by the students, Supervisor Awards are given to those leaders whose guidance truly impacted the lives of those they oversaw.

This summer, the organization will also work with fellow Future Ready partner, Communities In Schools San Antonio, to address the barriers to internships opportunity youth face such as transportation, clothing, and food. They will also work with students to offer feedback to companies about how to improve their job descriptions to appeal to young people in the community.

In addition, SA Worx continued their fundamental programs and events throughout last year:

• Alamo Fellows, a program that works with first-generation college students to gain skills for postsecondary success, was launched.

• In March, 706 students from both Highlands High School and East Central High School partook in the annual Job Shadow Day.

• More than 700 students participated in Manufacturing Month events in October. 

• Over 500 students took part in the first ever Cyber Security Career Awareness Week also in October.

In 2022, SA Worx was able to secure funding from the Siemens Foundation, through the Education Strategy Group, with the intent of launching a program that would allow Bexar County students to develop social capital with adult professionals. After receiving feedback from young people, the program pivoted to a mentorship program whose mentors will be closer in age to mentees. 

SA Worx is a key partner of UP Partnership’s Future Ready Bexar County plan. With the support of Blue Meridian Partners, UP was able to invest in scaling SA Worx’s success through funding and community partnerships.

To learn more about SA Worx, please visit their website here.

If your organization is ready to join in on the Future Ready movement, please contact to find out more information on how you can become a Future Ready partner, or donate to the work here.

You can also follow our progress by signing up for our newsletter and following us on social media.