Local high schools named College Success Award recipients

Local campuses have recently been recognized as among the top public high schools in the nation that prepare students for college and beyond.

Last week, national non-profit organization GreatSchools.org announced their winners of the 2020 College Success Award – given to schools “that are successfully preparing students to succeed in college.” A total of 2,158 public schools in the United States were named College Success Award winners, 314 of which are located in Texas (more than any state).

Among the local winners were Mission Collegiate High School (Mission Consolidated Independent School District), Jimmy Carter Early College High School and Thelma R. Salinas Stem Early College High School (La Joya Independent School District), and Sharyland High School and Sharyland Pioneer High School (Sharyland Independent School District). 

GreatSchools chooses their award winners based on data gathered from the state, and factors in which campuses graduate students “who are academically primed for college-level courses, enroll in two- or four-year colleges and persist into their second year.”

Mission Collegiate High School Principal Ana Lisa Flores said their students are able to achieve so much beyond graduation because of the culture and established school tradition of success.

“When this school was established, there were goals and values that were carefully reviewed with success in mind,” Flores said. “They decided they were going to create a rigorous curriculum.”

Flores, who took on the role of principal just before the pandemic hit in March, credits the students, teachers, staff and administration for this recognition.

“What this shows about our district is the fact that they have faith, and have committed to our schools,” Flores said. “They provide this campus with a lot of support.”

GreatSchools noted that because the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to impact the physical and financial health of the nation, College Success Award schools are ensuring students graduate with the skills and resources to succeed as postsecondary scholars and productive citizens. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 70 percent of jobs will require a postsecondary degree by 2027.

The College Success Award takes into account whether a high school provides opportunities for all students, regardless of their background or circumstances, to prepare for, enroll in and succeed in college. In addition to analysis of key indicators for college preparedness, enrollment and performance, schools that succeed in supporting students from low-income backgrounds receive additional favorability in the determination of College Success Award.

Flores said graduates of Mission Collegiate are often first-generation college students in their families. The supportive environment at Mission Collegiate echoes loudly because it is a smaller campus, and everyone is dedicated to making it a community.

As a collective, Flores said they are always striving toward what is best for students, and Mission Collegiate teachers truly believe in their capacity to excel in whatever path they choose.

“Our population is at-risk, and we have kids who are really struggling, who are socio-economically disadvantaged,” Flores said. “They [teachers and staff] work with all kinds of kids, and we get them to that level where they can start believing and feeling confident in themselves.”

Flores said this is evident that it truly takes a village to ensure every student has the opportunities to be ready for their futures as adults.

“Our students are going to be ready for life, whether it be college, career or the military,” Flores said. “I feel very proud, not only of our students, but our staff, because they continue to strive and make sure their kids are reaching the goals they have set for themselves.”

Melinda Zuniga, the College/Financial Aid Advisor at Sharyland Pioneer High School’s Go Center, said the greatest gift one can be given is their education.

“It’s the best thing you can do,” Zuniga said. “It doesn’t matter where you go, it’s what you make of it while you’re there.”

Zuniga credits the teachers, staff, students and administration for championing their schools and encouraging them to do whatever it takes to ensure students are prepared for the next step on their journey.

“We are committed 100 percent,” Zuniga said. “Especially during these times – these times in our virtual world. We never thought five years ago that we’d be doing everything virtually like we are now, and so I think it’s important for our families in our school, community and neighboring communities to know that even in these times, we are still here to help our students.”

This is the first year Sharyland Pioneer High School has been recognized as a College Success Award winner. Zuniga, who has been at Pioneer High School for five years, was excited and surprised when they got the news.

“I was ecstatic,” Zuniga said. “To be recognized as one of those schools has been amazing. I’m very proud of the students, because without them I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”

Zuniga, who works in a two-person team with Career and Technical Education Counselor Renee Huddleston in the Go Center (part of the Counseling Department), says they strive to ensure the needs and goals of every student are met.

The Pioneer High School Go Center continues to advocate for students’ success beyond high school, and holds virtual meetings, fun events with incentives for applying for scholarships, FAFSA Fridays [where students meet with Zuniga to discuss their applications to the Free Application for Federal and Student Aid], and college application tutorials.

“It was always with 100 percent support,” Zuniga said. “We just have to come up with the ideas – we’ve created many things. It’s been nice to reach out to students who are in the comfort of their home – that’s what they’re used to now.”

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a cowbell was rung in the Go Center every time a student was accepted into college or made it through the FAFSA process.

“Now we virtually ring the cowbell,” Zuniga said. “We try our hardest to keep the momentum going.”

Zuniga said they are humbled and grateful to have been recognized in this way.

“We are within a great pool of schools,” Zuniga said. “I think it’s amazing that for a little district like Sharyland ISD, two schools were named. And I’m sure SA3 [the Sharyland Advanced Academic Academy] is coming up along the way. I’m sure all three of our schools will be up there next year.”

Elizabeth Rios, who is in charge of the Go Center at Sharyland High School, said they were very humbled and proud to be named a recipient of this award.

“We work very very hard at helping our students apply to colleges for scholarships,” Rios said. “We are non-stop, we are constantly talking to the kids and laying out expectations.”

Rios stressed that everything they have accomplished is because of the teachers, students, staff and her secretary.

“I have a lot of support,” Rios said. “That is what makes our Go Center very successful, we have a great team with a purpose in mind, we do a lot of planning and we collaborate to get things done.”

This year has been a different experience for seniors. Rios said they are still expecting students to turn in applications early, because it puts students in a better position for competitive scholarships and positions in their major of choice.

“This year we did it through Google Meets,” Rios said. “Slowly, we’ve created a list and report with very strategic planning.”

The Go Center at Sharyland High School also includes a group called the G-Force, made up of students. G-Force helps Rios discuss college options and applications with other students who may not be as familiar with what the Go Center offers – this year, they will be meeting virtually.

“I hold them to the highest expectations ever,” Rios said, adding the students are role models for their peers. “I think they feel a little bit more comfortable having their peers reaching out to them.”

Rios noted the district is committed to always providing options and opportunities for students to grow and prepare for college or a career when getting out of high school.

“The most education you have, the better off you’re going to be,” Rios said. “I truly feel that being highly educated really improves your life.”

Claudia Gomez-Perez, the principal at La Joya ISD’s Jimmy Carter Early College High School, said they were proud and grateful to have received the College Success Award again.

“It was really good to see,” Gomez-Perez said. “It’s an affirmation of all the hard work our teachers and students put in. They are very dedicated to what they do.”

Gomez-Perez said their work is not about awards, but ensuring students reach a high level of success.

“We see that we can work as a team in serving our population and give the kids that fighting chance when they go out,” Gomez-Perez said. “It always feels good to have that pat on the back and know we’re doing what’s right for kids.”

The commitment to ensuring all students are prepared to take on the future has been ingrained in the Jimmy Carter campus atmosphere since its opening ten years ago.

“The district has always given us not just the academic support, but the monetary support to be able to do what we do,” Gomez-Perez said, noting that students enrolled in college courses while attending high school do not have to pay for tuition or textbooks. “We just make sure as a campus and district that these kids have everything to be successful.”

Gomez-Perez thanked not only the teachers and students and the community, but their parents for remaining involved.

“If it wasn’t for all of their support, we wouldn’t be able to do it,” Gomez-Perez said.

Victor Rodriguez, the principal at Thelma Salinas Early College High School, started as a teacher there – but he did not want to take credit for the accomplishment.

“This is attributed to our faculty and staff, it is a total staff effort,” Rodriguez said. “They work diligently to ensure our students flourish not only as students, but as young adults who graduate ready to take on any challenge.”

Rodriguez said they are able to empower students to take advantage of the opportunities available to them.

“The standards are a bit higher, being an early college,” Rodriguez said. “Throughout the years, we’re always averaging over 85 percent of our seniors earning an associate’s degree. Now we’re seeing our former students complete their college degrees. We have a lot of engineers, a lot of computer science majors, biology majors.”

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