Por Vida: A Different Kind of Charter on the Southside

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Por Vida students take a selfie. Courtesy photo.

A group selfie of students from a Por Vida English class, with teacher Mr. Barnes in the background. Courtesy photo.

It’s no secret San Antonio has a large number of students who don’t stay in high school to graduate. Without attending school and without a high school diploma, these youths and teens are often left hanging over a precipice — in danger of falling into lives as under-educated, chronically unemployed adults, alcohol or drug abusers, or perhaps even facing incarceration. For a decade Por Vida Academy Charter High School, located on the campus of Blessed Sacrament Academy, has been quietly throwing a life-line to some of these most vulnerable in our community.

Sister Stephanie and Sister Odilia in front of the Blessed Sacrament Academy's High School Building. Photo courtesy of Blessed Sacrament Academy.

Sister Stephanie and Sister Odilia in front of the Blessed Sacrament Academy’s High School Building. Photo courtesy of Blessed Sacrament Academy.

In 1995, the Sisters of the Incarnate Word and Blessed Sacrament began pondering the fate of their campus alternative high school program, then in its fifth year. “‘Are you looking for a charter?’ the friendly voice on the phone asked out of the blue,” Sister Odilia Korenek, CEO of Blessed Sacrament Academy remembers.  “No, but tell me what that is – my curiosity wondered. It was clear the answer would require a lot of work and had to be done quickly, and it provided a way we could stay on this campus to continue our work with high school students.”

Even though initiatives such as SA2020 and combined works of San Antonio’s school districts have generated good results in addressing the dropout rate, 15 Bexar County ZIP codes have more than 30% of their 18 to 24-year-old population who haven’t attained a high school diploma. Areas of high dropout rates are concentrated in the downtown area and extend out to the southeast and southwest. See map here.

When the Congregation said “yes” to the concept and to the work, Por Vida (which appropriately means “for life”) Academy Charter High School was established. Over the years, Por Vida has been available to hundreds of young people who continue to arrive in need and who depart with a high school diploma opening countless doors for them.

“One of our Sisters likes to say that God is a tricky God,” concludes Sister Odilia. “And in this case the Spirit of God did some elusive handiwork which continues to bring hope to many.”

While Por Vida is not a religious affiliated school, a member of the Congregation serves on the Board of Directors. Por Vida is an alternative to public school created to meet varying social and educational needs.

Many of the students who show up at Por Vida have seen more than their share of closed doors.

“In order for our students to be successful we take an individual approach to each student” said Loren Franckowiak. She proceeded to describe one student she called Sir Mr. D., a 17-year-old student who had been suspended, withdrawn, enrolled, re-enrolled, and moved high schools, Disciplinary Alternative Education and Juvenile programs more than 22 times. Through much conversation, trust building, and academic coaching Sir. Mr. D. graduated just shy of his 20th birthday.

The Horticulture Club helped with the Community Garden last fall. Courtesy photo.

The Horticulture Club helped with the Community Garden last fall. Courtesy photo.

Teamwork, parental involvement, perseverance, adaptive academics, nonjudgmental mentoring, and compassion are just a few of the means to an end – giving each student a personal chance to become a high school graduate.

“There is no other school in San Antonio like Por Vida,” Elisabeth described her experience as a student. “Because I was a middle school dropout, I was turned down by every other school I applied to. Later, when I became pregnant, it was a real help that I was able to leave my baby daughter in capable hands, at the Child Development Center on the BSA campus while attending classes.” 

Elizabeth is the 2015 Valedictorian and will attend college at UTSA.

“The teachers at Por Vida approach students with a different perspective,” explained Candelario Alvarez, a 1996 graduate and recently retired Marine. “They don’t see a student’s past behavior or problems, but approach each individual as a first time student. That way, you are not being given a ‘second chance’ but your first chance to succeed.”

Students are also given many opportunities for “outside the classroom” learning with field trips, college visits, club and mentoring activities. For many, these opportunities are brand new experiences.

Members of Xinachtli—a young women’s character development program at Por Vida Academy Charter High School—recently led a campaign against cyberbullies. Courtesy photo.

Members of Xinachtli—a young women’s character development program at Por Vida Academy Charter High School—recently led a campaign against cyberbullies. Courtesy photo.

Two other charter high schools in Corpus Christi have joined Por Vida to create a district.

“Most of the students here need someone who cares enough to listen,” said Superintendent of the Por Vida Charter School District Joseph Rendon. “Sometimes, our students come to Por Vida as a last resort. Those who are willing to walk the whole journey to earn their high school diploma, regain their self-respect and move on to better jobs, go to college, or join the military.”

A recent report from Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) stated alternative pathways to attaining a high school diploma or equivalency are especially important in Texas where we lead the nation on adults without diplomas.

Por Vida offers three types of diplomas for students seeking an alternative to public schools.

  • Traditional diploma
  • Credit recovery (with no age limit)
  • GED classes (Por Vida is also an official GED Testing Center)

If you know of someone who might benefit from the high school environment at Por Vida, enrollment for the 2015-16 school year is August 12-21. Call the school at 210.532.9161 for more information.

*Featured/top image: Students from a Por Vida English class take a selfie with teacher Mr. Barnes in the background. Courtesy photo.

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