Stewart welcomes Democracy Prep to the neighborhood with lots of questions

Stewart welcomes Democracy Prep to the neighborhood with lots of questions

Democracy Prep staff hosted a meeting for Stewart parents on March 22.

When a new charter school operator comes to town, it’s common practice to host an informational event. Interested parents, charter advocates, and plenty of press are invited, and at the podium a keen charter CEO gives a rousing speech about changing the education landscape of the city. 

Democracy Prep Public Schools’ arrival in San Antonio was nothing like that.

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning the New York-based charter operator met with parents at P.F. Stewart Elementary school, where it will be assuming the reigns next school year. A team of Democracy Prep administrators met with parents and teachers to answer questions, introduce their model, and begin a rare partnership that will require more flexibility than charters usually offer. The district reported a full house on Wednesday night, while Thursday morning’s meeting was small, about 12 parents. But those parents had plenty of questions.

“We have a lot to learn about what already happens (at Stewart) and melding that with (our model),” Democracy Prep vice president Jonathan Howard said at the Thursday morning meeting. This may be the first time those words have ever been uttered by a charter school official. The tone is usually far more revolutionary, in keeping with the zeitgeist of the charter movement.

It’s not that the envoy didn’t make big assertions. Unrelenting college focus, extended school day and year, and civic engagement are at the core of Democracy Prep, and will require additional effort from the teachers and parents of Stewart.

The day runs from 7:30-4 at most Democracy Prep campuses, with a mix of movement, instruction, and a huge block of reading time. There’s also a time for “re-teaching,” going over concepts with struggling students one on one or in small groups. At Stewart, the district will offer three meals and two snacks every day, and students will be able to stay on campus through the dinner hour if needed. Democracy Prep is beginning to take inventory of partners and services to figure out how to best provide after school support and the various whole child supplemental programs Stewart families currently use.

This too is unusual for charter schools, Democracy Prep included. CEO Katie Duffy is protective of her students, and says she doesn’t like to outsource any part of their wellbeing, unless the partnership passes muster. Parents trust the school to care for their children, she said, “I will not violate that for the easiness of a partnership.”

That said, if the partners provide an invaluable service, she’s open to it.

Democracy Prep is also hoping to hire local teachers and school leaders, Duffy said, “You need people who have local context.”

A principal has not yet been selected. No one yet has been able to give a satisfactory answer to her big question: why should we trust you with these kids?

Finding the right leader will be critical, but that doesn’t mean that the school won’t see some turnover in teachers in the coming years. While it’s not ideal, she said, Duffy is not afraid of attrition. “Sometimes staff culture can be toxic and needs to be turned over,” she said.

Democracy Prep and SAISD each came to the table with a nonnegotiable, she said, and they came to a full agreement. No Stewart student would be turned away, and teachers would have to be hired and fired at-will.

“I can’t control quality for those kids at Stewart if I can’t control teachers,” Duffy said.

The teachers’ union has promised a continuing fight on the issue, not only the contracts but the services offered to Stewart students and the consequences for children who cannot conform to the Democracy Prep model. 

On Thursday parents’ also voiced concerns were about the academic and disciplinary consequences of longer days, and additional demands on their children.

“I’m not going to apologize. We do have high expectations for scholars,” Howard said, but he assured parents that students will receive individual attention to help them keep up with the rigor, and that suspension is the last resort for students who struggle to comply with expectations.

Suspension, or any discipline that sends a student out of class, runs counter to the organization’s values— the values that drive the extended school day, Democracy Prep middle school principal Tanya Nuñez explained. The model depends on more time in class, not less. In class, Nuñez encourages her teachers to help students “find better solutions to the mistakes they are naturally going to make.”

When students are sent out of class, Democracy Prep creates a re-entry plan so that the student can make up missed classwork and come back to class in step with their peers.

Democracy Prep CEO Katie Duffy speaks to Stewart Elementary parents.

Parents were also concerned about the additional costs—uniforms and school supplies—that charter parents are known to complain about.

Uniform assistance will be offered, likely through the same avenues it is currently offered, Howard said. Stewart students wear uniforms, but the Democracy Prep uniforms are more, well, uniformy—plaid jumpers, gray slacks, and shirts with embroidered logos.

Democracy Prep will supply its own pencils, notebooks, and any other materials needed for classwork. Parents will not receive a school supply list at the start of the year. 

“That’s basic level for us,” Nuñez said, “Our scholars have enough to worry about.”

Instead of school supplies, Democracy Prep wants students concerned about the world, like the World-world. Civic engagement is a huge part of the model, and one that was particularly attractive to SAISD, superintendent Pedro Martinez said in a press conference ahead of the meeting in which the SAISD board approved the partnership.

“We want our children to be more vocal,” Martinez said. Especially in parts of the city, like the Stewart neighborhood, that tend to get overlooked by City Hall. “One of the reasons we’re so segregated is because of the lack of civic engagement.”

Research often alludes to political activism as a huge driver in school inequality. Middle class parents have tons of practice getting what they want from government. Lower income families tend to get derailed by the time-consuming bureaucracy, or worse, ignored because they have little economic power.

Society is happy to keep low income, minority, and special needs populations quiet, Duffy said. Satiated enough not to riot, but not so empowered that they have agency to make changes.

That’s why Democracy Prep focuses so much on civics, she explained. She wants to energize students and families who have been crushed by society’s “historical apathy” toward non-white, low-income populations like the ones her schools serve. She wants them to demand more, and to go out and get more.

The idea that any elected leader, philanthropist, or business leader would tout high school equivalency, low wage employment, or anemic career training tracks as good enough for low-income or special education students is repulsive to Duffy (she makes a vomit face while talking about it). “That to me is reprehensible as a mom, as an educator, as a person.”

Special education has challenged the Democracy Prep model, because some physical, emotional, and learning differences do preclude shipping off to a four-year university. But serving those students is not optional, Duffy said, it is essential. They just have to figure out how best to serve each one.

Stewart challenges the model as well, in other ways. The district, its teachers, and its families are all being asked to try something new not only to San Antonio, but relatively new to the country as a whole.

One parent at the Thursday meeting asked it simply, “Are you going to be part of SAISD?”

There was no easy answer to that one, not from Democracy Prep, not from the district. Yes in some ways, no in others. This is a new model, a new phase in the charter school era. And we’re all watching to see how it goes. As SAISD board president Patti Radle said to parents on Thursday morning, “Thank you for understanding the struggle of change.” 

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