Author: Bekah McNeel

Adventures in Literacy: Why your kid’s teacher needs professional development.

photo by Robin Jerstad for Folo Media.

I’m about 30 years late to the phonics wars, but apparently there’s still plenty to discuss. In my last post on literacy and curriculum, I was having brain-melt over the lack of phonics instruction in schools. 

Balanced literacy, critics told me (or I read), was just phonics-less whole language and everything is terrible. 

Meanwhile, my daughter’s emergency summer reading adventure is off and running with “sneaky e” and “two vowels go out walking” and all that good stuff. 

This has turned our house into a delightful scavenger hunt for long vowel sounds, and my daughter will explain to you that some letters (vowels) are exciting rule breakers and others (consonants) are “boring.” (Not what I thought she’d take from that lesson.) And like every parent whose child is thriving, I assumed I’ve found the literacy panacea. 

Not so fast, says Debbie Diller, an educator and author who specializes in literacy, “She’s one of the lucky ones.” 

Aha. 

Diller was in town offering professional development for elementary school teachers through Pre-K 4 SA. Part of the mandate of our city’s pre-k program is that it offer professional development for the entire pre-k-3rd grade pipeline to make sure that kids get to third grade with a strong foundation. 

Pre-K 4 SA brings in literacy experts like Diller to offer the kind of continued learning opportunities teachers might not have access to through their districts. Diller’s June 19 workshop was for K-3rd grade teachers.

“Professional development is key to teaching,” said Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray. Teachers don’t just need great preparation programs, they need continued support.

In fact, Diller and Baray both pointed out, the lack of professional development is part of what fueled the phonics wars.  

The tendency is to take an approach, or a curriculum, pass it to the teachers and let them implement to the best of their ability. “We do it on the cheap, so teachers don’t get the full understanding,” she explained.

Unfortunately, with things like reading, Baray said, no one curriculum is going to train teachers on the skills they need to use it most effectively and understanding the complexities of literacy development is critical. 

“We keep trying to make teaching something you can do right out of the box,” Baray said, “That’s just not the case.”

So then we have phonics flash cards or word—walls without the whole suite of tools, and none of it seems to be working as it should. 

In the case of balanced literacy, Diller explained, teachers have to be able to do many things at once—including phonics instruction. (She did join the chorus who agreed that forsaking phonics altogether is educational malpractice, but didn’t say how common it was to see phonics-less teaching.) But it doesn’t stop there, she said, “Phonics is a piece of reading. It’s not the entire puzzle.”

Teaching kids to read is a dialogue, and balanced literacy, as Diller teaches it, includes a lot of togetherness for teacher and student. They read and write together so that the teacher can constantly triage the progress of both decoding and comprehending language. 

“If we pay attention to children and know what we’re looking for, they’ll show us what to do next,” she explained. 

My daughter was “lucky,” she explained, because the decoding of language was what she needed to take her developed oral language and get it onto the page. Her grasp of language comes easily, and phonics helps her access it in a new way, which excites her.

Other students, like Diller’s own daughter, don’t absorb phonics out of context. All the flashcards and rhymes in the world don’t help them turn code in to comprehension. They need simultaneous immersion in texts that engage them, Diller explained. She didn’t abandon flash cards, she integrated them into a broader literacy program for her daughter. 

Teachers, Diller explained, have to be able to assess what is tripping up young readers, with comprehension being the ultimate goal.

It’s worth noting that Diller does not see a difference in income, gender, or anything else when it comes to learning to read. While vocabulary and oral language is typically more developed for higher income kids, Diller said, those children can still struggle to make the transition to writing and reading.

It does hold true, however, that interventions are key, and wealthier kids do have access to more options in that regard. 

However, as one of the people who assists in those interventions, Diller maintains that “we’ve come a long way” in delivering and tracking the needed support inside classrooms. 

Unfortunately, we’ve also dropped off on professional development, Diller said. In the late 1990s support for teachers’ continued learning was at a high. Now, she said, many teachers have to go find their own opportunities. Those that do, however, benefit greatly, and so do their students.

Diller was impressed with the teachers who attended the Pre-K 4 SA workshop. They were eager to learn and improve their craft, she said, and that bodes well for the kids in their classes.

Meet The Gathering Place, one of San Antonio’s newest and busiest charter schools.

One of San Antonio’s newest charter schools will hit the ground running this fall with a professional development opportunity in partnership with the DoSeum. The Gathering Place, which was approved by the State Board of Education on June 14, will lead a cohort of teachers from across the city in a project-based learning collaborative designed to help teachers make the most of the popular pedagogical style.

Project-based learning encourages students to pick a problem or issue in the world and delve deeply into its history, research, and mechanics in pursuit of a possible solution or greater understanding. Along the way students engage all of the core academic subjects in ways that are immediately relevant to their project. The hands-on learning method is designed to connect classroom learning with real world problems, solutions, and experiences is core to the mission of both the DoSeum and the new school. 

“We do really believe that this is how school should be,” said The Gathering Place co-founder Ryan York, “There’s no more separation between school and the real world.”

York and co-founder Joanna Klekowicz designed their school to promote equity through arts and project based learning, in part to move away from predominantly Eurocentric curricula with little connection to the real lives of minority children. By opening up students’ real world as a lab for exploration and expression, The Gathering Place hopes to celebrate what the students bring to their learning environment, not just what it gives back to them.

Of course, like many curricula and pedagogies, a lot can go wrong with project-based learning. It isn’t as simple as letting students pick a project and seeing what happens next. Teachers have to stay on top of standards (the TEKS), to ensure that kids are getting all of the content they should be getting. If it doesn’t come up naturally in the project, skilled teachers need to be able to work it in. 

To that end, the partnership with the DoSeum is designed to give teachers both theory and practice using project-based learning.

The 20-person cohort will meet monthly from September to May to work on their own projects, and reflect on how they are using it in their classrooms. Participants will be paid a $600 stipend for time and materials, something York and Klekowicz know to be a key component to supporting project-based learnings. To do it well can be a heavy lift for teachers.

“So many times you pay for it out of your own pocket,” York said. 

The Gathering Place received a $5,000 grant from Educate 210 to offer the stipends, and some of the money will come from their operating budget. 

While they host the collaborative, York and Klekowicz will also be going through the fast and furious year of setting up their school. New charters have one year after their approval to find a facility, hire staff, and commence operations. But rather than serving as a distraction, The Gathering Place founders see this kind of community professional development as essential to their work. 

York and Klekowicz believe in the original vision of charter schools as incubators for curricula and pedagogies that ISDs might be able to use at scale if developed properly.  

“That was a beautiful intention in 1995, and yet the sort of narrative has shifted into this sort of good guy/bad guy narrative,” York said. 

Both charter networks and ISDs bear the responsibility for that narrative. Some charter networks have begun to develop a competitive mindset, refusing to share their “secret sauce” and measuring success in terms of new campuses. Meanwhile, ISDs losing students to those charters characterize all non-ISD schools as existential threats. Even when charters and ISDs get along *better*, such as in “third-way” scenarios like San Antonio ISD, the goal is less about scaling good ideas developed in individual schools and more about increasing the autonomy of each campus. There is at least one local exception: KIPP and SAISD did collaborate on college advising, something KIPP does exceptionally well. 

 On the whole though, charter schools simply are not the laboratories they were promised to be, and actors on both sides see them as an attempt to supplant traditional ISDs. The Gathering Place hopes to change that, “not just being available for collaboration, but taking an active role in extending an olive brach,” York said.

Educators from both ISDs and charters interested in being part of that effort can apply to the collaborative through June 21 on the PBL Collaborative website. Applicants from the south and east side of the city are encouraged to apply. 

“The children still cannot read.” How I became convinced that curriculum is an equity issue.

photo by Robin Jerstad for Folo Media.

At the 2019 Education Writers Association National Conferece, Freeman Hrabowski, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore County said that taking down Confederate monuments, and renaming dorms is “great.” He said it in such a way though that implied a “but” was coming. 

And it did. 

Symbolic gestures are “great” he explained, but they are aren’t the solution to inequity, “because the children still cannot read.”

The problem for Hrabowski, and many others, is that education stories tend to drift in one direction or the other. On one side: test scores, school finance, teaching and learning, ed tech, charter school policies, etc. On the other: segregation, achievement gaps, and discipline reform. 

One group of stories might be about an award-winning pre-k curriculum, the group would cover literacy gaps. But it’s relatively rare for a reported story to make the connection between curriculum and inequality, except in the most obvious cases.

So the group of writers attracted to Hrabowski’s panel about colleges confronting their racist pasts might have been different from the group that was attracted to the panel on curriculum. I did go to both, by chance, and as one of the journalists firmly in the “systemic inequity” corner of the beat, I am now sold on the fact that curriculum belongs there. 

Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, sold me on it. Content is an equity issue, she argued, because of gaps not just in the skills (like leadership and problem-solving) of educated and uneducated people, but in the body of things that they know. The content. So we do a disservice to high school graduates when they graduate without the content knowledge expected of educated people—having never heard of Geoffrey Chaucer, Niels Bohr, or Malcom X. 

“To say that content doesn’t matter is frankly professional malpractice,” Santelises said. 

It’s also critical that the content be affirming of the learners, she pointed out. Meaning, black and brown students need to learn black and brown historical and literary genius. They need the solid foundation of knowing that they come from generations of builders, innovators, leaders, and thinkers in every academic realm. White kids have been getting that for as long as public school has existed. 

Without good curriculum that foundation isn’t level. 

It reminded me of the Mexican-American Studies curriculum debacle here in Texas, when the lack of Mexican-American visibility in approved curriculum became too glaring to ignore. But then, the text book being proposed to the State Board of Education was inaccurate and demeaning.

It was a classic “WTF, Texas?” moment, but really, the fact that Mexican-American studies content had been previously left up to individual districts, schools, and teachers is not entirely different than the rest of what kids learn at school. 

Teachers typically feel it’s their professional duty to develop their own curriculum, University of Southern California researcher Morgan Polikoff said, “I’m not sure most teachers have the skill to do that.”

We know that a good teacher makes a huge difference in a child’s learning experience, and yet, we are going to widen the gap between those teachers by allowing curriculum development one of the skill sets they have to have—on top of instruction, emotional intelligence, classroom management, and cultural competency—when we have access to proven curricula developed by learning and content experts to whom our children will never have access except through the books those experts wrote and have made available for purchase to our schools.

The thing is, Santelises said, great teachers are great at the art and science of teaching. Direction, trouble shooting, differentiating. There’s plenty of need for rockstars, but they don’t have to be composers too. We need to reduce the variables, not increase them.

“I just do not think we are at a place in the country where we can just turn everybody lose,” Santelises said.

I’ve recalled stories about scandals that broke because a teacher essentially pulled her content from an online source, and some enterprising kid found it and distributed it. Or a teacher decided to create his own homework assignment on the pros and cons of slavery. 

Clearly, leaving curriculum creation in the hands of teachers is great for the news cycle, and not so great for quality control. 

In theory, quality control is the job of assessment. Kids take a test, we know if their teacher delivered. Obviously a single snapshot of a kid’s test taking ability and content recall is not nearly as accurate as we’d like it to be, but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be part of a diagnostic system, which would be part of an accountability system. 

To which states are like, “nah, we’ll just build our whole education system around this test.”

That’s what Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) are for: setting benchmarks of what kids need to know at each depot on the way to “the test.”  The TEKS are not curriculum. They are a check list of what you need to know, not the map of how to get there. The skill that eclipses all of this, is, of course, test taking. 

in Texas, the TEKS are set by an elected board of politicians (the State Board of Education) who have every reason to be content-controversy averse. Except when they aren’t (see Mexican-American Studies debacle).

Moving beyond teaching kids how to take a test, it’s still so much easier to just focus on critical thinking, group collaboration, and other skills that, while absolutely necessary to thrive in 21st Century professional America, don’t necessarily set you apart from other candidates in an interview. 

“We have a mania about teaching skills because we are uneasy about agreeing on content,” said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

Leaning heavily on skills (critical thinking, collaboration, etc) relieves the mental and social labor of trying to address the racial gaps in the content, or to mediate between those who want global literature vs. those who want Western cannon. 

There are fights worth fighting, and we’re avoiding them. The result, Lerner went onto lament, is that poor students will always be academically underfed if all they are getting at school is the “thin gruel of skills-based instruction.”

Because those overwhelmingly-white middle class kids? They’re getting content. They’re going to summer camp with the oceanographers and the Egyptologists. Some of them live with architects and nutritionists and other content experts.  

You know what else they are getting? Phonics. 

For a while now, stories have been sneaking into the media about how abandoning phonics curricula has been tanking literacy levels for our kids. 

In it’s place we have “balanced literacy,” the latest iteration of “whole language” where kids recognize a series of words by sight and use that base to add to their visual vocabulary based on books that they are excited about and motivated to decode. 

When I first heard about balanced literacy I was all about it. Excited kids? Yes! Following their passions? Yes! 

Except it’s not working. Turns out that the English language is far more vast than the black squiggles and sounds associated with them. Those black squiggles and associated sounds are subject to a rather technical decoding process, which has been studied and mapped. Best practices have been discovered, and they are pretty precise. So, boring as it may sound, memorizing the various sounds made by “ough” and “ie” is actually learning to read. 

I don’t know if the resistance to phonics has to do with the zeitgeist behind originality, or if it has to do with how difficult it is to get kids to engage in the drudgery of memorization. However, what I do know is that if there’s not a phonics curriculum, then phonics goes on the extracurricular schedule right between piano lessons, swim team, and ballet. 

You know how I know? Because the phonics tutor just left my house. Instead of piano lessons this summer, my kindergartener is taking phonics lessons. 

This is not a rich school/poor school phenomenon. Wealthy schools have bought into whole language and balanced literacy just as much as everyone else. But disadvantaging every student equally—in addition to being a crappy thing to do—won’t get you equity. Because parents. The inequity becomes a household-by-household issue. 

Wealthy parents panic when their kid can’t read, hire a tutor, find a program, or buy an at-home phonics program and they pay whatever it takes to get that kid reading. Often those services are not affordable for working families. A reading kid is going to excel where non-reading kids struggle, so the literacy gap feeds all the other gaps that we’ve gotten so used to seeing. It masks the fact that there’s a curricular deficit, because it seems totally normal to us for poor kids to lag behind.

So when Hrabowski observed that low income, black children are not reading at the appropriate levels, he was getting to the heart of the socioeconomic inequity fueling our American education system. 

And it’s a curriculum issue. I’ll be damned.

What we talk about when we talk about safety and discipline.

Some restorative justice tools.

When I first started reporting on school discipline, I thought there was near consensus on the need to move toward restorative practices. Just like there’s near consensus that you shouldn’t scream at your kids. 

Restorative practices seek to move kids toward the behavior you want, with less emphasis on the behaviors being left behind. At the basic level, through positive reinforcement like the popular positive behavior intervention systems (PBIS) which catches and rewards kids for modeling good behavior and making good choices. At the deeper, more transformative level, such as restorative “circles” where kids share their motivations and wounds and anxieties, you’re giving them the tools to choose that behavior for themselves. You’re helping them cultivate a peaceful existence through self-awareness and executive function. 

Sounded good to me.

It only took one reported story to see that not everyone agreed, and then in March 2018 San Antonio ISD trustee Ed Garza confirmed it from the dais when he said that the district’s teachers were very much divided on the issue of whether zero-tolerance (immediate expulsion, suspension, etc) policies should be the norm.

Listening to the panel of school discipline reform experts at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar, I began to understand more about why we can’t seem to find consensus. When schools switch to restorative practices, they are keeping kids in the classroom who are disruptive. 

This change is “undoing 25 years (of thinking) that the way of doing discipline is to throw kids out of your classroom,” said researcher Abigail Gray of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education.

There’s a lot of fear among teachers that if kids get a whiff of weakness, they will run rampant. This is evident in situations where restraint and seclusion are used as well, especially on students who receive special education services, said Denise Marshall at the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates speaking in a later panel. Ultimately, much traditional classroom discipline is about maintaining control, Marshall said, it becomes about “I’m not going to let Johnny control my classroom.”

Some, 3rd grade teacher Ashley McCall said, aren’t convinced that teaching includes teaching behavior. Rather than take the time to help students learn constructive habits, some teachers refer students to the office, “because the most convenient and comfortable thing was to send you elsewhere,” McCall said. 

When a school adopts a restorative discipline model, such as Lamar Elementary or the Advanced Learning Academy in San Antonio ISD, the biggest threat is lack of buy-in. For this reason, the panelists agreed, top down mandates don’t usually take. They last as long as the principal is forcing the issue, and are out with the next wave. 

Michael Mulgrew has heard some complaints. As president of the United Federation of Teachers he’s monitored school discipline initiatives that run the gamut.

“We have the ‘suspend everyone’ folks in our society,” he said, “And we have the ‘suspend no one.’” Communication is always key, he went on to say, because someone will always be disappointed. 

For every parent furious that their kid was suspended for “nothing” there’s a parent who is irate that a kid is being allowed to remain in their child’s classroom. For every teacher who prioritizes tough love, there’s one who prioritizes trauma-informed care.

If teachers and parents can be persuaded on the merits of restorative practices, their buy-in increases the likelihood that a program will be 1) practiced with fidelity, and 2) long term.

It’s the spirit that counts though, not the exact implementation. Once a campus has decided to embrace the philosophy and goals of restorative discipline, Baltimore principal Rhonda Richetta said, each campus might do something a little bit differently. “Your tools can change as the people who are using them change,” she explained. 

Getting teacher buy-in, however, seems easy when compared to getting parent buy-in. Because parents tend to move the conversation from “classroom management” to “school safety.” (Not that teachers don’t raise that concern. But parents are the school safety army.)

Back when the near-universal practice was to kick kids out, a lot of times the justification was that the students were “dangerous.” 

So now, absent effective communication, parents wonder why “dangerous” kids are being left in the classroom. They feel their own kids are in harm’s way.

Now this I know a thing or two about. Because Facebook.

At various times and for various reasons over the past seven years, I’ve been added to the private Facebook groups of PTAs and other parent groups for various schools. Across the city, public and charter. 

While I have access to these groups, I take note of the way people talk when they feel like they are in a semi-public space, guarded from the public eye but also speaking to unvetted members of the public. The great urbanist Jane Jacobs warned against semi-public physical spaces, for safety reasons. They are private enough to go unnoticed by police, but public enough that they cannot be secured. Inner courtyards, back alleys, pocket parks hidden from the street. I think the warning carries over to the digital space. 

When they know their views would be immediately shamed or fact checked in a more open forum, bullies often show themselves in closed or private parent groups. At the same time, those bullies still feel they have to sell their point of view to the group, because they don’t know who among them shares their opinion. 

So it’s the perfect place for angry parents to tell third-hand stories in an attempt to justify really vile words in the name of “concern.” 

One thing I’ve noticed— particularly in schools where maximum inclusion (having students who receive some special education services in a general education classroom) is part of the restorative, social emotional learning environment— students being a “distraction” rarely stirs up the kind of support that would get a principal’s attention. However, a student “throwing a chair” seems to be the dog whistle for the whole anti-inclusion crowd. Once the student has made the classroom “unsafe,” the student is fair game. 

I have seen some breathtaking stuff from full grown adults, y’all. Moms ganging up on students, calling names, racial stereotypes, you name it. 

I don’t know why “throwing a chair” is such a common complaint, but it comes up a lot, and moves the conversation about discipline into a conversation about school safety. Where protecting our kids is worth any cost. 

 But what we know is that excluding that student (through suspension or expulsion) puts them on a likely path to far more dangerous behaviors, at school and in society. At the very least, it puts them on a path toward limited options for themselves. That student loses the protection afforded by an on-track academic career. 

If that child is black, brown, or receiving special education services, data show that we are not as concerned about protecting these kids as we are concerned with protecting other children from them. As McCall said, “The reality is that protecting all kids does not yet mean protecting all kids.”

Like any smart person with a messy closet, SAISD is getting help from organizers.

SA Rise helped with a Lanier High School voting march in November 2018.

San Antonio ISD may have just found the cure to what ails it. The district announced a partnership with SA Rise to lead efforts in restorative justice and diverse cultural curriculum, especially in celebration of immigrant communities. These issues have been near the core of SA Rise’s efforts for most of its two year organizing cycle, and the partnership could lend some steam as they pursue bigger and bigger action steps.

For organizers, these kind of formal, public partnerships provide accountability, SA Rise lead organizer Mayra Juárez-Denis said. SA Rise can now offer input from the inside, and hold SAISD to their commitment to listen. 

The district has much to gain in exchange for the table setting it has given to SA Rise. As noted in a previous blog post, the district’s biggest liability is a lack of meaningful parent/teacher/community engagement, something in which SA Rise excels. Multi-cultural curriculum, immigration, and restorative justice are both controversial in some circles, and Juárez-Denis’s extensive organizing experience will be helpful.

“The work form the bottom up is going to be slow, but it’s going to be really good because it’s going to come from the teachers themselves, and from the parents themselves,” Juárez-Denis said. 

Restorative justice initiatives have been piloted around the district. Positive behavior intervention systems and “circles” can be found on several campuses, but the district has yet to adopt a toothy, substantial policy on the matter. 

In the past, trustees have indicated that there is no consensus among teachers on the issue—which could be said of the national teaching force as well. Some teachers feel like being required to keep disruptive students in their classrooms inhibits learning. I’ll be blogging more on this in coming weeks.

Finding ways to incorporate students’ cultures into classroom curriculum is less controversial among teachers, but could rile some politically conservative community members. This is unlikely. More likely would be a top-down botching of something teachers hold near and dear. Fortunately bottom-up is the way SA Rise works.

In the pláticas exploring the issues with teachers, Juárez-Denis said that many came with wounds from their own school days. “Back then if you wanted to succeed you had to get rid of what (was perceived as) Mexican,” they told her. 

SA Rise is working with the district to organize professional development for teachers to create inclusive, culturally engaging classrooms. Immigrant parents will also play a vital role, as SA Rise will be offering tips and trainings to help parents advocate for their kids within the public school system—something that might be highly uncommon in their countries of origin. As SAISD strives to increase the number of dual-language programs in the district, Spanish-speaking parents have a natural opportunity to take on leadership roles, not in spite of a language barrier, but because of a language asset. Progress: Twain Dual Language Academy will have a Spanish-dominant PTA president next school year.

Organizing methods could hold value beyond these immediate issues as the district engages in reforms which, when not properly shared with the community, have proven inflammatory. At the heart of organizing, Juárez-Denis explained, is pragmatism—in this case, getting real resources to real kids. 

Working with her mostly-millennial staff, Juárez-Denis said, she’s well aware of the generational tendency to to be ideologically motivated. (A recent episode of NPR’s Invisibilia podcast explored this generational quirk.) While passion is an asset, devotion to principles over people is self-defeating, Juárez-Denis said. Whether or not you agree, you have to sit down ready to find a solution, she said, if educators don’t approach that in earnest, “in the end the families are the ones who are hurt.”

Those trained by SA Rise will be more likely to advocate than to protest, she explained, “these teachers are understanding how to negotiate with the people in power.”

Those who have watched both the San Antonio Alliance and the SAISD administration erode whatever good faith once existed between them (and with it compromise the longevity of much of their best work), are likely curious about how this new relationship is going to go down. I am as well, but I refuse to be preemptively cynical. Let’s just watch and see.

A messy little memorial for Rachel Held Evans

It had been that kind of morning. The kind that heard me mutter, “I hate everything.” The kind that (telepathically) heard me shout, “I want to run away.” The kind that saw no warmth in my eyes as I stared at my children. No tenderness in my touch when my husband approached me.

It was the kind of trapped, desperate, itchy morning that I now know will pass, but dread anyway.

The kind of morning we used to not be able to admit that we have as Christian moms.

As I do on many of these mornings—though they are far fewer now that my two-year postpartum rager has abated somewhat—I waited until our small crowd was tumbling out the door, tasked my husband with “loading everyone up” and gave myself two minutes alone in the silent house.  I brushed my teeth. I peed. My phone buzzed, and in that weird compulsive way that I do, I answered the text and then gave a glance at Twitter.

Rachel Held Evans. “RIP RHE” posts abounded in my progressive Christian Twitter-sphere.

This is an odd thing to feel, I know, but my first thought was, “Oh. That’s why this morning has been so off.”

I’m no mystic, but I’ve become more of one lately. More attuned to the pushes and pulls of the spiritual realm.

I’d been following Evans’s health updates, so I knew things were grim. But, like everyone, I was surprised. Like everyone, I felt like I’d been sucker punched. And probably like many, the million little cracks through which brokenness creeps suddenly burst apart, and the shards collected in a box. A box to organize them, to summarize them, to overshadow them. A box labeled “loss.”

Evans’s popularity and power blossomed from the sheer number of people who wrestled with Christianity in the same way she did. If I were unique in my appreciation for her, the way I identified with her, no one would know who she is.

But in 2012, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that there was a rising tide of discontent with patriarchies, hegemonies, celebrities, and alliances within the evangelical church. I couldn’t tell what I was losing, but without any experience outside my small-tent denomination, I suspected that it was my faith. I knew I still loved and trusted Jesus, but I was so done with the church—its people and its culture—that I was facing the very real possibility that I would find some kind of itinerant agnosticism on the other side of the church doors.

Quite frankly, that’s what I had been told, and what the institutional church is still telling people. That progressivism is just a slippery slope to total rejection of the faith, a la Derek Webb. And while, sure, plenty of people probably pass through one to get to the other, there’s a heretical extreme on the other end as well, a sort of capitalist/nationalist/syncretism that has infected the church. So slippery slopes for everyone.

I may have even been on one while I was in the midst of my spectacular exit from my church, the loss of a career, and a miscarriage to boot. A friend sent me a blog post from a women, two years older than me, who seemed to be having some similar thoughts. Rachel Held Evans.

And far from ushering me out, Evans caught me by the collar, and said, “Hold on. You’re not alone, and your people are still here. Right here.”

It was like I had stormed out of the church building, and was sobbing my eyes out on the steps, trying to work up the courage to step out into the street. Her voice was like that big sister, older friend, who sits down next to you, offers you a flask or a cigarette or joint (depending on where you live), and commiserates.

Sometimes, as we know, protest is a form of love. Prophetic voice is a form of obedience. Not every nuance is going to be “right” but neither is every doctrinaire expression of Christ’s kingly office.

Like that drink-offering big sister, Evans told me not to worry about being rejected by the Country Clubbers. She told me about another party going on, one where we’d be far more likely to find Jesus. It was Evans and her women of valor who encouraged me to do more than just talk about the poor and marginalized in terms of a yearly mercy ministry project, but to actually keep company with them, to submit to their needs, and tell stories of their dignity.

She was that voice for so, so, so many people. That’s what her ministry and her power was. So when those who typically write about the institution of the church marveled (or complained) that this non-ordained, de-churched, unsanctioned woman was prophesying against the compromised church—those of us who had endured bottomless condescension from the ordained, churched, and sanctioned, only loved her more. Her freedom was more attractive than the hand wringing and pearl clutching of the those-who-must-be-right.

I didn’t follow the in’s and out’s of Evans’ personal faith journey, or dissect each of her theological views. I just knew that a lot of her Tweets, posts, and articles made me say, “exactly!” She carried her faith so freely.

And how you carry your faith has huge implications for the amount of pressure it places on your day to day life.

Evans was part of a larger trend as well. One that no amount of ordained preaching was going to fuel. Plenty of pastors rail against perfectionism while fostering it in their churches. Plenty ofIMG_6902 women say the words “gospel  freedom” in Bible studies, only to perpetuate a culture of performance and people pleasing. Teachers who mentioned grace, only because it was theologically necessary in their pursuit of being right.

But a groundswell of exhausted, disillusioned women made it real.

What was breaking my heart as a young woman in 2012, would come back to crush me in 2016, after I had my second child. The struggles brought on by postpartum anxiety surfaced an anger still deep in my bones from past hurts.

I found comfort not just in Evans, but in her other women of valor. Women who had walked away from the trappings of perfectionist, protectionist, rejectionist faith. Women who made it possible for me to have mornings like May 4th, and not feel like I had to hide. 

 

 

On mobile apps and equity

A couple of weeks ago, Inga Cotton, aka San Antonio Charter Moms, launched a new app. It’s a school choice tool, listing all of the open enrollment programs in San Antonio—charter and district options. 

There’s a ton to say about this app. One could comment on female-led app development. Or the fact that it’s the first of its kind in San Antonio, which, until now has relied on the legwork of motivated parents to not just discover schools, but to figure out how they perform and what they offer. 

I could talk about all of that, and it would be worth noting. However, what struck me the most about the rollout of the app was this: equity is in the details. 

A lot of people have opinions about Cotton, the outspoken, hat-wearing charter school champion whose personal mission sprouted into a blog and blossomed into full blown advocacy. 

With my own ears I’ve heard criticisms from people who don’t like the way she operates. I’ve also seen the more subtle ways she’s been sidelined by people who don’t like what she represents. Watching her over the past few years, I’ve seen her sort of tiptoe into life as a public figure while her Facebook group exploded, while foundation money poured into the city, while school districts and charter networks duked it out at the Statehouse and elsewhere.

The roll out of the San Antonio Charter Moms app said a ton about who Cotton is and has become, and signaled her intent to stop tiptoeing and to start running. 

The app is all. about. parent. choice. The search filters allow parents to set the priorities. Cotton has always been clear about what she’s about, and she’s a true believer. You don’t have to like charter schools or magnet programs or choices within districts. But you can’t accuse Cotton of operating in bad faith. Lately I’ve seen a LOT of bad faith arguments going around. People who aren’t being up front about their true concerns or intentions. Cotton is not one of them.

The app was developed as a personal project by Cotton and a volunteer, and will be licensed for free to her non-profit, San Antonio Charter Moms. However, because she’s clear on her mission, people shouldn’t say, “gotcha!” when they see the non-profit and the app praised, funded, or conversing with foundations who like what Cotton is doing. 

Here’s something I once didn’t know this about foundations like Gates, Walton, Brackenridge, and others: when they like what you are doing, those foundations find you, and figure out how to keep you doing what you’re doing. I’ve watched this play out over and over in a handful of organizations. While it’s convenient to think of all funders as these big, dark organizations that put puppets in place all over the country…that’s just not what I’ve seen. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen, but seeing a foundation name linked to something is not a good enough reason to write it off as a puppet org, the finger tip of dark money, or some other nefarious metaphor.  

There’s nothing terribly spooky about the information in the app, mostly Texas Education Agency data. While there’s plenty not to like about how TEA ranks schools, and I agree that data doesn’t tell you the whole story, it does provide some outside measurement for how schools are doing meeting the most basic requirements. 

I want to digress a bit about the whole standardized test thing, especially as it relates to ed reform. I’m not a fan of standardized tests, not for my kids, not for anyone. I hate how they have taken over our schools. I think the current tests we used are too amenable to middle class advantages. We need a better system. 

That said, we absolutely must have objective measurements for student achievement. 

We cannot go back to a system where the quality of education varies from state to state, district to district, school to school, classroom to classroom with no way prove it. We cannot allow the criteria to lean toward the subjective. Because history shows us that those with the power to evaluate are not always able to correctly assess students from culture other than their own. Think of it like the long jump vs. figure skating. Even if some kids have to jump from further back, at least their performance is measured by feet and inches. If we go to a panel of judges, we have to reckon with the history of docking points for income and skin color.

I’m all for figuring out how to help kids all jump from the same foul line. I’m all for reckoning with our history of biased judging. But there are more people succeeding at the former than the latter right now.  

Back to apps and equity.

The app is on mobile (iPhone and Android), is being translated into Spanish, and you can sign up for push notifications for schools that interest you. Accessibility is everything in equity. Cotton’s own experience with her son, who is on the autism spectrum, convinced her that not every school will be able to serve every kid, regardless of what the Texas Constitution says they should do. It would be nice, but it’s not happening this year. However, she also saw how much of her educated, privileged capacity was spent finding that school. Had she been required to work 12 hour days, had she not spoken English, had she not had access to a home computer with reliable internet…the search would have been infinitely more difficult, if not impossible. 

We tend to see “convenience” as a word for the wealthy. Like it’s something that rightfully carries a price tag. Like people with less resources should have to search longer, wait longer, travel further, follow up more frequently. This mindset is how the school choice movement got hijacked. How lottery systems grew overloaded with people with 100 good options, instead of those with one. Getting information into the hands of everyone, having that information meet them where they are, reminding them of application deadlines, lottery dates, and waitlist announcements—that’s big for equity. 

I’ve downloaded the app. It’s easy to use, and sort of fun, in the way that all search tools are fun. But it also does something to level the playing field. Like Cotton, I’ve had the advantage of being vocationally tasked with learning about schools. It made my own school choice journey highly informed, as hers was. Apps like this take that knowledge and tools gleaned from years of full time digging, and make it available to anyone who wants it, and especially to those who need it.

Meet Doug Dawson, the guy you should have already met.

That’s Doug.

Doug Dawson does not sound, look, or act like the kind of guy who might wake up to find himself at the center of conspiracy theories and public outrage. But that’s what happened on March 26, after it was announced that the Teach for America alum and former Texas Education Agency bureaucrat would be heading the School Innovation Collaborative. 

The soft-spoken Dawson thought he was coming to town to act as belay for principals Brian Sparks and Sonya Mora as they broke free (with the district’s blessing) from the administrative tether of San Antonio ISD, and began pressing upward with student outcomes at Gates Elementary, Cameron Elementary, Lamar Elementary, and Bowden Elementary. What he ended up doing was meeting with individual teachers and parent groups to try to soothe the SNAFU that was the rollout of the latest “1882 partnerships” (my assessment, not his).

The substance of the partnership with Dawson and the School Innovation Collaborative is pretty mundane, and, having read it myself in its entirety, helpful.

Gates and Bowden have applied for in-district charters, and Lamar already has one. The charters grant certain autonomies from district budgets, calendars, staffing oversight, and curriculum. 

With great freedom, of course, comes great administrative overload. Sparks and Mora are both network principals—they oversee two campuses. They already have limited time, which has ruffled feathers of those who have enjoyed their substantial and undivided attention. Taking on the administrative elements of the charter could have chained the leaders to their desks, or worse, obligated them to constant meetings with SAISD central administration. 

“Sometimes you need almost like a sherpa to help,” Dawson said, choosing a different mountain-based metaphor for the relationship. His main role is to keep track of progress, and take all those meetings at central office. He’s supposed to do whatever needs to be done to maximize the time Sparks and Mora spend on their campuses.

However, speculation erupted that Dawson was to act less as sherpa, and more as expedition leader, taking the schools out of the district and toward privatization. 

Dawson would be an odd choice for such a maneuver. He’s never really operated in the private sector, after a brief stint in accounting right out of college. He was a middle school math teacher in Dallas, where he realized he had a lot to learn if he wanted to be successful with all students.

“That experience gave me a lot of humility around how hard it is to be an educator,” Dawson said. He went on to Rice University’s education entrepreneurship program (REEP), where he honed his instinct that when it comes to what happens in the classroom, teachers should be “at the top of the decision making process” he explained. Every move up the chain should be about accountability and support…not control. 

From there Dawson worked for YES Prep in Houston, and went on to the TEA where he helped 20 schools establish partnerships similar to the one he’s now part of with SAISD. 

Dawson said he liked the community-driven partnerships best. That’s what drew him to Sparks and Mora. Their methods were not based on specific, alternative models like single-gender education or International Baccalaureate. They were derived from the assets and needs of staff, students, and community. For some schools a program like International Baccalaureate or Dual Language is the way to go, he said, “You as a district and a campus need to figure out if that tool is best for your campus.”

For those who chose a more purist path, there are plenty of existing nonprofits able to facilitate the professional development, curriculum acquisition and training, and fundraising necessary to make the model work on their partner campus. 

Such a partnership did not exist for Lamar or Gates. 

Sparks testified to both the SAISD board and a library full of frustrated parents that he had looked high and low for other partners. None had fit the model and methods the community had chosen in their charter. Mora was in the same situation. 

Some have suggested that the logical thing to do here would be to press on without a partner. However, Sparks gave two reasons he needed a partner: 1) the extra funds available to such partnerships under SB 1882 would bring more money from the state, which would allow him to do more within the charter, to execute it at a higher level. 2) If Sparks were to leave tomorrow, much of the work would go with him. The charters are like constitutions, but a lot depends on who sits in the principal’s office (think White House). Some campuses have seen their charters all but disregarded. Having a nonprofit committed to the charter is intended to guard against that. If the community of parents and teachers want to change their charter when it is up for renewal (or before), they could chose a more ideally suited partner. Or they could ask their partner to change with them. For Dawson, the specifics of the charter aren’t the main thing—the freedom and flexibility of leaders is his thing.

Dawson formed the nonprofit with Sparks and Mora in mind. 

“I only wanted to find a situation in which I was able to create a structure where leaders were going to be given full autonomy and empowerment,” Dawson said. He is ready to work with the community, and has already started meeting with teachers and parents.

So, hearing and knowing all of that…why would anyone object to the partnership? 

Because people didn’t hear about it or know about it until way too late in the game, that’s why. There’s a lot of finger pointing about whose job it is to get the word out on this stuff. Is it Superintendent Pedro Martinez? Is it the family engagement specialists? The communication department? The board? The office of innovation?

The response I’ve heard from parents: any and all of the above. If it’s not currently in someone’s job description, put it there.

In the void where outreach efforts should have been, conspiracy theories gave way to outright lies and scare tactics. Privatization is a scary word that was used to its full power: tuition, the end of free breakfast and lunch, private companies profiting off of public school children.

 Parents were alarmed. The bungling cost campus leaders some of their parent allies, a handful of whom are about one maneuver short of staging a coup. Not only did principals take up the mantle of appeasing a miffed board on the night the management contracts were up for a vote, but they then spent the next week quelling rumors and misinformation among parents and teachers. Welcome to autonomy, I guess?

District administrators will get to continue on doing what they do, as long as they have the support of the board, which they likely will. The board understands the vision of the administration, and the methods of getting there. They have access to any administrator they want when they have questions. And they do ask questions. The board is on board.

But if the administration doesn’t get the community on board, it will continue fueling the campaigns of board challengers in upcoming elections. Christina Martinez and Patti Radle should be cruising to re-election on the merits of their voting records and work in the community. But the vote on the management agreements made them look like reluctant rubber stampers instead of the thoughtful, values-driven women they are.

When Christina Martinez said to Pedro Martinez and his team, “Please don’t put me in this position again,” she would have been well within her rights to say, “OR ELSE.”

The whole board should demand better community engagement from the administration. They look like they are giving away trust to an administration that can’t be bothered to explain why its plans are so trustworthy.

I say this as someone who does have reason to express confidence in the intentions and know-how of the administration. Someone who has more exposure to their plans than the average community member. It’s my job to understand what’s happening in the district and try to explain it, fairly and plainly. In that process I’ve gotten to know the players, gotten a lot of information on background, and wrapped my head around a story that the administration has yet to own.

So if you want to talk about the substance of the district’s reforms, I can give you my honest assessment of “is this a good thing?”

But that information and assessment would be way better coming from PTA presidents, beloved teachers, parent-family liaisons, and elected board members.

I’m also seeing something else happen. Something not in the plans. As a journalist, I’m not just watching the board book. I listen to the citizens to be heard, not once, but over time. I’m watching faces. I’m fielding panicked phone calls, and bumping into concerned citizens at the Y.

Watching Dawson, Sparks, and trustee Steve Lecholop address the Lamar PTA, they had to field a logical question: why did the partnership need to be rushed? Couldn’t the community have time to learn more?

They gave an answer that has gotten pretty stale in recent years: we were up against the State’s deadline. Not enough was official or in writing in the months leading up, when a public information campaign would have been ideal. 

A reasonable request from confused parents trying to give their beloved principal the benefit of the doubt: Can’t it be walked back and delayed a year? 

It fell to Lecholop to explain that the train had left the station, but that everything would be fine. Essentially he had to say, “Trust me.” 

I heard the emotional cash-register in the background. Withdrawing from the same account that funded Austin, Stewart, Ogden, and Storm. If trust was a dollar, SAISD’s administration is spending freely while their opponents are doing their best to devalue it. 

Looking at the faces in the room, I had to wonder if SAISD is going to keep getting more State money and resources for students, but go bankrupt on community trust in the process. Which made me wonder if they’ve figured out how key that asset is in the long-term success of their reforms. 

And if they haven’t figured that out, I wonder if folks like Doug Dawson knew what they were getting into.

Three teachers who made me say “wow” this year.

Spring is the time of year when we honor teachers. They have dedicated another year to loving, teacher, and challenging our kids, and while no novelty check or plexiglass trophy can adequately thank them for that, we hope that they feel the love.

I spend a lot of time writing about education policy now, but a couple of years ago I covered H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards, Trinity Prizes, a Miikan Award, and numerous district-level honors. Between employments I read grants for the SAISD Foundation innovation grants, which is an inside look at all the cool things teachers would do if they had the money.

I’ve met a lot of really fabulous teachers, and heard a lot of really fabulous ideas.

Of course, the most coveted award for any teacher should be the trust and gratitude of parents and kids, and most say that it is. Teachers who are moving children academically and emotionally toward independence are vital partners for families. I understand that better now that my own children have teachers who understand their strengths and weaknesses, and do the difficult work of knowing when to cushion and when to challenge. 

However, acknowledging those who are doing the “extras” serves to illustrate what’s possible when teachers have the support they need—whether from parents, community partners, or from their district. A lot of professionals have unique interests that can ignite their classrooms.

I no longer write about other people’s awards, but I thought I’d take a moment to note three teachers who exemplify, to me, what’s possible when bright, ambitious teachers are free to pursue their professional passions inside and outside the classroom.

Bonnie Anderson of Coronado Hills Elementary in Judson ISD saw her first marimba chorus in 2010, when Walt Hampton brought his students from Washington to perform their Zimbabwean repertoire at the Texas Music Educators Association.

“I saw what his kids could do, and I was like I want my kids to do that,” Anderson told me.

But to get the marimbas she needed was far outside her discretionary class budget, and none of Judson ISD’s approved vendors  carried the special instruments.

This could have been a story of buearacracy stifling creativity, but Anderson persisted. She fundraised several thousand dollars, she advocated, her students advocated, and the district got on board to the tune of $9,000.  

They’ve been slowly adding marimbas to the group, Mojo-rimba, and in 2015 things really took off. The students perform all over the city. They’ll be at the Pearl Night Market on April 4 if you want to catch their enthusiastic renditions of pop-songs and classics. I actually started crying during their cover of Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

I cried because the kids were so into it. They moved like a team. Some danced behind the instruments, lost in the rhythm. Others focused like athletes or scientists deeply immersed in their work. They made mistakes and bounced back exactly like a professional who knows they are supposed to be there. That, all of that, is the point, Anderson said, “The goal is not perfect…they really learn how to handle mistakes.”

Getting involved in Mojo-rimba is as big of a commitment as any sport. Parents emerge as vital volunteers, and eventually set up a non-profit with the goal of getting the kids to Carnegie Hall. Students have fallen so deeply in love with the club that they campaigned to continue it into middle school, meeting once per week in the evening. Many of them, Anderson explained, had found the language that spoke to them.

In 2018 H-E-B Excellence in Education Awards recognized Anderson with the Lifetime Achievement Award.

One could see where it might be tempting for the district to try to spread Anderson—or her marimba collection—more thinly in the name of equality. And I’m usually a hound for such things. However, in this case, I think diluting the group, or Anderson’s focus, would be counterproductive. A chorus like this isn’t possible everywhere, but without teachers like Anderson, unafraid of bureaucracy and tons of extra work, it wouldn’t be possible anywhere.

Rebekah Ozuna of Knox Early Childhood Center in SAISD is another amazing teacher to be sniffed out by the H-E-B Excellence in Education awards. As an early childhood educator, she has my total awe and respect because her job is truly essential to the outcomes we say we want for our kids. What is extra amazing about her, though, is that she’s thinking big about the “how.”

Ozuna served on a commission with The Aspen Institute National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, which produced a report called “A Nation at Hope.” 

The report is full of incredibly useful information and recommendations for those who have more than a vague suspicion that part of what ails many of our children is not lack of technical proficiencies, but a lack of social wherewithal. 

It’s always thrilling to talk to people who approach their career with both hands. With one hand they do the day to day work and with the other they get at the big systems that need to change. Ozuna is doing that. She’s all about quality in her classroom, and she’s all about systems that can deliver that quality to more kids. 

This approach is rare in early childhood education and social emotional learning, both fields experts agree hold massive potential for our kids. Experts and educators agree on that and yet…our society treats both pre-k and SEL like cold-pressed juice, flossing, and physical therapy exercise. Things we know are incredibly beneficial but have limited enthusiasm to continue, or even to execute with fidelity.

So to see someone really champion social-emotional learning for the littlest kids at a campus and national level, well that is notable. And her fellow teachers took notice. They were the ones who encouraged her to apply to the commission. Ozuna is a second generation member of  the San Antonio Alliance, and said she felt incredibly supported by them in what will undoubtedly prove to be a solid career move.  

Katie Hodge of MacArthur High School in North East ISD is the last teacher who recently sort of blew my mind. Hodge is fairly early in her career. She’s been a high school English teacher for five years. She’s one of those young, inspiring millennials who went into teaching to make the world better. She also believes that to make the world better, you need to get out in it. Knowing that many of her students wouldn’t ever be able to do that on their own, Hodge decided to sponsored a high school trip to Italy. It was 23 high school students, three other adults, and her.

Now, teachers have been doing this for decades, taking school groups to Europe. I’d always assumed that it had to be instigated and subsidized by their school district. That no one in their right mind would undertake the fundraising, paper chasing, and then teenager supervising of such a trip without the nudge and support of their boss…and their boss’s boss…and their boss’s boss’s boss.

But that’s what she did, and that’s what so many teachers do when they want to give their kids something more than what’s on the menu in their district. They find a way to do it themselves. We hear about teachers buying supplies that aren’t within the budget, or can’t be obtained quickly enough from approved vendors. It ranges from crayons to marimbas to international travel. 

Hodge said she saw huge benefits for her kids, many of whom raised all the funds on their own, doing odd jobs, saving money from jobs they already had. Some parents pitched in, but some could not. Committing to the goal and seeing it through was great for the kids, Hodge said. 

She also asked them to reflect on their feelings as they traveled. Why were they so annoyed at certain things in Italy? How did it feel to not understand the people around them? When was it difficult to be flexible? As kids who live in the age of super personalization and digital interaction, that last bit was key, Hodge said. They rode a bus all over Italy, and only a few had international data plans on their cell phones, so she encouraged them to focus on being present. 

For most of the kids, the experience led to a shift in their worldview, Hodge said.

I think that’s really the “extra” all teachers are going for when they deliver above and beyond. They want to change the way kids see the world, and how they see themselves in it. They want to move them from the center of their own universe, but to give them the language and tools to explore the universe from a place of security and confidence.

SAISD approves new generation of autonomous schools

At tonight’s meeting the San Antonio ISD board of trustees unanimously approved management agreements for 18 district schools, and new in-district charter applications for 13 schools. Nineteen schools total were a part of SAISD’s newest generation of autonomous schools. The applications go to the Texas Education Agency on April 1.

The charter applications are the result of, essentially, continuous community engagement, SAISD Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury said. Two-thirds support of classroom teachers and two-thirds of parents or guardians must support a charter application for it to be approved. But the district encouraged them to get as many as possible. 

“What we basically told them is, you don’t stop,” Choudhury said. 

Each charter application also serves as a performance contract, which must exceed State standards. To keep their charters, schools have to meet their stated goals, and all the checkpoints listed along the way. Charters failing to meet their goals could have their charter revoked or suspended through a number of what Choudhury calls, “safety valves.” That authority, Choudhury reiterated, lies with the elected school board, which is also functioning as charter authorizer. 

To accomplish those goals, each charter application included a list of requested “autonomies,” campus-level decision-making authority for talent, operations, curriculum, budget, and professional development.  

Choudhury told the board that these autonomies are critical to the success of the charters. 

“Autonomy needs to be a real thing for our schools,” Choudhury said. 

Many of the in-district charters already in place include distinctive curriculums and programs that have been anemic from lack of autonomy over staffing and budget. The most common request, he said, was control over their campus budgets.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez spoke at the beginning of the meeting to affirm that enrollment would not be on the able as an autonomy. Enrollment remains under the control of the district, to ensure that students are not shuffled in and out of schools in the service of higher test scores. All partners had to be aligned on that mission, he said, “We’re not compromising on our values in any one of these partnerships.”

The district parted ways with several potential partners over a difference in philosophy, Martinez said.

All but one charter application, Ball Academy, was connected to a management agreement.

The management agreements will unlock additional funding for the students attending those schools under 2017’s SB 1882. Under 2017-2019 funding levels, SAISD received an additional $1,400 per student for campuses operating under the rules of SB 1882. With state funding in flux, the amount could change. 

The management fees, $100 per student included in the schools average daily attendance, will be taken out of those extra funds. Should the number be drastically lowered, the management fees can be renegotiated. 

While the charters drew little dissent, the management agreements were more controversial, with San Antonio Alliance president Shelley Potter characterizing them as “the wholesale giving away” of school operations. She reiterated a principle complaint of those opposed to the agreements, which is that the 1,200 page board book did not become available until the last legally-permissible minute before the meeting. 

Board member Christina Martinez echoed that concern, saying that the three days notice had not given her enough time to address the fears of the community who had head that their schools were being “sold.” 

“The fear mongering that happens, happens because there’s not a conversation happening,” Trustee Martinez said. 

Community advocate Jason Mims suggested that SAISD post the agenda along with a list of optional actions the board could take, as well as who supports each action—community members, administrators, or others. This might help quell, Mims said, the “unsettling feeling that there’s a power greater than the voice of the people leading public education in San Antonio.”

ALA parent Yon Hui Bell took the broadest swipe at the contracts, linking them to the larger movement of education reform, in which test scores validate the decision to bring in nonprofits and charter networks to run schools. “I question the term innovation,” she said, to describe such moves.

Other parents, teachers, and principals spoke in favor of the partnerships. 

For the most part the nonprofits brought into operate these schools are not operating any differently in relation to the schools. They are only now accountable for the results the schools, and required to share financial information with the district. 

Some highlights from the new generation of SAISD in-district charters and management partners: 

Young Women’s Leadership Academy Secondary and Primary

Young Women’s Leadership Academy’s 6-12 campus has long been one of the district’s show piece success stories, with accolades piling up in their high performing wake. Principal Delia McLerran was recently tasked with opening a primary grades campus at the former Page Middle School campus. McLerran will serve as network principal of the entire K-12 system. 

YWLA has long been associated with the Young Women’s Preparatory Network, a statewide “sisterhood” of all girls schools started in 2001 by philanthropists Lee and Sally Posey. 

The nonprofit supports all of its sister schools, but the management agreement will add financial and outcomes accountability to that support, administered through their newly hired chief academic officer.

“They were a little bit nervous at first,” Choudhury said, but quickly saw the value they could add. 

Young Women’s Preparatory Network could not be reached to verify their initial nervousness.

The most notable goal in YWLA’s charter application (and I don’t know whether these are new changes, or remaining from the last time YWLA renewed its charter) is the emphasis on social emotional wellness curriculum, CASEL. As students are not always equipped to handled the anxiety and pressure of high expectations and academic rigor, the application states that, “Each CASEL competency will be addressed by teachers with the same level of urgency with which they address academic TEKS.”

The application also outlines goals to increase 8th to 9th grade retention and increase AP passing rates. 

The autonomies requested by YWLA include authority over who is and is not reallocated within the campus and from outside. It also requested control over the hiring and recruitment timeline, protocol, and summer work rules. The school also asked to control its own grading guidelines, professional development, school schedule, curriculum and assessment, budget allocation, and teacher observations.

The elementary campus will focus on STEAM, social emotional learning, and extracurricular opportunities for the students. It requested autonomies similar to the secondary campus in the interest of those goals. One notable point was increased communication with families regarding specific academic data for the students. 

Carrol and Tynan Early Childhood Centers

Early childhood centers in SAISD are making huge strides, especially in early literacy. Leadership expect this to continue under the management of High Scope, a curricular partner of SAISD and Pre-K 4 SA.

High Scope focuses on “active learning,” social-emotional development, and executive function—one of the greatest predictors of lifetime success. 

My favorite part in these nearly identical charter applications is the section on the purpose of early childhood education. Under the “challenges” section of the applications, the writers list “narrow view of the scope of Early Childhood” as one of their three main challenges. Some stakeholders view the purpose as, essentially play time or daycare, while research continually supports high quality early childhood education as a game changer for closing the achievement gap. Others place heavy emphasis on academic skills acquisition, when research supports that emphasizing social emotional learning and executive function as the biggest difference makers in long term outcomes.

One of SAISD’s own early childhood teachers, Rebekah Ozuna, was part of the Aspen Institute Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. The commission’s report, A Nation At Hope, outlines the value of social emotional learning and whole child supports and proposing ways to include it in schools and early childhood programs. The report also highlighted the need for more training for the adults who work with children, to ensure their methods and instruction are based in the science of childhood development.

These best practice are reflected in the High Scope method, which is what Ozuna uses in her classroom, and has for over a decade.

 “It’s the best out there, in my opinion,” Ozuna said, “I wouldn’t use it if it wasn’t. I’m all about getting the best for my kids.” 

Both schools also plan to offer dual language. 

Both campuses requested autonomy on staff assignments, curriculum and instruction. They requested flexibility on professional development, including three additional paid professional development days at the beginning of the school year. Both asked for as much flexibility in budgeting as possible, and the ability to pay teachers more if they take on extra duties. Carroll requested to maintain a 1:22 teacher-student ration in grades K-2. 

The Eight IB Schools

For a long time Burbank High School hosted the only international baccalaureate program in the district. Founding director Candace Michael started the labor intensive process of opening that program in 1995, and was a charter member of Texas International Baccalaureate Schools (TIBS). For nearly two decades, it stood alone, launching students into universities around the country on significant scholarships. 

In 2015, the district seemed to have a sudden awakening to the value of the IB program, and began to pursue not on the IB Diploma program for Jefferson High School, but also the accompanying elementary and middle school format for the Burbank and Jefferson cluster schools. 

The management organization, the Texas Coalition of International Studies, is a 501(c)3 born from TIBS. The goals are aligned, Martinez said, to create a self-sustaining IB model. 

“We don’t know when there’s going to be another recession, we don’t know when funding is going to be cut,” Martinez said.

This is the only contract with a caveat in the management fee. If 10 percent of the schools’ gross SB 1882 funds amounts to greater than $100 per student at those schools, the operator will be paid the greater amount. 

To correctly implement the Primary Years Programme, Middle Years Programme, or IB Diploma Programme school wide, the campus’s charter applications indicate that they will need 1) a lot of parent and community conversation, and 2) freedom to stock, staff, and program the school according to the model. Professional development will be key to the success of the model at the eight schools, as will proper staffing in fine arts and world languages. 

Under budget autonomies, the IB schools (and most of the others) asked that money allocated for positions not needed in the model be converted into dollars to be used at the campus’s discretion. 

Briscoe, in particular asked for some enlightening vendor autonomies. With the exception of food and transportation, the school is requesting freedom to opt out of any district service, to be able to shop for materials at standard retail stores and overseas outlets (some IB supplies, it explains in the application, are sole source vendors overseas). 

This is sort of a side note, but it’s got to be infuriating not to be able to just order what you need on Amazon. I get it, I do, seeing the list of places where teachers are not allowed to just go buy supplies when they need them (unless they want to use their own money, which many do), made me sort of exhausted. 

Bowden, Gates, and Lamar Elementary Schools

All three of these schools currently fall under SAISD’s office of innovation because of network principals Brian Sparks and Sonya Mora. Sparks leads Bowden and Lamar, Mora leads Gates and Cameron Elementary, which is not included in the management agreement. Gates is one of the fastest improving schools in the district, while Lamar and Bowden both sit in neighborhoods experiencing significant influxes of middle class residents. While Sparks has only been mandated to close achievement gaps for the students already enrolled, and that, he maintains, is his focus. However, it’s worth noting that if he is successful, he could also buck the trend of middle class students moving into a neighborhood and not enrolling in neighborhood schools. But that’s not going to happen without some of the more unique tools in the tool box. Lamar’s success enrolling a range of families in Mahncke Park— through a dual language program, numerous museum partnerships, and partnership with Trinity University—could be replicated at Bowden in Dignowity Hill.

No amount of academic success will likely draw middle class families to Gates, though. Tucked deep in one of lowest-income corners of the city, past the threshold of poverty that most middle class families will tolerate. The school stands as a direct counterpoint to accusations that the district only invests in areas where middle class families will enroll, and a direct counterpoint to the thought that poverty is and insurmountable obstacle. 

The management partner approved by the board, the School Innovation Collaborative, is a group, headed by Doug Dawson, looking, per the management agreement, “to expand to develop, empower and support great school leaders to design and lead partner networks resulting in more great Texas schools.”

The collaborative is new, born of the unique vision and values of Gates and Lamar. Neither could find a nonprofit partners ideally aligned to what they wanted for their communities. So they created one. It was definitely the longer, more difficult road,  Sparks said, speaking before the board.

“We were looking for partners that believed in what we believe,” Sparks said, “It would have been easier for us to take one of the earlier partners to come across our radar.” 

However, he explained, that would have involved a compromise of their values, and was thus, never a real option.

To be best for the kids of Lamar, Bowden, and Gates, the partner needed a responsive, tailored kind of coaching. No one out there was doing what Sparks and Mora wanted to do. 

“We need partners to support us,” Sparks said, “We need someone to show us our blind spots, potentially.”

Sparks raised the point that the only person on the 1882 campuses who will feel a change should be the principal. For the community—from parents to students to teachers to administrators—the school will feel the same. His job will depend on his ability to meet the performance agreement, he pointed out, but if he can’t meet that, he argued, maybe he shouldn’t be there. 

At Lamar, the 2016 charter is still in effect, and is based on five pillars: curiosity, collaboration, cultural competence, emotional intelligence, advocacy. The curricular tools to achieve those pillar/goals are emotional intelligence training, civic engagement exercises, project-based learning, “genius hour” where students can research things that interest them, dual language instruction and an extended school year. 

Bowden’s charter is similar to Lamar’s, based on five conceptual pillars: academic excellence, curiosity, social-emotional learning, advocacy, and college and career readiness. The proposed tools to put them into practice include best-practice literary instruction, project based learning, AVID, and social-emotional learning.

Gates’s charter primarily reflects curriculum changes—moving toward a blended learning-rotation model, balanced literacy, and guided math.

In addition to other requests, all three schools has requested amended calendars, and the ability to opt out of district professional development, student assessments, and teacher observation. Bowden and Gates requested control over all staffing assignments.  

Bowden and Gates will use ESL instead of the district’s preferred dual language for English language learners in the beginning, as those campuses currently have ESL services. Choudhury indicated that they would need to move toward dual language.

The CAST Schools and ALA

In addition to YWLA, these three are the highest profile specialized campuses in the district, and both are products of substantial public/private investment. By enlisting the CAST network to manage the schools, the district doesn’t expect much to change, as both schools are highly autonomous already.

ALA, which shares a campus with CAST Tech, began exploring a deeper partnership with CAST back in the fall, with a series of community meetings. Preserving the culture of the school was a high priority for parents, according to those who attended a November meeting at ALA. Parents present at a November community meeting polled heavily in favor of the move following one of three meetings with the CAST Network, according to ALA Principal Kathy Bieser’s “community update” on November 25.

“Overwhelmingly parents supported ALA moving forward with this opportunity,” Bieser said at the board meeting. CAST’s approach to deeper learning overlaps ALA’s philosophy, she explained.

The additional funding will allow Bieser to create what she sees as a systematic guarantee that ALA will be able to do the kind of experiential learning ALA values, but doesn’t fit within a traditional school budget. 

The charters for ALA and CAST Tech are current, ALA’s needed a technical update. CAST Med follows a similar structure to CAST Tech. 

Like Young Women’s Preparatory Network, CAST’s move to a management role would constitute just a slight shift from its role as a supporting organization, practically speaking. However, that slight shift, for those opposed to the partnerships, is a big one. It chips away at the monolithic district model, and, in the view of some, threatens to reduce it to rubble.

By contrast, trustee Ed Garza celebrated the move, even as he acknowledged its gravity. After seeing magnets come and go from the high school in his district, Jefferson, he said, sustaining the progress is critical, and the partnerships will allow it. “This is by far the most transformational vote I’ve ever taken on moving the needle for student achievement,” Garza said.