Category: SAISD

Where Justice, Religion, and Education Collide

I’ve been writing about education policy for coming up on a decade, and it never ceases to amaze me.

In so many ways, I will be the first to admit I’m over-saturated on certain (still very important!) storylines. Charter v. district. Teachers v. admin. Parents v. admin. Test scores. Hear me clearly. These topics are important, and I’m not walking away from them. But ten years is a long time on a beat that doesn’t change much, because the biggest scandals and controversies in public education are decades and decades old. In some ways I have felt myself drifting into historians’ lane.

And then there are days, like today, when I’m reminded that as long as schools have our kids—shaping them, teaching them, steering them—there will always be incredibly important stories there, and those stories merit stamina. Religion, immigration, ability, race, gender, sexuality, privilege, and poverty all show up at school. Understanding a little about policy/funding and a lot about people can help us see the story behind the story.

Context, so often, makes the story.

In some ways, it was the oldest scandal in the book, segregation, that got me committed to education reporting. The ripple effects of Plessy vs. Ferguson convinced me education was a justice beat. And then there was the Texas Legislature, which convinced me education was a political beat. And then one day, working on a pretty mundane story about social and emotional learning, I realized there was a religion corner of this beat as well.

Today two pieces ran: In The 74 Million I wrote about San Antonio ISD’s new superintendent Jaime Aquino. He is a lifelong educator, immigrant from the Dominican Republic, English-learner, and gay man. In a state where each of those pieces of his identity will inevitably intersect with some agenda from the Texas GOP, he’s also greeted by a long line of parents whose children are entitled to special education services but have been constantly underserved.

Then, for the first time ever, Baylor University granted a charter to and LGBTQ student group, and the nuances and tensions in that charter speak to conversations happening well beyond the campus. Greater shifts within Christianity—both polarizing and centripetal—are manifest in the new group, Prism, and echoed through the campus conversations in which the decision was made. I got to write about all these intersecting tensions for Texas Monthly.

Education reporting can be exhausting to me, when I feel that I am squeezing stories out of slow, if even existent, change. But in context, it is a steady lens through which to understand so many facets of society, how we construct our villages, what we place upon our kiddos. Having done the basic work of understanding how school systems function, I often use them as a magnifying glass for the many ways our world functions. And that never gets old.

Which San Antonio ISD schools suspend and expel the most students?

Last month, San Antonio ISD adopted a new code of conduct and student bill of rights. The new policy moves the district toward a more restorative approach to discipline, and encourages teachers and administrators to consider the emotional and social health of the child when conflict arises.

The idea is to reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions, and assignments to alternative schools. All of these actions remove students from the instruction they need, and make it more likely that they will withdraw from the institution of school and end up disengaged or in bigger trouble.

On some campuses, the new policy is business as usual. On others, it is likely going to require a radical culture shift.

A public information request revealed just how disparate the district’s campuses are when it comes to discipline. While we know that the district tends to reflect national norms when it comes to racial and special education disparities in discipline, there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to which campuses make the most use of exclusionary discipline methods (suspension, expulsion, alternative school).

Meanwhile others have completely done away with such things…or at least made it three months into the school year without them.

The following (messy and imperfect) graphs demonstrate that there is little demonstrable correlation between the most over-disciplined student populations and the discipline rates at specific schools. However, it should be noted that among the top 15 (top quartile) discipline-heavy schools, seven and eight campuses had higher percentages of black and SPED students respectively than the district as a whole. Among the 15 least heavily-disciplined schools, only St. Phillips Early College had a higher percentage of black students than the district. Four schools had lower percentages of students classified as SPED.

Income does not seem to influence the data much either, though the schools with the largest white populations, are among the less heavily disciplined. Zip codes 78207, 78220, 78212, and 78210 show up throughout the list.

You will notice, however, the outlier dot on both graphs, which is where things get interesting.

In the first three months of the 2019-2020 school year, Davis Middle School handed down 390 suspensions, and placed 14 students in the district’s alternative school. Around one-third of the school’s 600 have missed school for disciplinary reasons so far this year.

That is the highest rate of exclusionary discipline in the district, followed by Rogers Middle School and Highlands High School, which each reported 11 percent of students receiving suspensions or alternative school placement.

Together, those three make up 30 percent of SAISD’s 2,678 exclusionary discipline actions in the first three months of this school year. Adults would likely describe these as three “tough campuses” but are they really “tougher” than, say, Lanier, Margil, JT Brackenridge, and Washington? Why? It appears the disparities lie in something not captured by the stuff we measure, which means it does not seem to be something inherent in the children.

In the coming months, I plan to explore this data further, getting into the details and complexities of the new code of conduct in light of this starting point data. Restorative practices are not without their discontents, but right now, it’s difficult to argue that kids in SAISD are getting an equal shot at it. If this is something that the district is serious about, then it will take sustained effort and community participation to make it a reality on every campus.

San Antonio’s First Dual Language Montessori School is Coming to the West Side

A community redesign revealed that parents and students who said good-bye to Rodriguez Elementary want something big in its place.

Marisa Alvarado (center) shares her thoughts on the Rodriguez closure ahead of a meeting about the school’s redesign.

The West Side is getting a new school. Or rather, a rebooted school. In the fall of 2020, Rodriguez Elementary will re-open its doors as a dual language Montessori school. San Antonio ISD announced the new model at a public meeting on Tuesday night where around a dozen community members gathered to hear the news.

The new school will be the first of its kind in the city. It will be the second choice campus in the Lanier High School area, after Irving Dual Language Academy. The district does have another traditional Montessori school, Steele Montessori Academy on the Southeast Side. Only one other public Montessori school in the state, Eduardo Mata Elementary in Dallas ISD, has a dual language program.  When Rodriguez re-opens in August 2020, it will begin with the “Primary” community (ages 3-6), and grow each year with its initial class. 

Rodriguez closed its doors at the end of the 2018-2019 school year, a state-mandated action in response to five years of failing to meet state standards. The redesign team aimed to get right all that went wrong in the closure process. 

Closing schools just sucks. Marisa Alvarado would know, she’s been through it twice. The Alvarado family moved to Rodriguez when under-enrolled Carvajal Elementary became an Early Childhood Center in 2009.

A small group of parents met with SAISD Director of Strategic School Support Dana Ray at Alvarado’s home near Rodriguez.  They were there to discuss the redesign of Rodriguez, but first they shared their lingering frustration over the closure.

From day one at Rodriguez, she said, she felt the school was “lame.” It showed signs of neglect—outdated technology, worn out furniture, and a principal who was “nice,” she said, but mostly only a voice on the loudspeaker. No one seemed to care whether parents were involved, she said, “As a parent, I like people reaching out.”

Parents offer feedback at a meeting in Marisa Alvarado’s home

She saw an improvement when the district brought in a new principal who had the verve to push for turnaround. Ms. Brady had the energy, Alvarado said, but not enough time. Turnarounds, done properly, are often slow. By the time she pulled Rodriguez’s scores out of “improvement required” status (Rodriguez earned a “D” last year), the decision had been made. To prevent further action from the state, SAISD had already signaled to the Texas Education Agency that it would close Rodriguez.

When they announced the decision, Alvarado said, “I was livid.” She stopped waiting for the school to reach out to her, and started voicing her concern. She wasn’t selected to be a parent ambassador during the closure process, she suspects because she was not happy with the school or the district. But she would show up to meetings and events anyway. “I was determined to be there, because it was my right,” Alvarado said. She has been involved ever since.

While last ditch efforts were made to save others like P.F. Stewart and Ogden—Rodriguez just closed. One parent said she didn’t believe the district even considered other options–at least not publicly or with community input.

Alvarado joined up with COPS-Metro and the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, and even went with them to Austin to protest the closure. But she says she didn’t find a listening ear there either. “They wanted my support, but they didn’t want to listen,” she said, “It drained me a lot.”

Alvarado said she felt bad for the teachers who would have to change schools, and she understood the argument that the neighborhood school is an anchor for community. But those were not her primary concerns. 

Her primary concern was for her kids. Not just that they would have somewhere to go to school— Carvajal reopened to receive the Rodriguez students—but that it would be a good school. A school that the district prioritized.

At one point, Alvarado even considered enrolling in the Advanced Learning Academy. Rodriguez families were given priority in the lottery for any SAISD choice schools, but the drive would have made her mornings too volatile, she explained. She opted for close-by Carvajal for her 3rd grader.

In keeping with her vigilance to keep eyes and ears on the future of Rodriguez, Alvarado agreed to host a redesign meeting in her home—one of at least nine district outreach efforts during the first three months of school this year.

The first meeting in September was a classic public meeting hosted at Rodriguez attended by around 40 people, including former teachers. There the district presented some models that might be appealing. Next, a bus tour of the Advanced Learning Academy, Steele Montessori, and Irving Dual Language gave parents 90 minutes with each school to see what they liked and didn’t like about the schools. 

A second public meeting to get feedback from the tours was not well-attended. Only about five parents came to the October meeting with representatives from each school, Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board President Patti Radle, and representatives from the enrollment office. 

After that, the district shifted gears, meeting with smaller groups at libraries, school campuses, and Alvarado’s house. Ray has met with close to 100 students and parents throughout November, getting feedback on the various models and priorities. 

All saw the benefits of Montessori, project based learning, social and emotional learning, and dual language instruction. Their main priority, expressed in various ways, was that the school know and respond to their children. They wanted to be engaged as partners. For a community that often feels ignored and written-off, the district clearly has some good faith to restore, and parents want it restored in a particular way: a high value placed on their children.

Several parents expressed hesitation about dual language, referencing an internalized “stigma” some community members have against speaking Spanish. In Mexican American communities, some adults remember being punished for speaking their home language at school. English-only use among Latino immigrants increases with each generation, and while some are worried about losing connection to their heritage, others still have a bad taste left over from discrimination they have experienced.

Dana Ray meets with Rhodes Middle School students to discuss the Rodriguez redesign.

Students at Rhodes Middle School, were all in on dual language when they met with Ray. They liked the idea of self-guided Montessori and hands-on learning at ALA. But they lit up when asked if they would have liked to learn Spanish (or French or Japanese, they added). Students believe in the advantage of being multilingual in competitive job markets. They would be jealous, they said, of their younger siblings or neighbors who became fluent in a second language.

Both priorities are reflected in the new model. Rodriguez students will be able to opt into a dual language program within the wall-to-wall Montessori program, which, when implemented with fidelity, is highly individualized and relational.

The campus will also be a “diverse by design” school, meaning that it will be intentionally integrated using socioeconomic status. Half of the students will come from middle and/or upper income households, and half will come from homes that qualify for the federal free and reduced lunch program. This element of the Rodriguez plan may present as large a challenge as training Montessori dual language teachers and outfitting the school in the next nine months. Drawing middle and high income families to the West Side has been a challenge for SAISD. Rodriguez will serve an area that has been historically ignored by the rest of the city. 

While some have raised concerns that development aspirations around UTSA downtown will bring gentrification to the West Side, the housing stock in the 78207 zip code is not as amenable to the kind of rapid change seen in Southtown and Dignowity Hill on the East Side. Small houses and lots, and large public housing developments create a different set of variables than the high vacancy rates and the stately-but-aging housing stock of other areas. For those who have heard Trinity researcher Christine Drennon explain the segregation and gentrification issues of San Antonio, she points out that the West Side was built with segregation in mind. That doesn’t make it immune to redevelopment, but it changes the dynamics. The West Side also has a history of effective Latino activism that could afford residents a stronger voice in conversations about the future of their neighborhoods. 

All that to say, the advent of Rodriguez and its hot new curriculum does not herald immediate influxes of coffee shops, nor does it cater to some future population who may or may not be moving in soon. Putting what might be the most attractive model deep in a neighborhood designed for segregation is something else entirely, in my opinion.

It is definitely a challenge to middle class families to see how much of their school choice really has to do with philosophy of education. Twain and Irving have very different lottery pools, even though the model is the same—diverse by design, dual language. At an event last year, a parent pointed out that there were some other reasons to choose Twain (it had a play scape, and at that moment Irving did not yet have one). But the biggest difference between those two schools is the neighborhood around them. 

More importantly, placing dual language Montessori at Rodriguez spreads the wealth—literally. While there’s still work to be done in making sure that every campus has the resources of ALA or CAST Tech and the attention of schools like Twain and YWLA, placing choice models in historically segregated neighborhoods is a move toward equity as long as those neighborhoods will have priority in enrollment.

Does one new economically integrated school alleviate the concentrated poverty at Ogden, Storm, Sarah King, Barkley/Ruiz, Margil, Crockett, De Zavala, J.T. Brackenridge and Carvajal? No, not really. But it does add integration to the mix of ways that families on the West Side could finally be getting the choices and resources they have been requesting for decades. It is a step. A piece of the puzzle.

Rodriguez will be by far the shiniest of SAISD’s choice schools, and it’s up to the district to make sure that the neighborhood feels the glow.

My children and the Children of the Dream.

My journey toward understanding and believing in integrated schools is well-documented. I’ve reported, opined, and emoted publicly. But until now, my personal relationship to integration has been theoretical. 

When we signed up our kids for Mark Twain Dual Language Academy, a socioeconomically integrated school in our home district, I was excited…and nervous.

One of the ways white, middle class people keep each other from pursuing equity in meaningful ways is to throw up our children as shields. “I’m not sacrificing my kids on the alter of…(name your social justice priority).” 

And thus, our kids are the primary means of passing on and locking up our wealth, so any hoarding we want to do can be done in the name of their well being. 

Even though I know that’s a false idol, the little voice— saying that I was sacrificing my kids—whispered occasionally at night. Told me lies that my kids faced increasing competition. That the world was too dangerous to take chances. That they’d never get into the school of their dreams unless…

Thankfully, I had Rucker C. Johnson to shake me out of my opportunity-hoarding eddy of competition, and remind me that other children exist. Other children who, if I believe what I say I believe, are partially mine

[A note on class and race as they will be used in this blog post: legally, we’ve done everything we can to make them synonymous. They are not, but the overlap is exactly what you’d expect after years of concerted effort. The exceptions do exist, but most schools that are isolated by race tend to be isolated by class as well. So when I read about racial integration, in San Antonio, I take that to mean socioeconomic integration that will yield some degree of racial integration.]

Johnson’s book, Children of the Dream was on my summer reading list the moment I heard him speak on the lasting benefits of integration efforts in the 1960s-80s. Those efforts, he explained, were even more effective when accompanied by school finance reform to make sure that schools where resourced equitably, and didn’t just look like the houses in their neighborhoods. Even more interesting, he adds the benefit of Head Start to the mix to show that early childhood education for low income children also enhances the effects of racial integration and school finance reform. In other words, things that work, work even better together. 

I wore out my highlighter in the first two chapters. At a certain point it stopped mattering, because if you are highlighting every sentence, you might as well just stop. It’s beautifully written, which is unusual for an academic/data book. He also calls out Joe Biden and some other arguments that arose afresh this summer. I hope that, during the democratic debates, Johnson yelled “buy my book!” at his television.

The research, which is meticulously controlled to find out where student gains actually come from, is compelling. Education is incredibly complex—with family, neighborhood, and the unlimited varieties of children’s personalities—all in play. So correlation and causation are notoriously easy to muddle. 

Johnson goes to great lengths to do otherwise. 

The fact that he does so told me a couple of things: 1) he knew this would come under intense scrutiny, and 2) he really wanted to know. 

Let’s start with number two. If I really want to know what—short of massive societal overhaul— will really help children of color experience opportunity in the same way white children do, it’s going to take some deep analysis. Privilege is complicated, because it is essentially the study of everything (except possibly math, physics, and chemistry). It is psychology, sociology, law, economics, history, literature, rhetoric, architecture, city planning, and on and on. So if you just want to make a righteously angry point, you can just throw a dart and see where it lands, call that the source of all ills and probably be, in part, correct.

If you want to find useful information with actual application potential…you have to be meticulous. 

Johnson and his data-loving associates also, however, must have known that all of this would come under intense scrutiny, in part because of philanthropic funding, liberal bias, etc. But mostly because people just like dismissing integration, Head Start, and school finance reform. They are solutions that cost us something, so we’d really like them not to work, and to keep our money and our segregated, comfy schools.

Johnson’s meticulous research doesn’t so much tell us what we didn’t know, as much as it keeps us from denying what we do know. 

If we didn’t know the importance of money (both direct funds and the effects of wealth carried in by the children themselves) in schools, we wouldn’t pay so much for “meh” houses or drive clear across town for a charter school that subscribes to the “tuition free private school” model. We wouldn’t enlist teams of professionals to get our mediocre students to elite private schools and colleges. 

If I were designing a perfect world, these things wouldn’t matter. A school with 90 percent of kids on free and reduced lunch would feel and score the same as a school with 10 percent. I do believe it is possible to, as SAISD’s Mohammed Choudhury says, “do high poverty schools well.” 

It’s really tempting to just focus on this part. And to make faux arguments about people preferring to be in places with other people like them. I call this a faux argument because no one disagrees with that. Of course no one likes to be in a social situation of any kind where they feel culturally and physically isolated. 

But 1) people are generally willing to be the “only one” if that means being safe, secure, and properly educated. White wealthy people just don’t get that because we’ve NEVER encountered that dilemma. And 2) if integration is done properly, nobody is “the only one.” I truly think that when it comes to low income students or students of color, wealthy white people imagine schools where 10, even 25, percent of the students are not like themselves. Try 40, 50, 60, and 70 percent of a student body being non-white or non-middle class. No one in those ratios needs to feel like “the only one.” That is also an incredibly ambitious ratio for many schools regarding both class and race. 

But even if the perfect, economically equitable world existed (it so does not), even if we lived in a post-racial world (WE DON’T. WE SO DON’T) we still need kids who are comfortable with people who are not like them in as many ways as possible. We need them to see each other full of strength and weakness, full of dignity and humility. We aren’t just preparing workers, we are preparing citizens. If the past three years has taught us nothing, it is that fear of the economic/racial/religious/sexual other and ignorance of their lived experience leads to all sorts of terrible decisions, pain, and suffering. If we get post-all that, we’ll still need to stay limber, because there are more ways to sort ourselves. We’ll find them.

But since that’s all totally theoretical, we can just stick with: we don’t even have a modicum of equity, so we need to get serious about this.

Johnson documents how white people maintain their preferred demographic ratios. He lays out examples that show how easy it is to evade policy, and how easy it is to keep your social capital once the system is in your favor. 

Best example: If the federal government demands integration, your district can secede.

Less well documented: In Texas, any wealthy school district mad about Robin Hood —a law that require property wealthy districts to send a portion of their local revenue to the state, ostensibly to be sent back our to property poor districts— will find the ear of a sympathetic lawmaker to help them get that money back through some other mechanism, grant program, or allotment.

This is possible within “integrated” systems as well, by the way. You can have balanced campus numbers and segregated classrooms. You can have teachers who do not actually believe in the potential of every student, and act accordingly. You can have PTAs that insist on meeting 2-3pm on weekdays.

Every policy, every practice has to fall into line for this to work.

I believe, and Johnson affirms this in writing, that while assertive policy is needed, so is the work of hearts and minds. Because hearts and minds are what move the people who move the policy. As we see in attempt after attempt at integration, even the most effective policies don’t last without the support of those who will need their hearts and minds to be changed.

“Desegregation is a law, but its realization is achieved through a spirit of belief in the potential of all children,” he writes. 

One thing, as Johnson points out, that does seem to win hearts and minds: experience. People with lived experience of integrated schooling are some of its most powerful champions. Johnson mentions a movement to recapture integration in Charlotte, through the work of an multiracial task force.

I’m hoping that my kids become those champions.

This week, we took our first action steps as we dropped off our two white, middle class children at a school specifically designed to be socioeconomically integrated, in a district, neighborhood, and city where that implies they will be the racial minority. By…a lot.

They are among only a few white children in their classes—prek and kinder—and their teachers and school leaders are Latinx. They’ll be learning Spanish from native speakers all around them.

Now, I need to add that I’m lucky in other ways too. My integrated choice is an A-rated, well-resourced, creatively led campus where each of my kids have a teacher who fits them perfectly. I don’t know what else I could want. But beyond those fundamental wins, I love that non-white people will be their leaders and peers. That they will see the advantages and disadvantages of their own home, because they see the similar and dissimilar advantages and struggles of their classmates.

But that’s enough about my 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.

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.

The McNeels Chose a School

Feb 19 was a dramatic day in San Antonio ISD. Offers went out. Parents groaned and cheered. A ”now what…” for families waitlisted at their first choice and accepted at their third choice. 

Here’s how it went for us with Moira, our will-be kindergartener and Asa, our will-be PreK-3:

Moira had already been waitlisted at the Advanced Learning Academy, something we knew from day one. 

We received text messages next that both Moira and Asa had been waitlisted at Steele Montessori. 

And next, a text message that Moira was waitlisted at Twain Dual Language Academy. 

At this point, I tell you, I believe in the system, I believe in fairness, but I could feel a little fight burning in my chest. A little “fine, if you don’t want our amazing, wonderful, lovely baby we will take her elsewhere! Somewhere she’ll be happier! And more successful!” 

I was surprised by how my defensive “I’m being rejected” emotions came up. That’s how fairness feels when you feel sort of entitled to everything.

Then we got the text message about Asa. He’d been offered a seat at Twain. Immediately after, we got a second text telling us that, essentially, Asa’s offer had pulled Moira in as well, and she was offered a seat at Twain. 

No longer feeling totally miffed, I now just had, for the first time since having children, real and limited options to consider. Limited options…I really don’t know what to do with that as a parent. I remember the sting of not getting into the graduate programs I wanted. I was rejected by two out of three. But going to grad school didn’t seem as fundamental as kindergarten, and it was weird to think of something so fundamental being restricted in any way. 

Again…that’s how limits feels when you’re used to a world where you almost never hear “no” only “here’s how much it will cost.”  

Lewis and I discussed it as we drove to pick up the kids at my mom’s house. Twain was his favorite option, and he was thrilled. It’s less than a mile from our house, literally at the end of our street. Five blocks. 

It was my second choice, only because I love Montessori so much. I was relieved that at least the my preference vs. his preference choice had been made for us. 

For me, it was then just a matter of accepting the offer. But, as I’ve mentioned, Lewis McNeel is one thorough man. He wanted to take the kids up to the school, and see how they responded. 

Now, here’s a note: Asa cries every. single. day. at drop off. The teacher tells me he stops the second we’re out of sight, and when I pick him up, he’s happy, grinning, and loving life. But if I ask him, “how was school?” he tells me, “I cried and cried. I’m just a guy who cries.” 

I’ve asked the pediatrician about this. He says, “there’s one in every family. Don’t sign him up for sleep away camp.” 

Asa is also the kind of kid who obsesses about one single thing and cannot be distracted or deterred. He will ask no matter how many times you say no. He wears gloves at all times, keeps a sketch pad with him always, and asks for chocolate at least once per hour.  Gloves. Sketching. Chocolate. On repeat. All day. Literally from the moment he wakes up to the moment he falls asleep. More than once he’s woken up in the middle of the night asking for his gloves or chocolate. That’s why Asa has to go to school. 

Moira is very much NOT that kid. Moira has loved school since the day we dropped her off at age 20 months. She almost never asks to stay home. She runs to the car in the morning. 

So I was skeptical that we would learn much from a campus visit. But letting Lewis take his time has never been a bad idea in our house. It usually leads to better decisions. 

We told the kids about their new school, and that they would be learning Spanish. (Beyond what they’ve gleaned from watching their favorite movies in Spanish.)

“Hola, familia!” shouted Moira, right away.

“Cho-co-late” said Asa, with Spanish pronunciation. 

So they’ll know how to get what they need…

We took them to the campus, and both were enraptured with the Spanish instruction. Moira was ready to explore the classrooms. She saw “Morado” on the color rug and asked if they had made her a spot already. I told her that meant “purple” and she said, “They even knew I like purple?!?”

The school assured us that language acquisition would come quickly at their age. Asa made a friend on the tour. Moira made friends with the tour guide. 

They were anxious to get back to St. Paul’s that day…but are generally very happy about the prospect of learning Spanish and sitting on a purple spot on the rug. 

So, that, my friends, is how the McNeel family chose a school, and all the things we learned along the way. 

Union questionnaire for board candidates spotlights specific tensions in SAISD.

Shannon Elledge, a teacher at SAISD and a member of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers Support and Personnel participates in a rally outside Burnet Elementary before the school board votes on whether to move forward with a partnership between Stewart Elementary School and Democracy Prep Public Schools, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

Just the other day I asked a member of the San Antonio Alliance, the San Antonio ISD teachers and support staff union, whether relations with the district administration had improved at all. She demurred.

But today I got my answer.

They have not.

The Alliance distributed a questionnaire, printed below in its entirety, to vet the candidates on a range of issues. A few of these are standard ethics questions, and few more pertain to how the board and administration relate to the union. It reminds us all that the Alliance does plenty of work that is not defined by it’s contentious relationship to the current board and administration.

However, exactly half of the 22 questions do expand on this question:

3. How do your views align with or differ from the current SAISD superintendent’s views?

Candidate’s answers to these questions will be further fleshed out in forums according to Alliance executive Katy Bravenec. From there, the Alliance’s political action committee (PAC) will make it’s endorsement.

“Our Alliance PAC board will determine the endorsements after all of the candidate forums are complete,” Bravenec wrote in a message, “Our Alliance PAC board will choose the candidates that they believe will best represent SAISD students, families and teachers based on the responses candidates give to all questions.”

During the last board election in May 2017, the Alliance endorsed all incumbent board members, despite less visible tensions between the union and Martinez, who had 7-0 board votes piling up in his favor.

In May 2018 came the 132-teacher layoffs, alluded to specifically in the questionnaire. Now, in May 2019 sitting board members may be facing re-election into the headwinds promised by teachers and their advocates during the layoffs.

Municipal elections do not typically bring out the voters, though a mayoral race on the ballot should help a bit. Teachers do vote. They campaign. This matters to them. Other groups–parents, business leaders, or SAISD taxpayers–could develop their own questionnaire, or host their own forums, letting candidates know they too have concerns and priorities. But for that to matter, they’ll need to be able to back up those priorities with votes.

The questions elucidate some of Alliances continuing disagreement with the the current administration over the direction of the district. Questions like this one indicate that the Alliance considers Superintendent Pedro Martinez as either responsible for declining enrollment, or doing little to stop the bleeding. They don’t acknowledge that the decline has been going on for decades, though they are correct that it has gotten pretty steep in recent years.

10. Over the past three years, under the current superintendent, student enrollment in SAISD has dropped by approximately 5,000 students. How would you hold the superintendent accountable for this drop in student enrollment? What ideas do you have for retaining our students and for increasing student enrollment?

Martinez has not been sheepish about declining enrollment. In May of last year, he included this assessment.

This school year, the number of in-boundary students who did not attend SAISD was 8,654, with the great majority of them enrolled in external charter schools. That’s an increase of 3,242 students from the prior year, the largest increase we’ve seen to date. However, our enrollment only declined about 1,800 students – a little more than half of that. While still a substantial loss, it could have been worse. Our increased options for families has helped to offset some of this.
Competition for students has been increasing over the past five years, and recognizing this trend, we proactively have been preparing for it. We know that some parents and students are seeking different options, and we have been developing more diverse models and programs – through in-district charters, partnerships and expansion of successful programs to more neighborhood schools. These options have kept or brought in families.

So Martinez’s answer, unanimously backed by the current board, is to create SAISD choices to compete with non-SAISD choices. That’s not just charter schools. We can’t forget that moving out of the district is a form of school choice. One exercised by more than a few SAISD teachers.

We call this white/middle-class flight, and it’s left many areas of SAISD in deep poverty. There is not a single SAISD school with less than 60 percent free-and-reduced lunch (FRL) rate. Some are as high as 99.5 percent. With that many kids living in households where food and electricity may be unreliable, where parents are working around the clock and still struggling to make ends meet, where doctor visits and dentist visits aren’t happening, schools start to feel the squeeze. They need more counselors. They need more specialists.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

In response to this data, SAISD Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury (the guy behind the diverse by design initiative) likes to say, “We have to do high poverty schools well, and we need to stop recreating them.”

But Choudhury is the Alliance’s Public Enemy #2, for sure. In its questionnaire the Alliance calls into question that second part of his mantra.

8. Over 90% of our SAISD students are economically disadvantaged. What is your view of the current administration’s “diverse by design” initiative in which they aim to create schools, not tied to a neighborhood, in which half of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and half of the students come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds?

Here the Alliance builds its case that SAISD is more interested in serving the middle and upper-middle classes than it is in serving it’s lowest income populations.

(I have to take a moment to appreciate the irony that Patti Radle is one of those board members running for re-election and thus being questioned about her commitment to the poor.)

My understanding of the district’s choice-school initiative, after reporting on every sneeze, hiccup, and toot of this administration is this: First, the middle class, broadly speaking, has been leaving the district for decades, so that’s the low hanging fruit of who they can get back to bring up enrollment (and avoid another round of layoffs). Next, socioeconomic diversity is a plan intended to benefit kids currently being educated in what’s called “concentrated poverty.”

Here’s a tidbit of the research behind that strategy:

Socioeconomic (SES) school integration is a public policy designed to improve opportunities for students by: 1) reducing the negative educational effects associated with school poverty concentrations, and 2) providing a diverse environment that benefits all students.

Lastly, while 50 percent of the diverse by design schools are reserved for kids who qualify for free and reduced lunch (parents make $44,000 or less), a quarter of those seats are reserved for kids living in the deepest poverty in the city (median incomes between $19,000-$27,000).

If the district were interested in catering to wealthy families, the token 50 percent low-income seats would not be so heavily policed by Choudhury’s office. They would open the doors, let the chips fall where they may, and you’d have 50 percent middle class kids and 50 percent kids from the higher end of the low-income spectrum. That’s how choice works if you don’t police it, and there’s no incentive to police it unless you’re trying to make it equitable.

Honestly, if you were trying to court middle class families only, you’d just open up a bunch of specialized academies with no guardrails and let them fill up the way that all special curriculum schools do. Check the economic math on schools like the International School of the Americas, Great Hearts, BASIS, Health Careers. That’s how it works.

The district has been quick to admit that things aren’t moving as fast as they want them to at some of the schools. However, it’s not accurate to imply that the district isn’t trying to “do high poverty schools well.” By deploying principals like Sonya Mora to Gates Elementary, Brian Sparks to Bowden Elementary, and Master teachers throughout the district, the administration is arguably doing one thing that has proven to be effective across the country. It’s just going to take time to scale, the district says. Many of the glitzier schools, like CAST Tech and ALA are made possible through highly specific partnerships and grants–but the meat and potatoes of school improvement are being distributed throughout.

There are also, however, some resources that the Alliance does not want given to high-poverty schools: charter partners.

In its questionnaire the Alliance seeks further assurance that board members will not pursue/support more Democracy Prep and Relay Lab Schools-style charter partnerships, which they oppose on many fronts. For teacher’s unions around the country, “charter school” is simply a non-starter. They don’t want to cooperate, compete, or cooperpete.

All that to say, the charter question is not surprising.

The Alliance would also like to hear board members vow to do whatever it takes to avoid a RIF. That’s an understandable concern for a teachers union to have.

However, two State initiatives–the District of Innovation and the System of Great Schools–have also enflamed frustrations. Both make an appearance on the questionnaire. These two initiatives have poised the district to continue ambitious changes, and will likely be the backdrop of every district maneuver for the foreseeable future. They give legal and philosophical grounding to major changes—many of which will effect teachers.

Given that only three positions out of seven will be on the May ballot, there’s almost no chance of a board flip, or a rerouting of the district. However, 3-4 split decisions aren’t where any board wants to be, and it could slow things down significantly if resistance to Martinez gains a foothold.

The full questionnaire can be read below:

2019 SAISD School Board  Questionnaire

Name:        _________________________________________ SAISD Single-Member District #: ______

PLEASE NOTE: When the question is a multi-part question, please be sure to answer all parts of the question. If there is a question that asks about something with which you are not familiar, please research the issue as this is something you will need to be able to do as a school board member.

  1. What do you feel are the most important qualities and skills you bring to the Board?
  2. What do you believe is the single most important issue the district faces right now?
  3. How do your views align with or differ from the current SAISD superintendent’s views?
  4. Do you support or oppose the privatization (contracting out) of the district’s custodians, food service employees, trades people, and other support personnel? Why or why not?
  5. Do you support or oppose the state law that provides a financial incentive for public school districts to partner with privately-run charters? Do you think that public school districts should partner with privately-run charter schools? Why or why not? As a school board member would you support a resolution declaring the board’s opposition to charter partnerships, privatization of schools, and corporate grants intended for privately-managed schools?
  6. Do you support or oppose the district’s contract with Democracy Prep, a privately-run charter from New York City, to operate Stewart ES? Do you support or oppose the district’s contract with Relay Lab Schools, a privately-run charter, to operate Storm and Ogden?
  7. What are your views regarding “choice” schools? What are your views regarding neighborhood schools and their preservation? What do you think is the appropriate balance between “choice” schools and neighborhood schools and why?
  8. Over 90% of our SAISD students are economically disadvantaged. What is your view of the current administration’s “diverse by design” initiative in which they aim to create schools, not tied to a neighborhood, in which half of the students come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and half of the students come from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds?
  9. What is your view of the “portfolio model,” embodied in SAISD as the “System of Great Schools?”
  10. Over the past three years, under the current superintendent, student enrollment in SAISD has dropped by approximately 5,000 students. How would you hold the superintendent accountable for this drop in student enrollment? What ideas do you have for retaining our students and for increasing student enrollment?
  11. Over the past two years, the district has not complied with the state law of no more than 22 students per classroom for K-4th grade due to the district’s District of Innovation status under which they have a waiver from this state law. Would you support removing the class size waiver from the District of Innovation plan so that our K-4th grade classes have no more than 22 students? Would you support a resolution directing the superintendent to work with our union to create reasonable class size limits for other grade levels?
  12. Last Spring, the superintendent recommended, and the school board approved, a “reduction in force” (RIF) of teachers for the first time in SAISD history. 132 teachers were RIF’d purportedly because of the district’s financial situation. Would you support another RIF of teachers and/or support personnel this Spring? Why or why not? If not, what steps would you take to help avoid a RIF?
  13. This school year, the district began the year with 35 teaching vacancies. In past years, the district has begun the year with no more than 0-5 vacancies. How will you hold the superintendent and the district’s Talent Management Department accountable for this? We have some classes this school year that had a sub all or most of the first semester due to the high number of unfilled teaching vacancies. How will you hold the superintendent and Talent Management accountable for this?
  14. Do you support high-stakes state testing of students? Do you support the concept of rewarding teachers based on student test scores? Why or why not? Do you support the concept of rewarding principals based on student test scores? Why or why not?
  15. What measures do you believe need to be taken to attract teachers and support personnel to our district? What measures do you believe need to be taken to retain them? Do you view experienced teachers and support personnel as an asset or liability? Why or why not?
  16. Do you support and respect the current SAISD Consultation policy regarding input from employees, including the right of the employees to choose their exclusive representative organization in a secret ballot election? Why or why not?
  17. For seventeen years, our union partnered with SAISD to provide high-quality, research-based professional development for new teachers that was facilitated by active SAISD teachers. For the 2018-19 school year, the district discontinued the partnership without explanation. New teachers, and those who provide them with support, consistently tell us that they need the support that the partnership provided them. Would you support the reinstatement of this partnership between our union and SAISD?
  18. From whom have you received support, or expect to receive support, for your campaign? What resources and support will you have to help you run a successful campaign?
  19. If elected, from whom would you seek advice regarding issues that come before the Board?
  20. Would you be willing to meet regularly with Alliance leaders and members to discuss issues and how the implementation of district initiatives play out in the field?
  21. If faced with a decision to stand for what you believe in, for the good of our students, our teachers, our district, and it meant being the only board member for or against an issue, would you stand firm, or decide to follow the rest of the board and change your vote?
  22. Do you have a personal or professional relationship with the district or its contracting agencies which involves compensation to you or your family members? If yes, please list those.

The McNeels Choose a School, part six: What’s going to happen at Hawthorne? And why?

Applications are in for our three choice schools. It was super easy. Everyone should do it. 

While we applied, we were automatically registered for our neighborhood school, Hawthorne Academy. It’s a valid option. It’s the kind of school where our kids would be fine. We’d be fine. Everyone at Hawthorne is giving it their all, from what I hear. They just have a vision problem.

Unrealized potential is really frustrating. And where there’s frustration, there’s fighting. It’s one thing when the fight comes to you, it’s another thing to choose to go to the fight. With your kids in tow.

Allow me to explain.

When I first started writing about education in 2013, Hawthorne was a school that folks were watching. Located along the San Antonio River, adjacent to the hottest real estate in San Antonio (the Pearl), it was one of those schools poised to naturally grow its enrollment as a formerly semi-industrial neighborhood filled with people.  

It was one of SAISD’s first in-district charters, focused on Core Knowledge, fine arts, and leadership. Librarian Bonnye Cavazos was the spark that brought in partnerships with neighborhoods, academics, museums, and more. 

Ironically, in the same article wherein I profiled Hawthorne, I wrote about Lamar Elementary, which was similarly located in gentrifying Mahncke Park, with lots of museum partnerships, community involvement, etc.

I say “ironically” because the two seem to have switched places, six years later.

At the time, Lamar was fighting low enrollment. The middle class parents moving into the neighborhood eyed it somewhat suspiciously, though a healthy handful were investing time and energy into getting more resources, forging partnerships, etc.

Under the leadership of Brian Sparks, Lamar is quickly becoming one of the more beloved success stories of SAISD. Parent engagement is up with a strong effort to reach all socioeconomic groups, enrollment is up, partnerships are thriving, and the school’s identity is strong. It has ridden the wave of investment in the cultural institutions with whom it partners.

Not that Lamar is without its challenges, but I’m not going to get into those here. 

Hawthorne, with the same leadership it had in 2013, seems to be stuck. Enrollment is declining. Parents are frustrated. The Core Knowledge curriculum seems to have faded away, while the rest of the charter is in jeopardy as it comes up for renewal this spring. The “leadership” component, it has been suggested, could come from “Leader in Me” curriculum, the same basic Stephen Covey product used all over other school districts and the Alamo Colleges. It’s exactly the kind of pre-packaged, mass market stuff that in-district charters are supposed to be avoiding. 

Some parents at Hawthorne have put forth another idea. They would like to see Hawthorne embrace its place along the San Antonio River more fully, and to partner with civic institutions like San Antonio River Authority (SARA), The Tobin Center, The Culinary Institute of America, The Missions, the University of the Incarnate Word, and others to create a place-based curriculum. As a River School, students could feel connected to the city and see real life applications of what they learn in school. They could see science in action at SARA and the CIA, arts at the Tobin Center, history at the Missions. And they could connect to all of it via the same familiar route: the river.

That idea comes straight from parents whose children are and have been enrolled at Hawthorne for a while. They have been digitally walking around with a Word document asking people to read it.

Now, a few things I’ve learned about parent-led initiatives: Many are enrichment-focused, with little impact on academic subjects. Many are also niche interest projects that will live and die with the parents who champion them. Also, most, like the River School idea, are spearheaded by white, professional class parents. When that happens you have to look at who the idea actually benefits, and who actually wants to see it happen.

However, the River School idea may actually be different, because it’s built off of the existing charter, and has a wall-to-wall vision for the whole school. Not an after-school club, school within a school, or an elective. It would be a marshaling of resources for every child in the school, and bring many low-income kids into contact with powerful institutions, giving them a sense of ownership and belonging in their city.  

From an equity standpoint, I like the River School idea.

SAISD has two in-house resources that could further develop this initial idea if parents and teachers wanted to do so. 

First, they have access to the funding they would need to realize the more ambitious parts of the plan. Senate Bill 1882 would allow a partnership with any of those nonprofit entities (or an umbrella nonprofit formed by the City of San Antonio), to bring in extra per student funding. Unless something changes drastically in the Legislature this year, that will likely be around $1,400 per student more, which could fund supplemental activities and supplies and personnel needed to facilitate all the off-campus learning and on-campus professional development, hosting of partner organizations, etc. 

Next, they can look to a similar model in Dallas ISD. While City Lab High School opened after Mohammed Choudhury left Dallas to become SAISD’s chief innovation officer, he was part of the design process. He knows what needs to happen to make sure students were academically on track while using the city as their classroom.

Of course, mention Choudhury’s name (or any member of Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s cabinet), and conspiracy theories start flying. Something about wanting to turn all SAISD schools into charter schools (because of Democracy Prep at Stewart), or funnel resources to the middle class (because of Diverse by Design schools)…I honestly can’t tell if the theories are misunderstandings, misinformation, or just a bad game of telephone.

But I’m not here to defend or skewer the guy. He knows how to design a school like this, it’s a design parents seem to want, and a design that’s having success somewhere comparable. CAST Tech does similar stuff, ALA does similar stuff. Hawthorne could take that “stuff” and make it something really distinctive and empowering for the kids, and I just hope that it wouldn’t be tripped up by people’s suspicions about how a bureaucrat feels about charter schools—which has nothing to do with the parents’ River School proposal. That would be a shame.

Hopefully, they won’t. The school has been given an extension on its charter revision, and hopefully they will use that time to summon their creative juices and come up with something that inspires the teachers, students, and parents. Hawthorne could very easily recapture its moxie. They’ve got all the ingredients, they just need the right recipe.