Tag: charter schools

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. 

Rumblings continue in the battle over SAISD-charter partnership

San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel President Shelly Potter addresses members of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers Support and Personnel, Stewart Elementary parents and staff at 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.
Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media

“Whose schools?”

“Our schools!”

“Whose schools?”

“Our schools!”

That was the call and response chant on the steps of the SAISD administrative building ahead of the January 22 board meeting, in which the board voted to move forward in a charter agreement with Democracy Prep, a nonprofit organization that runs charter schools in Louisiana and the Northeast. 

Following the Jan 22 meeting SAISD authorized Democracy Prep– which had not previously been approved to operate in Texas– to effect a school turnaround at Stewart Elementary, a traditional neighborhood school currently in its fifth year of failure to meet state standards. Authorized through SAISD, Democracy Prep can open more schools in Texas. 

The 2017 law that incentivizes SAISD to contract with Democracy Prep, Senate Bill 1882, requires the school to serve every single child living in the Stewart attendance zone, if they chose to go there. What this means for special education and English language learners had not been fully worked out at the time of the January 22 meeting, but Martinez assured the board that it would be fully explored as the district hammered out a performance agreement and subsequent contract.

The Texas Education Agency had not finalized rules for SB 1882 in time for the February 20th board meeting. The district will check the terms of any partnership by those forthcoming rules before bringing the performance agreement to a vote. Final rules will be published by Feb 26, with guidance following on March 12, per the TEA website.
In the meantime, tension continues to build between the district and the union.
The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the union representing faculty and non-administrative staff in the district, rallied ahead of the Jan 22 meeting to protest what they describe as the abdication of responsibility.
Later that night (once the decision was official) the Alliance Facebook page posted a summary of the meeting that ended with, “The district administration, in effect, admitted they do not know how to do their core mission of educating our district’s students and because of that they are bringing in a company from New York City to do the job that they are evidently not capable of doing.”

One of the Alliance’s concerns is what will happen to students who would not typically thrive on a Democracy Prep campus. Because of its history as an independent “no excuses” charter district, Democracy Prep schools have not operated under the same legal requirements to accommodate students considered part of “special populations.” 

Democracy Prep was not on the agenda at the Feb 12 board meeting either, however Alliance president Shelley Potter presented an extensive list of performance recommendations to the board during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting. Under the title, “What Our Community Demands from Any Proposed Charter School Operator in SAISD” the two page document lists six categories of detailed assurances the Alliance would like from the district, including transparent planning, high quality curriculum (including bilingual or dual language instruction), classroom management policy, and family supports. Two sections pertain to teacher and employee concerns.

Martinez has made his position known as well. In a January 24 interview with nonprofit news site The 74 Martinez noted that while the district has many choice schools, Democracy Prep is the first time he’s gotten backlash. He attributes this to the teacher contract issue.

“For every other option, the employees have reported to us, so we’ve been able to open new models with little resistance,” Martinez told The 74, “Is it coming from parents? The short answer is “no.” I had a parent meeting last week to explain this, and it’s not coming from them. I’m proud of the trust we have built with parents. Parents want these choices. The backlash is coming from our unions and alliances in San Antonio. It’s about having charter schools that don’t have union contracts versus schools with union contracts or union right.”

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.

He went on to say that the district will choose partners who treat teachers well. While the details are not yet finalized, faculty contracts were non-negotiable for Democracy Prep, Martinez said, the charter school will be the employer, not SAISD. Teachers currently have protective contracts at SAISD, Democracy Prep practices at-will hiring. This came as an abrupt surprise for the faculty of Stewart.

During the Jan 22 board meeting, members of the Alliance spoke passionately to the board. Alejandra Lopez, a teacher at Stewart, accused the district of robbing the parents and faculty of their “right to self-determination.” Given the chance, she said, the parents would have participated in a redesign and used their voice.

As a matter of policy, the board does not respond to comments during the citizens to be heard. However, before the board voted to move forward with the arrangement, Martinez spoke to the issue of parental choice.

The parents of Stewart students have been advocating for their students for years, he said. The evidence is in the rapidly declining enrollment at Stewart as students have flocked to Brooks Academy and other nearby charter schools. 

“Those parents do have a voice,” Martinez said, “They walk.”

Enrollment at Stewart has been falling for years. During the 2016-2017 school year, Stewart served 542 students. Enrollment had fallen from 560 the year before and 565 the year before that. Many of those students went to charter schools like nearby Brooks Academy.

I watched the attrition first hand when I was reporting for the Rivard Report.

In the spring of 2016, photographer Scott Ball and I followed three students at Stewart as a way to highlight the need and possibility for change under Martinez, who was then in his first year as superintendent. One of the first students we interviewed was a fourth-grader identified as a good student who needed strong supports to stay on track. His guardian told us that she had put him on the waiting list at Brooks Academy after talking to other parents who had done the same. While their chief concern was middle school, they wanted to start applying early so as not to miss their chance.

When we came back for a second interview, we were informed that the fourth-grader had left Stewart to attend Brooks Academy.

Data supports these parents’ decision. Brooks Academy may or may not be the best long-term decision, that data simply won’t exist until the school has been around longer. However, the data does support the decision to leave Stewart.

Mike Villarreal, a University of Texas at Austin researcher and former State representative, also spoke at the Jan 22 board meeting. Through a collaboration with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Workforce Commission, and several local school districts, Villarreal has been able to trace graduates of various San Antonio area elementary schools into adulthood.

Long term student outcomes for Stewart were not good, Villarreal said. Even before Stewart had fallen out of compliance with state standards, it was graduating students into a future of low performance.

Stewart graduates who were in the workforce in 2016 made an average of $18,000 per year, Villarreal’s data showed. State average is $34,000. Only about five percent earned post-secondary certificates and degrees within six years of their projected high school graduation, compared to 20 percent statewide.

“I’m here to celebrate what you are already doing which is keeping your eye on student outcomes,” Villarreal said to the board.