Julio César Contreras introduces the Relay Graduate School of Education San Antonio. Credit: Bekah McNeel

San Antonio ISD (SAISD) has yet again found itself at the intersection of aspiration and opportunity. On Oct. 10, the SAISD Board of Trustees unanimously voted for a partnership that will give 200 SAISD teachers the opportunity to earn a master’s degree through the Relay Graduate School of Education (Relay GSE). The partnership was formally announced at a press conference in the Jefferson High School library on Oct. 11.

Since 2011, Relay GSE has been a fully accredited nonprofit school with the exclusive purpose of training educators. The school currently serves 2,000 teacher-students in district and charter classrooms, as well as 400 school leaders through its principal program. The program will bring Relay faculty into classrooms to observe, coach, and train teachers while they continue to do their jobs, as well as give students access to online classes. 

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez celebrated the partnership as a major step toward the ambitious goals he has laid out for the district.

“As SAISD pursues (its) status as a national model urban school district, these and other programs will allow us to build a pipeline of highly skilled and knowledgeable teachers who have a deeper understanding of the subject they are teaching, leading to more rigorous instruction for students,” Martinez said.

Currently, of the district’s 258 middle school teachers in math, science, and English language arts (ELA), only 151 are certified in their subject areas. The other 100+ have general certifications. Only 79 out of 268 high school math, science, and ELA teachers are certified to teach dual credit.

SAISD Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Toni Thompson estimates a personnel shortage of about 800 traditionally certified teachers in Bexar County. The insufficient pipeline from traditional certification programs in area universities has left SAISD dependent on alternative certification programs.

“There’s nothing that can compete with a full course of study from a traditional preparation program,” said Thompson.

The Relay GSE will add “relevance and rigor,” according to Thompson.

Texas Education Agency (TEA) Deputy Commissioner of Educational Support Martin Winchester applauded SAISD for its partnership with the graduate program. Winchester, himself a national board certified teacher, was mentored by the educator who went on to become the provost of Relay GSE.

“I thought, ‘This is one of the most brilliant pedagogical minds I’ve ever met,’” Winchester said.

Throughout his career, Winchester has continually been impressed by the Relay GSE alumni he meets around the country, particularly those tasked with turnaround campuses. He believes that the program does a good job of preparing teachers for the students who will actually enter their classrooms.

“We don’t want to be testing out teachers on students,” said Winchester.    

The San Antonio initiative is built on two components according to Julio César Contreras, dean fellow of Relay San Antonio.

Beginning in November, veteran secondary teachers in math, science, and ELA will be able to apply for a 15-month program to earn a master’s degree that will allow them to administer dual credit courses. The program will begin in March for the 75 accepted applicant – 25 from each subject area.

During the 15 months, teachers will remain in their classrooms, as much of the curriculum is based on classroom pedagogy and continual practice. About 40% of their work will be online.

The secondary master’s degree program costs $10,000 per person. It will be funded by SAISD through a series of grants and other funding streams, according to Thompson.

The other component of the program, a lab school at Ogden Elementary School will bring in cohorts of 25 new resident teachers each year for five years. In the first year, the cohort will receive a teaching certification, and in the second, a master’s degree.

The program will be funded through a partnership with City Education Partners (CEP), the same philanthropic group involved in SAISD’s Advanced Learning Academy. CEP will contribute $3.4 million to the laboratory school over two years, with the opportunity to extend.

During the first year in the Relay GSE program at Ogden, residents will work in the classroom with a mentor teacher. Relay GSE’s philosophy of continual practice will allow teachers ample classroom time, and increase the amount of support for students at this high-need campus. At the end of the program, participants commit to serving at least three years in SAISD.

The Ogden lab school will also have two principal residents.

In his presentation to the SAISD school board, Contreras called the program an “entry ramp” to the district. His goal, in concert with the stated goals of SAISD and CEP, is to create an abundance of highly trained teachers in the district so that students have the continual support of a “relay” of good teachers.

It requires three to five years in a row of high quality instruction with a motivated, highly skilled teacher to change the trajectory of a struggling student, according to Contreras. It’s not enough to have one great year. The lab school model creates an environment where students are surrounded by an entire team of teachers trained in best practices.

“We’re eager to follow in the footsteps of the Advanced Learning Academy,” Contreras said.

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.