SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board President Patti Radle, and board member Olga Hernandez address the inaugural class. Photo by Daniel Kleifgen.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board President Patti Radle, and board member Olga Hernandez address the inaugural ALA class. Credit: Daniel Kleifgen / San Antonio Report

Customized, project-based learning. Interdisciplinary curricula. Open-ended exploration with real-life application. These are just some of the buzz words that float like dreams in teacher training sessions and educational research – only to evaporate in districts like San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) when educators face the realities of poor funding and support.

At the Advanced Learning Academy’s (ALA) opening ceremony Wednesday, public officials, researchers, educators, parents, and 65 members of Leadership San Antonio committed to once and for all realizing these dreams for the school’s founding body of 588 students. The crowd assembled in an outdoor auditorium at Fox Tech High School, one of the academy’s two locations, in a gesture that anticipates San Pedro Creek’s groundbreaking ceremony on Thursday and seeks to tie the two metamorphoses together.

“We’re committing ourselves to … demonstrate throughout the city that when students are given adequate opportunity and resources, they can thrive,” State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) told the Rivard Report over chanting elementary, middle, and high school students. “I think what’s going to happen here is not just going to be a success, but an example.”

While the ALA currently ranges from kindergarten to 10th grade, it will eventually include pre-school through fourth grade at its Austin Academy location and fifth through 12th grade at the Fox Tech campus, with an estimated 1,600 students at maximum capacity.

In a partnership among SAISD, City Education Partners (CEP), and Trinity University, the public school aims to create a lab for educational innovation akin to the teaching hospital model. Trinity professors will help implement academic programs used in the world-class education systems of Finland, Germany, and Japan, while about 10 Trinity master’s of education students support teachers in the classroom. In return for scholarships provided by CEP, these “teacher residents” commit to teaching in SAISD for two years, allowing the school’s innovations to disseminate to other campuses.

“What I love is that the school fuses our own staff and the Trinity staff,” SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said shortly before giving a rousing speech to the school’s first class of students. “I challenge anybody to say who’s in our staff and who’s in the Trinity staff, because they are so seamless with the way they’re working together.”

At the heart of the school’s vision is empowering students with agency over their learning and fostering a concept of knowledge as something to be created rather than absorbed. Instead of sorting students based on grade level and passing them assembly line-style through distinct subjects, teachers collaborate daily in autonomous, interdisciplinary teams, continuously adjusting student groupings based on individual needs. Rather than showing up to the same classrooms every day, the mix-grade cohorts rotate through unique learning spaces reserved by teachers based on their particular lessons.

An idea board adorns a wall at ALA.  Photo by Daniel Kleifgen.
Teachers use get-to-know you questions to teach data density by having students post answers using string. Denser segments of string demonstrate higher response frequencies. Photo by Daniel Kleifgen.

At ALA, open-ended, multi-faceted projects rooted in tangible application drive learning. For instance, on Wednesday, Associate Superintendent Kamal ElHabr tasked the school’s middle and high school students to develop a sustainability plan with the $26 million Fox Tech will receive if the district’s current bond election passes.

“(We’re) giving kids authentic tasks that real people in the real world are trying to tackle and solve that don’t have a multiple choice Scantron answer,” said ALA Principal Kathy Beiser, Trinity alumna and former principal at North East Independent School District’s (NEISD) International School of the Americas, which leverages a similar partnership model with Trinity.

“We need your help,” she later told the school’s sixth- and seventh-graders. “We need your best thinking to help us make the school more energy-efficient.”

Much as in a charter school, students signed up last spring after attending information sessions with their parents, where administrators presented the school’s rigor and pioneering structures. The school’s website describes the public, in-district school as “open to any curious, self-motivated learner looking for academic challenges and the option of accelerated learning.”

But with students walking freely across the campus, chatting or looking at their cell phones, the school looks shockingly different than charter schools like KIPP or IDEA, where rigor is often defined by conformity to a single teaching model and highly-standardized, test-driven learning environments.

“We’re kind of on the exact opposite end of the spectrum of the ‘No excuses’ model,” teacher Gailen McQuillen told the Rivard Report, referring to a core value that has taken center stage in the education reform discourse.

To Beiser, engendering exploratory learning means creating a space where students are trusted with greater autonomy.

“You have to give them the freedom to learn and the freedom to make mistakes,” she explained. “And then you sit down and talk to them, and they think, ‘What can I learn from this mistake?’”

As SAISD Board President Patti Radle (D5) put it, the school provides a chance for the district to “listen to what the students tell us” and ask questions like, “What are those things that feed into boredom that we need to avoid?” and “How do we keep excitement in education?”

But what role do words like “creativity,” “freedom,” and “excitement” play in an academic landscape where performance is almost entirely determined through standardized testing?

According to Shari Albright, chair of the education department at Trinity University, these virtues allow teachers to transcend test metrics and achieve “real learning.”

“It’s not that we’ll ignore the test. It’s not that we’ll ignore the State standards,” Albright said. “… (But) you don’t have to train kids to take the test. If we do real learning, in substantive ways, where kids are excited about it, where curiosity is really stoked, then we’re going to do fine on those state exams. Because theoretically that’s the kind of learning we should be assessing anyway.”

“I hate it when a kid asks, ‘Why are we learning this? Is this on the test?’” said physics and math teacher Amanda Chapman. “My dream at this school is that no one ever asks (those questions).”

The faculty members, ranging from first-year teachers to 20-year veterans, were too enthusiastic to protest their current 12-hour workdays, which they anticipate abating as their shared mission takes shape. But overwhelming teacher workload, which has led to notoriously low teacher-retention rates in charter schools, signals one of many potential hurdles the school may have to face.

Another concern is that schools that promise advanced learning opportunities filter more ambitious, precocious, or well-supported students out of the regular district schools, while those who fall short of the school’s expectations are traumatically spit back out.

Bernal, however, believes this school should have the opposite effect.

“This is one campus that is in and run by a district, that is not-for-profit, and whose goal, aside from educating the kids, is to develop best practices and then have them radiate out to the other campuses,” he told the Rivard Report. “I wouldn’t equate that with the current charter model at all.”

According to Martinez, for the near-West Side, the school represents the city’s unprecedented developmental energy.

“With the amount of investment that the City and (San Antonio) River Authority are going to put in this area,” Martinez explained, “it’s just going to be such a different community over the next three to five years, and we’re going to be right up ahead of it.”

Top image: SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board President Patti Radle, and board member Olga Hernandez address the inaugural class.  Photo by Daniel Kleifgen. 

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Daniel Kleifgen

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.