Members of the San Antonio Alliance for Teachers and Support Personnel attend SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez's press conference prior to the vote. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio ISD trustees took the final step Monday night to convert Stewart Elementary School to an in-district charter. The unanimous vote solidified a deal that has been months in the making between the district – acting on behalf of the repeatedly failing Stewart and New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep.

The decision allows the charter operator to take over the campus this coming fall – including designing the academic program, school calendar, and length of day. It also prevents the Texas Education Agency from closing Stewart or appointing a board of managers to govern the 50,000-plus student district.

Following the 2017-18 school year, state law mandates the TEA must step in when a campus has failed or received a grade of “improvement required” for five or more consecutive years. Enlisting the help of a charter operator allows SAISD to pause the process for two years, due to legislation filed in Texas’ most recent legislative session.

Stewart has received failing marks from the TEA for the last five school years. SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said receiving an “improvement required” puts Stewart in the bottom 5 percent of campuses statewide.

Members of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel have protested the plan since they were made aware of it in mid-January. SAISD’s teacher union said the partnership had been in the works for “at least six months,” but was only discussed with campus families and staff four days before the initial board meeting that advanced the in-district charter’s application.

Two weeks ago, members of the Alliance filed a formal complaint against the district, citing lack of transparency and alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act.

The district denies it violated the Open Meetings Act.

An hour prior to the board meeting Monday night, Alliance members gathered outside SAISD boardroom to rally in protest of the proposed partnership. Members of other San Antonio workers’ unions, including those representing musicians, steelworkers and others, joined the Alliance in calling for a rejection of the Democracy Prep contract.

Alliance President Shelley Potter said the entire process had been handled with a “condescending attitude” toward parents and teachers.

“[Parents] don’t need somebody else to tell them what they need for their children,” Potter called to a rowdy audience.

Martinez explained his own view in a press conference prior to the Alliance’s rally, saying parents expect the district to take action when necessary.

“Parents expect us, as the experts, to intervene when we need to,” he said. “What they want to know is, can [their] child still go to that school? Is it going to be a safe and a high-quality program?”

Terms of the contract

The contract approved Monday night permits Democracy Prep to operate at least two “K-12 charter continuums,” or campuses with potential for elementary, middle, and high school grade levels with enrollment of up to 2,400 students. Democracy Prep’s first continuum will begin with Stewart and will eventually include middle school grades.

The contract stipulates Democracy Prep’s additional continuums will be contingent on “meeting and maintaining the performance contract objectives for each individual campus,” the contract reads. After Democracy Prep launches its first two continuums, SAISD will have the first right of refusal to authorize additional schools.

The contract requires that Stewart’s attendance boundaries remain the same after Democracy Prep takes over. Students outside the zone can still apply to attend the campus, but other SAISD students will be given preference.

Martinez said students outside the current attendance boundary will only have a seat once all of Stewart’s current students have been offered one.

In January, SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price said this is vital to maintaining Stewart’s identity.

“It will continue to be their neighborhood school,” Price said.

Democracy Prep will have full autonomy over the academic programming of its schools, including the curriculum, length and structure of the day, academic calendar, class size, and professional development of staff.

The Alliance’s strongest grievance with the agreement regarded job security for current Stewart teachers. Democracy Prep has the ability to hire all of its own staff. Price said current Stewart employees may apply for jobs at Democracy Prep, and those who do not wish to work for Democracy Prep or are not granted jobs, will be placed elsewhere in the district.

In January, the Alliance also criticized Democracy Prep for not offering a bilingual program even though 34 percent of students in 2016-17 were English-language learners. The new contract says Democracy Prep will operate an English-as-a-second-language program in its first year, with the possibility for “a more robust and comprehensive dual language and/or bilingual program as needed.”

SAISD Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury said Democracy Prep would phase in a bilingual or dual-language program by 2020 and prioritize one of the two teachers in each classroom being English-as-a-second-language certified and bilingual.

The contract also says Democracy Prep will make “all efforts” to recruit staff members proficient in Spanish.

The Alliance has also been critical of Democracy Prep’s “problematic zero-tolerance disciplinary methods.”

The contract allows Democracy Prep to fully implement its code of conduct and disciplinary procedures, subject to federal and state law and SAISD policies. Choudhury acknowledged that when Democracy Prep first started, it operated with a zero-tolerance policy, but has since shifted to use restorative justice practices, which are less punitive.

Should Democracy Prep fail to improve student outcomes at Stewart, the TEA will resume its corrective action and close the campus or assert control over the district.

Choudhury said the district would revoke Democracy Prep’s charter by 2020 if the turnaround was not successful.

The contract approved Monday is for a 10-year term, beginning July 1, 2018, with the option to renew should Democracy Prep continue to meet its specified goals. Either SAISD or Democracy Prep can terminate the contract before the decade-long term expires should there be a breach of the agreement.

State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) authored the legislation that allows SAISD to partner with Democracy Prep for a pause on the accountability system. He spoke at Monday night’s meeting with concerns about how the deal had progressed including the length of the contract, the lack of a bilingual education program, and the employment terms.

Menéndez spoke at a previous board meeting imploring the board to look at other options for partners. His legislation also allows districts to seek outside partnerships with institutions of higher education and nonprofits.

Superintendent Martinez said universities aren’t equipped to take on turnaround campuses, adding that SAISD has previously sought help from Trinity University, which is known for its education program, and was turned down.

Democracy Prep’s Past Performance

SAISD officials said they chose to partner with Democracy Prep due to its track record in New York City. Democracy Prep Charter Middle School, the charter’s first campus opened in 2006, became a high-performing school.

At the press briefing prior to the board meeting, Martinez and SAISD Board President Patti Radle discussed why they think Democracy Prep is the best partner for Stewart Elementary.

Martinez said the district’s failure to act would result in Stewart’s closure, which would only move the school’s students around, not provide a solution.

“We could decide to roll the dice with Stewart and have those children move to different schools,” Martinez said. “We are not solving the problem.”

Martinez said the curriculum that Democracy Prep will bring is stronger than what SAISD currently offers. More than 100 students have left Stewart within the last year, and Martinez predicts the agreement will win those families back.

Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary will be the charter operator’s first Texas campus. It currently operates schools in New York, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Washington, D.C.

Following the unanimous vote to approve the contract, Alliance members plan to gather for an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss future steps.

One speaker during the public comment portion at the board meeting  threatened that the board’s action could mean “open season on board members” during elections.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.