By Robert Rivard

Mayor Julián Castro’s Brainpower Initiative took a giant step forward this week when a blue-ribbon task force went before City Council and laid out the plan to enhance the pre-K educational experience for the city’s estimated 20,000 four-year-old children. Voters will be asked the approve the five year, $146.5 million plan when they go to the polls on Nov. 6. It’s a presidential election year and heightened turnout should favor the progressive initiative.

We will never agree on everything, but when a task force is headed by USAA’s Joe Robles Jr. and H-E-B’s Charles Butt, the city’s two most important CEOs and employers, the latter also being the most active education philanthropist in Texas, and includes an array of school district superintendents and university and college presidents, it’s hard to argue the program doesn’t deserve everyone’s support.

Some around City Hall are wary of the details. Will teachers report, in effect, to City Manager Shelly Sculley, through the Brainpower Initiative executive director? Will they be required to join the teachers union? Once the two new learning centers are located on the Northside and Southside, what will school boards in those two districts have to say about this?

Change always comes surrounded by questions, concerns and naysayers. Questions are good, but that doesn’t mean the mayor or city manager need to have all the answers right now. Questions can provoke discussion as the right people dive into the details. Here is what is far more important: Public school education has to change, it has to be made better. Everyone invested in the system — parents and students, teachers and administrators, taxpayers and elected officials, and certainly school board trustees — all have to believe education outcomes have to be improved. Everyone has to be willing to change to make that happen.

Change upsets the status quo. So, if preparing children for the first grade and a full educational experience that takes them to the “college ready” stage means some teachers will be on the city payroll, or free to say no thanks to the union, or able to operate outside the purview of a school board, I say “let’s do it.”

Mistakes can be made, the program’s course can be corrected, but let’s do some things differently. Let’s experiment. Let’s adopt best practices already proven elsewhere and adapt them to our city and culture. Here is what Mayor Castro had to say on his Community Office web page about the plan one day after the task force report

Brainpower Initiative Task Force (Click for full PDF)

‘Everyone Achieves. No Exceptions. No Excuses.’

School Turnaround President Gillian Williams
Gillian Williams

People of all political viewpoints should be able to agree that we can do better, we must do better. I admire the mantra of Gillian Williams, the early childhood learning expert hired to help guide the BI task force through the maze of choices and agendas they faced in shaping a program. You can learn about her company Turning Around here, but it’s these six words that caught my attention: “Everyone Achieves. No Exceptions. No Excuses.” That’s setting the bar high. That’s someone who is not afraid of failure, not afraid of change.

Meanwhile, a reader named Lissa Martinez posted a very thoughtful comment after reading my coverage of the task force’s report to City Council. I though it merited a wider audience than might find it in the Comments section:

“Please let this succeed. My spouse and I have all kinds of education, but we still benefited enormously from the early childhood education professionals and the MANDATORY parent education that was part of our sons early education. Our first pre -k experience was when our son was admitted as a “community” child into the local Head Start program. “Community” means we were not a low-income household – it was an important experience for all of us to be part of such a diverse group of parents and kids, immigrants from Ethiopia, local families, recent arrivals in the area. Lots of bright and energetic kids that needed a healthy lunch at school and parents who needed support to help their kids learn at school.

“Another twist to consider is to promote more cooperative pre-K programs. Being part of a cooperative pre-K school class taught me and my son a lot about how other parents and other kids acted toward each other and toward the whole group. Pre-K group experiences, even if they don’t look like “education,’ are very important preparation for school and for learning. Since the Legislature has abandoned San Antonio on this fundamental civic need, it is completely appropriate for our town to step up and fill in the gaps left by those stingy legislators.

“These are OUR kids, not District 8 kids or District 5 kids or SAISD kids or parochial school kids. Love ‘em, teach ‘em, respect ‘em and give them the best start we can provide. We will have better educated kids, better parent skills and that will be success.”

Well stated, Lissa.

Coming Monday: Low-Performing School Boards: The Summer of our Discontent.

Earlier stories about the Brainpower Initiative on The Rivard Report:

The Push to Fund Early Childhood Development

Fixing Public Schools Takes a City

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.