SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez arrives to the meeting with state legislators.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez arrives to a meeting with state legislators and fellow superintendents in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A couple of weeks ago I expressed sadness at the recent endorsement by the teachers’ union of candidates opposing both incumbents up for re-election for the board of the San Antonio Independent School Board, including board President Patti Radle.

I described the board as the best in the 40 years I have covered, off and on, SAISD governance. It was, admittedly a low bar. Going back to the 1970s, the board provided great fodder for a columnist’s offerings: stories of comedy and outrage.

But today’s board’s performance would merit praise even if many of its predecessors weren’t so inept and corrupt. Acknowledging that the district has long underperformed, the board has enthusiastically supported an almost dizzying array of efforts initiated over the past four years by Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his staff.

My earlier column described the district’s attempts to employ the proven success of economic integration in improving the performance of students from low-income families without pulling down the performance of students from affluent families. With the district’s neighborhoods heavily segregated economically, the only way to do that is with magnet schools and in-district charter schools that draw students from throughout the district and beyond.

While these efforts appear to be working well, I noted that the district’s success could not be limited to the lucky lottery winners of slots in the district’s magnet and charter schools. Radle and Martinez make a good case that they are not. Traditional neighborhood schools, the backbone of the public school system, are getting a lot of attention.

At the top of the list, said Radle, is bringing in new principals and stronger faculties to poorly performing schools.

“We have replaced many of the principals,” said Radle. “Often before, it was just shuffling principals around rather than a real analysis [of] what the community needs in a principal. We are committed to very strong leadership in the campuses.”

In addition, the district is upgrading faculties in low-performing schools. Traditionally, veteran teachers have, not surprisingly, preferred teaching in successful, often more affluent, schools.

“We used to have a high percentage of first-year teachers,” Radle said.

Throughout the district the best teachers have been identified as “master teachers.” Beginning in 2017, the district was able to place, partly with bonuses, 125 master teachers in its 33 lowest-performing schools. This year that number has grown to 217 master teachers – giving the lowest-performing schools an average of 6.6 master teachers compared to an average of 4.3 at the district’s other schools. The district hopes to expand the program further.

For the first time in many years, SAISD has art teachers in every elementary school. Studies show art programs improve students’ overall performance and, not incidentally, increases school attendance. State funding per school is based on average daily attendance. Including middle and high schools, 79 percent of students are involved in arts programs.

A student walks through Harris Academy.
A student walks through Harris Academy in the Southside of San Antonio. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“We’re also making sure that these are neighborhood schools,” Radle said. It used to be that if the grade for one of a family’s several children was full, that child would be sent to a nearby school. The district has worked to end that practice.

Other initiatives include:

  • An aggressive expansion of successful dual-language programs. They are in 45 schools now and three more will be added next year.
  • A $7 million grant will provide high-speed fiber networks for internet use in all SAISD schools. In addition, all the district’s buses have been rigged for Wi-Fi, with the county’s BiblioTech digital offerings available.
  • A Verizon grant that provides iPads to 3,100 students and 190 teachers.

The most important change among these and others, of course, is the effort to improve the leadership and teaching staff at low-performing schools. Are the efforts working? It’s too early to make any long-term findings, but the district points to a number of indicators.

Some 85 percent of students are graduating from high school on time, up from 81 percent in 2015. Of last year’s graduating class, 54 percent of college-goers enrolled in a four-year university, up from 40 percent for the Class of 2015.

The district claims that if current standards were applied in 2016 and 2017, 35 of the district’s schools would have been rated “improvement required” by the state. Last year, 16 SAISD schools received that rating. The number of students enrolled in these schools went from 35,089 in 2016 to 8,206 last year.

By the same measures, the district says the entire district would have been given an “F” in 2016 and a “D” in 2017. Last year it earned a “C.” Much improvement is needed, but the trend is good.

Martinez has broken a lot of eggs in his almost frenetic efforts to do two difficult things: attract affluent families who have sent their children to private schools for decades and more recently to charter schools, and meanwhile improve the traditional neighborhood schools. Not all of his innovations will be successful, but many of them will be.

What we know is that the less-ambitious attempts at reform weren’t getting the job done. The teachers’ union is understandably upset at the impact on some teachers. But the results so far argue that we must give the district’s current leadership more time.

All but 1 percent of SAISD’s students come from families that earn less than the median income. Some 61 percent are in the bottom quartile, earning less than $34,160 a year. If the district can become a model for educating students with such challenges, it will do a great service not only to the students, but to Texas and the nation.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.