San Antonio Independent School District and its Superintendent Pedro Martinez have opened their arms and campuses to charter schools as solutions to the high-poverty district’s problems.

The district serves 53,000 students, 92 percent of which are economically disadvantaged, and sits squarely in the middle of San Antonio’s urban core. The most recent 4-year graduation rate indicates roughly 82 percent of students matriculate on time.

In January, SAISD trustees approved the district’s application for New York-based charter group Democracy Prep to take over operations at chronically failing Stewart Elementary School this fall. If approved by the Texas Education Agency, this action would allow Stewart to evade state intervention that is normally imposed on campuses that receive consecutive and repeated failing grades.

Now the district is negotiating another charter solution with Texans Can Academies to address low graduation rates among students at two struggling high schools: Lanier and Highlands high schools.

The district has been in talks with the Dallas-based charter operator that touts itself as offering “a second chance to any students who have struggled in a traditional high school setting.” While no formal agreement has been drafted, SAISD has conducted three interest meetings with parents from both schools and has solicited further feedback via phone discussions with families.

SAISD spokesperson Leslie Price said the charter program would likely be geared toward students who are behind one or two years via an opt-in program.

Price described the possibility as a “school within a school.”

Texans Can Academies Chief of Schools James Ponce said the partnership would allow the two entities to “extend services to students on the verge of dropping out.”

Dropout rates at Lanier and Highlands high schools have been higher than at other campuses in the district. In Highland’s class of 2016, 81.5 percent of students graduated,  while 14.5 percent dropped out. Four percent of students continued high school after the majority of their class graduated.

Numbers are similar at Lanier, where 83.1 percent of the class 0f 2016 graduated and 14.5 percent dropped out. Roughly 2.4 percent of the class continued high school.

The district’s average dropout rate is 12.9 percent for the class of 2016.

The “who, what, and how many” are decisions SAISD will make, Ponce said, adding that Texans Can Academies was not involved in picking which schools the partnership might include.

Ponce said the timeline moving forward has also been driven by the school district, but added that if the two entities want to open the Texans Can Academies extension on the high school campuses in the fall, SAISD must approve a decision by the spring.

The partnership could be modeled on an existing one among Spring Branch ISD in Houston, KIPP Houston Public Schools, and YES Prep Public Schools, he said. The so-called SKY partnership launched in the 2012-13 school year in middle schools. It offers Spring Branch ISD students, who enroll in a lottery process, instruction through KIPP and YES Prep curriculum and opportunities to participate in school district extracurriculars.

One distinction between the proposed program in SAISD and the existing one at Spring Branch ISD is this: Texans Can Academies would operate a campus charter or “school within a school” catered to specific types of students, whereas KIPP and Yes Prep operate program charters with lottery-style enrollment.

Ponce said he did not know what staffing would look like – whether Texans Can Academies would use charter staff or district teachers – because it is too early in the negotiation.

The conversation between SAISD and Texans Can Academies became “more serious” toward the end of 2017, he said, and “once the partnership rolls out, we will have a lot more detail.”

The discussion was initiated mutually, Ponce said, but was sparked by the passage of Senate Bill 1882 during the 85th Texas Legislature. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio), incentivizes collaboration between school districts and charter schools with a potential increase in state funding and an exemption from accountability interventions.

SAISD plans to capitalize on said incentive at Stewart Elementary School. In January, trustees advanced Democracy Prep’s application to take over operations. Stewart is on the verge of facing state intervention after receiving a number of consecutive failing grades from the state’s accountability system.

The district plans to review a more detailed performance contract with Democracy Prep later on this month.

A class at Stewart Elementary prior to announcing the charter takeover.
The Democracy Prep charter network will take over operations at Stewart Elementary in the fall of 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some community members and SAISD employees have voiced opposition to the recent trend of partnering with charter schools. San Antonio Alliance Teachers & Support Personnel President Shelley Potter criticized the district’s decisions in an e-mail to district employees earlier this week.

“By handing off the operation of Stewart and part of these two high schools,” she wrote, “is the district administration effectively admitting they do not know how to fulfill their core mission of educating our district’s students?”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.