School starts next week in the Edgewood Independent School District, a system that serves 10,000 children on the city’s West Side. But the doors were open at one school there Tuesday evening for an educational forum featuring four superintendents from Bexar County’s most economically disadvantaged districts.

The superintendents of Edgewood, Harlandale, South San Antonio, and Southwest independent school districts gathered for an education forum, a free event hosted by the Rivard Report. In a conversation moderated by Education Reporter Emily Donaldson, the superintendents discussed how their districts are overcoming challenges and seeking new ways of serving the students and families in their districts.

About 200 people gathered at the Edgewood Performing Arts Center for the forum, titled “Challenges and Opportunities: Educating Kids on the South Side,” which was sponsored by Port San Antonio and Edgewood ISD.

The four districts represented at the forum serve about 45,000 students from both urban and rural areas spread out across the city’s South and West sides. On everything from social services and accountability scores to school financing and student outcomes, each district faces similar issues, including how to support students’ basic needs before they even walk through the doors this fall.

Harlandale ISD interim Superintendent Samantha Gallegos said her district relies on programs provided by partners such as the nonprofit Communities in Schools and others to bring needed services to its students and said creating such partnerships should be an ongoing conversation between districts and nonprofits and City leaders.

Edgewood ISD Superintendent Eduardo Hernandez said the City’s Pre-K 4SA program is bringing much to the district in supporting students and families.

“I think every school offers some outreach,” said Lloyd Verstuyft, superintendent at Southwest ISD, which he said has been offering universal Pre-K for more than 30 years to improve school readiness.

“The reality is we serve the underserved community. That doesn’t mean they can’t have the same outcomes as anyone else. But they don’t have the same starting-line sometimes,” Verstuyft said. “If you look at performance throughout the nation, you can follow the performance line based on the poverty line. That doesn’t change when you get to San Antonio, Texas.”

The superintendents also discussed the impact of the $11.6 billion school finance measure that was signed into law in June, saying the extra dollars in their budgets would be used for teacher raises, as mandated, but also for hiring more faculty and staff and bolstering programs.

“It is welcome and long overdue since the budget cuts of 2011,” said Alexandro Flores, South San Antonio ISD superintendent. “We are just happy to have the funds back. It sets us back to square one.”

The forum took place two days before State accountability scores are released for districts and campuses across Texas. While some schools and districts will see their A-F scores improve since last year, the superintendents largely agreed that the letter grading system is unfair and does not accurately reflect what is happening in the schools.

“It is important we tell our story, the story that goes beyond that letter grade,” Gallegos said, especially when it comes to the many opportunities the district is providing for students outside as well as inside the classroom

Flores said his district’s students are more than just how they perform on one test in one day but called the scoring a “necessary evil in order to continue to receive the funding and support from the State level.

“There are people behind the letter grade, and we spend a lot of time talking about all the work that goes into running our schools and being in the neighborhoods, working with teachers,” Hernandez said. “I’m proud of the work we are doing. We definitely have to get better at what we do. But anything that is sustainable takes time.”

The superintendents also discussed school district governance and representing voters’ concerns before turning to questions from the audience on topics including consolidating districts and how charter schools are challenging their districts.

“The State has chosen to fund two separate public education systems,” Flores said. “Competition is good for us as long as it’s an even playing field. But we’re not afraid of challenges. Charter schools are here to stay, and it boils down to stepping up our game.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.