San Antonio’s ambitions as a city on the rise include tackling one of its deepest and most challenging problems: the failure of most students in public schools to earn a four-year college degree.
Around 90% of all high school graduates in local schools never make it that far. Nearly half of those who graduate from high school are not college ready to begin with, and for the other half who do enroll in higher education programs, only a small percentage stick it out and earn a degree.
Amid those gloomy outcomes, educators in the districts and in public charters are innovating, experimenting, and at times, even collaborating, in an effort to disrupt and change the status quo. Still, there are obvious tensions and often, very different political and education philosophies that separate the districts and the public charters and those who support either long-established, community-based school in the districts and those who believe the system is broken and support systemic change.
Inside the districts, innovative in-district charters and magnet schools can show dramatic results even as most students still attend traditional campuses where education outcomes are dismal and lag behind national averages. Among the public charters, there are higher-performing, recognizable names like KIPP, IDEA Public Schools and Great Hearts, and less well-known public charters that fail and are closed by the state.
And then there is the city’s four, City-managed Pre K 4 SA centers that enroll more than 2,000 four-year-old children in all-day early childhood programs, a citywide experiment being duplicated in many other U.S. cities now, the program still too new to be reliably measured for outcomes.
The San Antonio Area Foundation will host the San Antonio Regional Public Pre-K-12 Educational Forum to expand community understanding of the challenges, choices and opportunities facing children in the region’s public education system.
“We’re hoping to provide a wake-up call to regional leaders and concerned citizens,” said organizer Micheal Burke, a retired energy executive and founder and chair of the nonprofit San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, who came up with the idea for the forum. Burke hopes the forum is the first in a continuing series and that the focus on PK-12 public education will spur greater civic and business community involvement in working to affect better education outcomes for the county’s 350,000 students enrolled in public schools.
The panel will include leading education leaders and recently appointed Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath. The panel discussion will be moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard.
More than 400 are expected to attend the event, which is sold out, at the Pearl Stable. Mayor Ivy Taylor will deliver welcoming remarks, and former Spurs legend David Robinson, who founded the Carver Academy – now IDEA Carver Academy – on the city’s Eastside in 2o05, will speak briefly before the panel discussion.
A committee made up of more than 30 local stakeholders organized the event, and attracted such strong sponsorship that an estimated $50,000 in net proceeds will be distributed to multiple education initiatives and programs, according to Bob Dugas, the Area Foundation’s chief operating officer. The recipient organizations will be announced at the event.
“The committee members have worked enthusiastically, diligently, but more important than that, collaboratively since day one,” Burke said.
Collaboration is expected to be a major theme of the panel.
“There are no magic bullets,” said San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Superintendent Pedro Martinez, a panelist. “We need to be asking how we can work together to ensure that all of our students can succeed.”
Burke said Martinez, who was hired as SAISD superintendent from his post in Nevada last June, has become a welcome a voice of transparency, acknowledging the shortcomings, while also advocating for more resources and innovation as he implements new strategies and establishes more challenging goals inside the inner city’s largest district with nearly 54,000 students. Martinez’s vision for a higher performing district has attracted partners like Trinity University and City Education Partners, both of whom are involved in the district’s new Advanced and Creative Learning Academy.
Martinez has even reached out to local charter schools to explore the idea of cooperation, a controversial move in the current era of contested state funding and increasing focus on charters at the state and federal level. As long as they share his vision to educate every single student with excellence, Martinez doesn’t feel threatened.
“I don’t mind competition, but let’s all have that same vision,” said Martinez.
Already Martinez has seen cooperation from KIPP San Antonio founder and CEO Mark Larson, another panelist. College preparation and support of students throughout college are two of KIPP’s strengths, and Larson has shared insights and resources as SAISD begins to build similar services.
Attendees can expect a charter-friendly discussion with Larson and Tom Torkelson, founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools, and Morath on the panel. The George W. Brackenridge Foundation, one of the event’s major sponsors, is responsible for bringing high performing charters like Great Hearts, BASIS and IDEA Public Schools to San Antonio and providing them with millions of dollars in annual funding to supplement the funds they receive from the state. All four public charters have ambitions for rapid expansion.
Both sides face serious challenges finding and funding enough good teachers to scale up their success stories.
Burke also plans to highlight other initiatives strengthening the pre-K-12 pipeline, including Pre-K 4 SA. Not only has the program exemplified high quality instruction and curriculum, but it’s very inception was the result of the kind of systemic awareness that reformers applaud. It was strategic thinking that led the Brainpower Initiative, commissioned by former mayor Julian Castro, to select early childhood education as the focus for the 1/8 cent sales tax available to city for education spending.
”The biggest gap in funding and the largest return on investment is pre-k education,” said Elaine Mendoza, chair of Pre-K 4 SA and a panelist. Mendoza, the founder and CEO of Conceptual MindWorks, also serves as the vice-chair of the Texas A&M University Board of Regents.
Burke and others on the committee hope to host a panel on higher education later this year.
Data driven decisions are a primary emphasis among reform advocates. The need for comprehensive data and broad cooperation can be seen in the efforts of the P16 Plus Council of Greater Bexar County (P16 Plus). In addition to serving as school board trustee for Northside ISD (D4) Robert Blount, Jr. is a member of P16 Plus, as are Mendoza and Martinez. The collaboration is likely to be one of many topics discussed by panel members. Blunt also will be one of the six panelists.
The pre-luncheon program includes event will include exhibits and displays assembled by Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, CEO of the DoSeum, and student performances. The organizers also invited celebrated local teachers, including the 19 nominees for Trinity’s Excellence in Teaching Award, two District 20 “teacher of the year” award winners, and Laura Servin, algebra teacher at Whittier Middle School and winner of the prestigious Milken Award.
Burke hopes that the event will help local philanthropists and potential advocates to get out of the “bubble,” as they see the challenges facing educators and students in their city.
“We need to wake up and face that,” Burke said.
He also hopes that those in attendance will see innovation they and their employers can support at a time when many believe education challenges are so intractable they turn to other community interests. Organizers and sponsors are providing attendees with reading materials plan to supplement what they hear and learn at Thursday’s panel intended to activate them as participants in the countywide push to improve public education outcomes.
Top image: Students at Longfellow Middle School file out of a classroom. Photo by Scott Ball.