Prospective families at San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD)’s new Advanced and Creative Learning Academy got a preview of new school on Wednesday, April 27. Hopeful parents convened on the Fox Tech High School campus to hear from principal Kathy Bieser while their students went upstairs with interns from Trinity University’s Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) program to get a 45-minute sample of what learning will be like in the new academy.
The new school will occupy two campuses – the former Austin Academy and part of Fox Tech. It will start with grades K-10, scaling up to pre-k-12 over the following school years. SAISD has received 500 applications for the academy since it was announced in March, according to Lisa Riggs, SAISD assistant superintendent for academics.
While students have applied for every grade, the highest concentrations are in ninth grade and kindergarten, with first and second grade not far behind. Riggs couldn’t say whether this exceeded their expectations, because the academy is such a new idea and the administration was not sure what to expect from families.
But they have been very pleased with the response from the community. The April 27 preview will be replicated twice on April 30 at Austin Academy with more than 80 families invited to each event. Riggs said that of the 85 invitations the district extended for first event, every single one RSVP’d “yes.” Institutional support has been high as well. Fox Tech even provided a large Mariachi band to play while the visiting families ate dinner.
“Everyone is so excited,” Riggs said. “Fox Tech has been so welcoming.”
Many of the applications have come from outside the district and from families inside SAISD whose children are currently enrolled in charter schools or private schools.
“We want people to come home to their district,” said Shari Albright, chair of the Trinity University education department.
Trinity has committed to a partnership with the academy, and will provide resident teachers who will receive a scholarship in exchange for service in the district after they graduate from Trinity’s MAT program. The purpose is to flood the district with teachers trained in gifted/talented (G/T) instruction so that every school benefits from the innovative curriculum at the new academy. The partnership is partially funded by City Education Partners, a group of philanthropists focused on increasing high quality instruction in San Antonio.
The Trinity partnership also helped recruit Kathy Bieser from North East ISD’s International School of the Americas, one of the top-performing high schools in the city.
“It has always been my dream to open a new school from scratch,” Bieser said.
As part of the workshop, parents shared their dreams as well. Gathered in small groups, they discussed their hopes for the new school and what they want for their children’s education. Some parents, like educators Felisa Arujo and Julio Rodriguez, were thinking broad and long-term.
“I want (our students) to experience love, health, and wealth in life,” Arujo said.
For others, like Lisa Torres, the need is more acute. She and her daughter live in Edgewood ISD, and her daughter attends Providence High School, a private all-girls school. Torres’ daughter is an outspoken, outside-the-box thinker, she said, and teachers have had trouble relating to her.
“I just want her to find her place,” she said.
Torres believes students like her daughter need to learn to use their strengths early to continue using them as they become adults. She hopes that a school like the Advanced and Creative Learning Academy will draw out those talents.
Arujo and Rodriguez are also hoping that the new school will not focus too much on standardized tests. Their student is at St. Gregory the Great Catholic School, and they worry about transitioning to a test-heavy environment.
Students will be prepared for standardized tests, which they will have to take as a public school, but not in a “test prep” way, Bieser said. Instead, their curriculum will focus on real world scenarios that develop the same skills required to excel on a test, and they will be encouraged to reflect on their learning as well. When tests roll around, they shouldn’t be a big deal.
“We want kids to think about their own learning,” Bieser said.
Parents also want to see strong communication between families and school staff. Many expressed frustration with the lack of information shared by administration at their current school. Rebecca and Gage Salazar have been encouraged by Bieser’s responsiveness so far.
“We want to build a strong and robust community of parents,” Bieser said.
Rebecca works at Young Women’s Leadership Academy and the family has students at Hawthorne Academy. They are well versed in the charter options available in the district, and have high hopes for the newest addition to the SAISD portfolio of options.
The students seemed equally excited after giving the instruction a test drive. Each came back with an example of the hands on experience.
One student in the K-2 group showed me a black piece of paper with shapes he had arranged to represent a car and two houses. He explained that the assignment was to use shapes to show something that “makes noise and helps people.”
This kind of project represents a philosophical approach Riggs and others have been talking about throughout the design process. They want students to get used to identifying problems and coming up with ideas to solve them. According to Riggs, this will lead many children to find their life’s passion as they start to shift that thinking to a global scale.
The older students participated in a workshop that previewed a project-based learning model. They divided into small groups with one or two Trinity interns, and then went through steps as a group and as individuals to design a float in a parade celebrating a cause or theme that mattered to them. In the discussions, students had to explain the various themes and causes they put forth for consideration, reach a consensus, and then explain how their float expressed that theme visually.
“It helped me express what I was feeling,” said one sixth grader.
The groups were broken into flexible age ranges, something the school’s design team is considering for the structure of the school. They want children, especially young ones, to be able to advance as needed while they master skills in other areas. A seven-year-old who loves reading might be reading and speaking on level with older children, but still need the social security of his age group. Some children may advance faster in one subject than another throughout their education. Without the threat of being “held back” or the difficult decision to “skip a grade,” students could take the time they needed to develop all of their skills.
Right now the design team is discussing how best to facilitate that.
“We want learning to be constant, but timing to be flexible,” Bieser said.
At the end of the preview, parents were asked to fill out a survey card, asking if what they had learned would influence their decision to enroll either way. Time will tell how many finally enroll at the new academy, but for now the excitement of possibility seems equally high for parents, students, and the design team.
Top image: Young, potential students of SAISD’s Advanced and Creative Learning Academy climb the stairs at Fox Tech to participate in an activity. Photo by Scott Ball.