Jim G. Martin Elementary School is located at 730 Canterbury Dr.
Jim G. Martin Elementary School is located at 730 Canterbury Dr. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

About one month into the academic year, local school districts are embarking on a process to turn around schools that failed the State’s accountability standards. For some, this process is familiar. For others, less so.

Most of San Antonio’s failing schools are located in high-poverty urban districts including San Antonio, Edgewood, and South San Antonio independent school districts. However, when accountability ratings were released in August, two North East ISD schools and two Northside ISD schools received failing ratings.

Those ratings marked the first time since 2014 that NISD had a campus that failed state standards. For the first time since 2015, a NEISD campus didn’t meet standards.

Both districts are considered among San Antonio’s highest-performing, and each were given the grade of a B by the Texas Education Agency when accountability ratings came out in August. More than 60 percent of NEISD schools and 50 percent of NISD schools would merit an A or B grade. (Campuses were given number scores that correlate to a typical letter scale.)

In NEISD, West Avenue and Northern Hills elementary schools failed state standards. Northside’s Holmgreen Center and Martin Elementary also were deemed in need of improvement.

As the 2018-19 academic year unfolds, both districts are following a TEA timeline to turn around schools rated “improvement required” (IR) by implementing improvement plans. In the case of West Avenue, NEISD has proposed changing the school’s model.

“It made us look at not only our students needing to pass, but also our middle and high performers,” NEISD Executive Director of Performance and Planning Terri Chidgey said of the new ratings. “Of course we care very much about not having an IR school and our goal is to not have that IR school. … NEISD’s philosophy is ‘every child every day,’ and this just drives it home.”

In August, the superintendents of each district named a district coordinator of school improvement and established a campus leadership team to oversee improvements. The two boards of trustees approved improvement plans in September to identify specific campus problems and strategies to solve them.

The districts have met with families on campus to talk through the plan of attack over the next year to get schools to meet the standard.

In the coming months, North East and Northside will measure progress, attend training on any corrections needed throughout the duration of the plan, and evaluate the effectiveness of the process. In June, the districts will submit an end-of-year update, according to a TEA timeline.

North East ISD

The city’s second-largest school district will focus on turning around Northern Hills and West Avenue elementary schools. West Avenue, which has among the highest percentages of economically disadvantaged students of any NEISD elementary school, was rated “improvement required” by the State in 2015 and 2013.

In 2018, West Avenue would have earned a passing grade of 63.2 with the accountability formula that heavily factors in academic growth, but a TEA rule that states if a campus scores below a 60 in three of the four accountability categories caused West Avenue to get an automatic failing grade. The school received failing marks in the categories of overall student achievement, closing achievement gaps, and performance relative to schools with similar populations of economically disadvantaged students.

“If you are taking a college course and you have a 63.2, it doesn’t matter if three [tests] were Fs, or one was a B or a high C, you would still get the [passing] grade,” Chidgey said.

While NEISD, like many school districts statewide, disagrees with the grading system itself, the district set about to comply with the process and created a plan for West Avenue that focuses on boosting student performance in reading and math.

However, last Wednesday, Superintendent Brian Gottardy notified parents and families that the district would consider closing West Avenue and reopening it as a pre-kindergarten campus in the 2019-20 school year. Such a move would meet a growing demand for full day Pre-K, district officials said.

District officials told the Rivard Report that West Avenue’s improvement-required grade has nothing to do with the proposal to close the school. The district has been mulling the idea for some time because of declining enrollment.

West Avenue students would be relocated to neighboring Dellview and Olmos elementaries. The school, one of NEISD’s smallest, has seen an enrollment decline of close to 20 percent since 2013.

The district’s school board will discuss the proposal Monday, Oct. 8, and plans to hold a community meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 2, at West Avenue to discuss the plan.

Chidgey said the district is still working to improve West Avenue, even though the campus as it currently exists will likely change, because NEISD wants to ensure overall student success.

There is not yet a plan in place to transition the West Avenue students to their new schools, but NEISD officials expect to roll one out toward the end of spring semester.

NEISD is also working to address Northern Hills’ failure to pass state standards, which the district attributes to issues with literacy, Chidgey said. Northern Hills’ plan focuses on improving this problem area by focusing teacher training, specifically in writing.

“We definitely are doing some intensive staff development in elementary on balanced literacy and on writing because … writing has been a concern, so we are shining a [light] on that,” Chidgey said. “It was definitely a course correction or a tightening up at those particular schools, but as a district we always want to improve.”

Northside ISD

The TEA rated Martin Elementary, one of NISD’s poorest elementary schools, and Holmgreen Center, a special education campus, as failing state standards.

NISD said the rating for the Holmgreen Center was skewed because of a STAAR testing mixup, and district officials plan to request that the TEA re-categorize the campus as “not rated” based on corrected test results.

At Martin, the district is implementing an improvement plan approved by the board last week. Levinia Lara, Northside’s assistant superintendent for elementary administration, was named the district coordinator for student improvement at Martin, and identified campus challenges and areas for improvement.

“We looked at data, conducted data analysis of student performance with the leadership team, took a deeper dive into the data, looked at trends and patterns, areas of strength and weakness, from there developed a problem statement and did root-cause analysis to determine why the problem existed,” Lara said.

Martin needed improvements in reading and writing, Lara said. Northside plans to provide coaching and feedback to all classroom teachers to improve writing instruction, which district officials hope will help students perform better on statewide writing exams.

Northside leans heavily on data to inform its strategy. Lara said she and the campus team will closely observe how the improvement plan is being executed, and then use weekly teacher meetings to address necessary interventions. The district coordinator said she will likely be on campus three or four times a week, and as of last Wednesday, had already made three visits, with more planned.

“The message is very clear and the goals are going to be highly visible,” Lara said. “It is just a constant communication, [and] I think the transparency is there because we are talking about it at every meeting and the goals are posted and work will always be communicated.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.