The path out of poverty through a good education was never more evident in San Antonio than last week when two remarkable, distinguished, and inspirational figures took to the stage to address very different audiences that reflected the city’s diverse population.

I had a front-row seat at both events and only wish I could have offered my seat to every San Antonian who might harbor doubts about how the city can address the fact it is No. 1 in poverty among the top 25 U.S. metropolitan areas.

Pedro Martinez has served for nearly five years now as superintendent, chief change agent, and anti-poverty evangelist in the San Antonio Independent School District. He’s a Mexican-born immigrant, first in a large family to graduate from college, and a compelling role model for the thousands of Mexican-American students who live in poverty and attend an SAISD school.

The current school board has given Martinez what no previous SAISD school board has given a superintendent: the support, independence, and time to enact real change. Let’s hope that school board, now led by President Patti Radle, and Martinez are still working in concert five years from now. Transforming one of the state’s biggest, once-failing districts will take more than five years, but the numbers all point to genuine progress and momentum, and Martinez’s call on the entire city to support his cause drew a standing ovation after he delivered his annual State of the District speech at Pearl Stable Wednesday morning.

One day later, history was made inside the Lila Cockrell Theatre when Jason Pulliam, the first black federal judge in the history of the Western District of the United States, donned his formal robe and took the oath of office administered by Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia.

In his own moving speech to a theater packed with berobed judges, attorneys, African American business and community leaders, friends, and family, Pulliam talked about surviving the “tough streets of Brooklyn” as a boy. He rose above his own broken home and the drug use, gang culture, and violence of his neighborhood to become a diligent and disciplined student, driven by outsized aspirations he kept on a single sheet of paper.

By the time Pulliam became a first-year law school student at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University in Houston, it was obvious to at least one classmate who spoke Thursday, his friend and fellow lawyer Todd Webb, that Pulliam would rise to the top.

Click here to read Pulliam’s speech.

Martinez and Pulliam both rose above their circumstances and with the right support – Martinez’s parents who brought him from Mexico to Chicago, Pulliam’s mother in Brooklyn – they used education to exit poverty, enter the middle class, and achieve great professional success. In the course of that journey, both men were transformed into leaders and role models.

Judge Jason Pulliam sits onstage with his colleagues on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Education is the most important element in a more complex equation that also includes family stability or mental health care services, adult role models, a healthy and reliable food supply, access to affordable housing, health care and public transportation, and a safe environment. So it should be especially disturbing to every reader that 30% of local residents ages 18 and under live in poverty. These are vulnerable school-age children who deserve our focused attention and support.

Education Reporter Emily Donaldson covered Martinez’s State of the District speech. Reporter Jackie Wang covered Pulliam’s investiture. Both articles and Pulliam’s speech should be shared by teachers and parents with students in every San Antonio school district to show what can be achieved by dreaming big and working hard.

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Another article worth sharing was written by Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick about the selection of former South San Antonio Independent School District student Rey Saldaña as the next CEO of the national anti-dropout nonprofit Communities in Schools (CIS). Saldaña, himself a CIS beneficiary as a high school student, went on to earn multiple degrees at Stanford University and then served four terms as a member of City Council before joining the public education advocacy nonprofit Raise Your Hand Texas.

The Rivard Report‘s focus on poverty in San Antonio in our Disconnected series included a very personal account last week by Health Reporter Roseanna Garza, a Westside native, on what a difference her own education has made in surmounting poverty and poor health. Donaldson’s contribution to the series – an eye-opening look at the high-performing public schools located along the Texas border, home to some of the state’s most impoverished populations – will appear Monday morning.

Ignorance and prejudice played unfortunate roles in the development of San Antonio from a frontier town to a modern city. Better public education opportunities for all the city’s children and youth can help rectify generations of inequity. One day, then, individuals like Martinez, Saldaña, and Pulliam will no longer stand out as exceptions.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.