Robert Rivard

Nine out of 10 seniors in the inner city’s largest school district in San Antonio are projected to graduate from high school this academic year. The dropout rate for the Class of 2013 is projected to fall to less than 10% when the Texas Education Association issues final numbers next summer.

The minimum state graduation rate is 75%, a number that the San Antonio Independent School District failed to achieve as recently as 2007. Even as dropout rates then fell by nearly half from 26% in 2007 to 14.6% in 2010, the district was placed on warning status by the state because of its low graduation rates for African-American students, among other categories of measurement.

Carri Baker Wells, chair of the SAISD Foundation board
Carri Baker Wells, chair of the SAISD Foundation board

I first learned of the projected 2013 number at a Centro San Antonio luncheon Monday when Carri Baker Wells, the chair of the SAISD Foundation board, spoke about “the myth of SAISD,” a widely held belief that district dropout rates stand at 30-40%.

I wasn’t alone.

Many others in the audience buzzed when Baker Wells cited the projected 2014 number, which I double and triple-checked with district administrators to dispel my own skepticism.

I knew the number had been coming down in recent years, but there is something both symbolic and very real about crossing the 10% threshold.

Virtually everyone I’ve spoken with today about that number has reacted with surprise, quickly followed by an expression of pride and optimism at the school district’s trajectory. Here are the district dropout rates for the last six academic years and the current projected finish:

Class of 2013: projected to be <10%

Class of 2012:  12.1%

Class of 2011:  12.5%

Class of 2010: 14.6%

Class of 2009:  21%

Class of 2008:  22.9%

Class of 2007: 26 %

“Those percentages, those numbers represent real people,” said Darryl Byrd, president and CEO of SA2020. “We need to remember, we are talking about the lives of thousands of people who will live and work in San Antonio, and giving them the path to opportunity they would never be able to take if they dropped out. Get them through high school and then you create all sorts of other possibilities.”

If the district achieves its projected graduate rate of 90% of the current senior class, it will come within one or two percentage points of having reduced its dropout rate by 66% in the space of seven years.

“Great cities have great downtowns, but to have great downtowns you have to have great schools,” Baker Wells told her audience yesterday. She said the district’s progress is all the more laudable given the challenges it faces. Baker Wells said 3,000 of the district’s 54,000 students are homeless or living with foster families, 30% come from families where the parents did not graduate from high school, and the median family income is less than $24,000.

Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen (left) and SAISD Foundation Chair Carri Baker Wells accept $3,000 checks from Centro San Antonio President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Southwest School of Art President Paula Owen (left) and SAISD Foundation Board Chair Carri Baker Wells accept $3,000 checks from Centro San Antonio on Monday as a token of Centro’s commitment to fostering the arts and education in San Antonio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“When you consider the challenges they have to overcome with some of these kids, reducing the dropout rate to 10% is amazing,” Baker Wells said in a follow-up conversation Tuesday. “I am grateful for Centro giving us that audience, because without that audience you wouldn’t be writing this story. Somehow it’s different when the (SAISD) Foundation or someone other than district officials cite these positive numbers.”

Baker Wells said the current administration, led by Superintendent Sylvester Perez, “is innovating, unafraid to take risks, and has benefitted from a more competitive education environment.”

Dr. Sylvester Perez, SAISD Interim Superintendent
Dr. Sylvester Perez, SAISD Superintendent

Perez won the job officially this summer after serving as interim superintendent for more than one year while school board trustees struggled without success to identity and recruit a strong successor to former Superintendent Roberto Durón, who held the post from 2006-12. The dropout rate fell every year Durón held the position.

It now seems the right candidate all along was Perez and that he is succeeding in meeting the board’s expectations while also winning the confidence of staff, faculty and community. His personality and management style is very different from Durón. Perez is gregarious, a cheerleader and seemingly always on the move. Durón was more reserved, a less effective communicator, perhaps less comfortable as a public figure or navigating board politics.

“People need to support this kind of leadership and the teachers who are making such a big difference,” Baker Wells  said. “The district can’t do it alone, they need a community to support them, just like the Spurs need community. The team wouldn’t win championships without its fans believing in the team and cheering them on.”

It’s tempting to look at the improving numbers and look for simple explanations.

Is it the arrival in 2010 of Teach For America, which established operations in San Antonio thanks to a multi-million dollar grant from H-E-B and its CEO and Chairman Charles Butt? How about the work of Communities in Schools, the anti-dropout program that places counselors on campuses who work closely with at-risk students from an early age?

“It’s the result of so many different initiatives, each one of which is important, and it’s also about  believing in yourself and building momentum,” said SAISD Deputy Superintendent Emilio Castro, who arrived here five months ago from the Lewisville ISD between Dallas and For Worth. “In the history of this district, we’ve never been below 10%, so it’s heartening to know people are paying attention. It gives us reason to keep going.”

Beth Adams (center) and students in the Middle School Partners Program at Mark Twain Middle School (SAISD).
Beth Adams (center) and students in the successful Middle School Partners Program at Mark Twain Middle School (SAISD). Courtesy photo.

Castro and I spoke at length about what is working, and it appears the district’s focus on finding ways to prevent at-risk middle school students from losing hope and giving up is, year by year, pushing the dropout rate down.

“Kids don’t drop out in high school, they drop out in middle school, at least mentally,” Castro said. “We have a lot of innovative approaches now to catching kids before they fall, before they give up and quit.”

On high school campuses, revitalized campus leader teams that include the principal, teachers, counselors, attendance monitors and others are analyzing the status of individual at-risk students to identity any key to saving the student, be it dealing with an academic, disciplinary or at-home problem.

But even more seems to be happening at the middle school level. Students held back for academic reasons can now catch up to their class by completing middle school academic work at the same time they take on high school work and build enough self-confidence to make the jump to high school and rejoin their classmates. Others can seek admission to alternative school campuses with special programs to accommodate teen mothers with babies, or individuals who need to work to support their families and will stay in school if they can customize their class schedule.

“Not too many years ago, all these students would have been lost, but now we are keeping them going,” Castro said. “When  you put these at-risk kids in smaller classes, establish relationships between them and the teachers, connect with parents or foster parents through home visits, you can keep these students who a few years would have all dropped out.”

Teaching kids in less traditional ways also ignites the imaginations and hopes of children who have led lives below the poverty line with very little reason to hope or dream. That was evident in a video played Monday at the Centro San Antonio luncheon in which 80/20 Foundation Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez talked about funding CodeHS, a new web-based programming curriculum that has hundreds of freshman students at Highlands High School focused on laptop screens, learning to program.

The loudest applause of the luncheon came after the video presentation, which included one teenage student confidently asserting plans to land an internship at Rackspace or Google.

Another video highlighted at-risk students who have developed newfound self-esteem and a belief in their own future possibilities through the SAISD’s Middle School Partners Program and an initiative called “Skipping Up.” The video follows a group of eighth graders as they progress through a school year at Mark Twain Middle School.

[Read more: Local School’s Anti-Dropout Program Makes it to the Small Screen.]

“If you could have met these students before they entered the Middle School Partners Program, you would have met kids without hope, kids about to give up, but now you’re meeting kids with ambition who have learned to believe in themselves,” Castro said.

Underperforming inner city school districts have long been the Achilles Heel of efforts to revitalize San Antonio’s urban core. Families with children, who are otherwise drawn to the central city’s cultural and lifestyle amenities, often cite the lack of quality schools as their primary reason for not moving into the city from outlying communities and suburbs. A declining dropout rate in and of itself is not the only measure of a district beset with enormous socio-economic and education challenges, but it is one of the most widely cited metrics of any district’s performance, along with the percentage of college-bound students and the rankings of individual schools within a given district.

“We are seeing this downward trend in all school districts – the dropout rate is declining,” said Molly Cox, SA2020’s chief of engagement. “This is an important SA2020 goal. In fact, it’s one we’ve already hit and are refining. In SAISD, we’re seeing an urban school district on a positive trajectory. This, of course, has implications for downtown development, as well. If downtown is to be ‘the heart of San Antonio,’ it’s gonna need a brain to go with it.”

Over the last year, the Rivard Report, working with freelance contributor Bekah McNeel, have been publishing stories looking at many of the individual campuses and programs within the SAISD that are contributing to the turn-around. Links to those stories are included below.

Full disclosure: Robert Rivard is a member of the non-profit SAISD board and a district resident.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

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