A marquee board highlighting a parent meeting on March 7th outside of Austin Academy. Photo by Scott Ball.
A marquee board highlighting a parent meeting on March 7 outside of Austin Academy. Photo by Scott Ball.

San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez gave a hint of things to come as he laid out a blueprint for success during a parent meeting at Brackenridge High School Thursday evening. The community gathering was the next-to-last stop on the superintendent’s tour to meet with parents and other stakeholders to talk about the district’s ambitious quest to “transform SAISD into a model urban school district.”

One of the key building blocks of his emerging strategy will be the establishment of new academies. These stand-alone schools will serve students in SAISD who learn at an advanced level, or have unique potential not being cultivated in traditional campus settings.

Plans for the first campus will be announced Tuesday, Martinez told parents. The announcement is expected to involve at least one school campus, but school officials are not releasing details until all community stakeholders have been briefed. SAISD board president Patti Radle and District 1 Trustee Steve Lecholop, both of whom attended the Thursday evening meeting at Brackenridge, said parents of students affected by coming changes will be the first to be informed and will be invited to give feedback with the district.

The new academies, as referenced by Martinez during the Thursday meeting, sound like the next evolutionary step for the inner city’s largest school district that already operates with a significant number of academies, magnet programs and in-district charters. Martinez outlined a plan to turn Twain Middle School,  Wheatley Middle School, and Connell Middle School, as well as feeder elementary schools, into academies for Pre-K to eighth grade students. The posting on Friday of a notice for a Monday evening parents meeting at Austin Academy, which has been targeted for closure, suggests that campus could be part of the new strategy.

Studies have shown that hosting elementary and middle schools on the same campus improves student performance and reduces student anxiety by reducing traumatic change. It is usually in middle school that teachers see a spike in discipline issues and a drop in attendance. In addition to this natural transition, Martinez acknowledged that many SAISD middle schools have intractably negative reputations. Many parents choose charter or private school education for their children in the middle school years.

“We lose the most children between fifth and sixth grade,” Martinez said.

Academies typically outperform their traditional counterparts, and the model is widely used across private and charter schools with proven success. The academy transition for SAISD will take place over the next two to three school years.

Martinez reiterated other aspects of his district-wide improvement plan, one that requires school leaders and teachers to undertake dramatic changes at the campus level. Much of Martinez’s presentation was introduced at his “State of SAISD” address in January. (Read more: Superintendent Martinez Lays Out Strategy for Change in SAISD.) He focused Thursday on achieving academic excellence, but he also touched on talent management, cultural shifts, stakeholder engagement, and fiscal management.

Parents and teachers who were present pressed Martinez for a greater commitment to special education programs. Those topics are subject to continued conversation, Martinez said, encouraging parents to continue voicing their opinions as the district looks at resource allocation and looks for new ways to meet one of the biggest challenges faced by all public schools. Special education students in SAISD currently show a huge gap in proficiency compared to other students, Martinez said. Closing that gap will require intensive, tailored programs; there are no quick fixes.

For all students, the use of innovative teaching tools have already begun to demonstrate positive results. The project-based learning initiatives at Davis Middle School have brought positive results for students at every level, Martinez said. He has similar hopes for all initiatives.

“Every time you raise expectations, our children will exceed them 100% of the time,” Martinez said.

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*Top image: A marquee board highlighting a parent meeting on March 7 outside of Austin Academy.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.