(From left) Mayors Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Julián Castro, Michael Hancock of Denver, and Angel Taveras of Providence. Photo by Andrew Moore.
(From left) Mayors Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Julián Castro, Michael Hancock of Denver, and Angel Taveras of Providence. Photo by Andrew Moore.

If you were to ask someone about the current state of U.S. education what would they say? Well, they probably wouldn’t say it was good. And looking at the current state of affairs in Washington D.C. wouldn’t make them feel any better.

That’s why, last year, San Antonio’s own Mayor Julián Castro joined with three other mayors from major cities around the country to create the Mayors for Educational Excellence Tour – or MEET – which rolled into San Antonio last Thursday and Friday.

San Antonio is the third stop for the Mayor for Educational Excellence Tour, which launched October 2013 in Denver. The tour will stop next in Providence, R.I., on April 25 and will conclude in Lake Placid, N.Y. in May for a summit where the mayors will reflect the most effective education policies in each city and how they can incorporate those policies at home.

“The idea behind the Mayor’s Educational Excellence Tour is that – it is very clear that, in the United States today, cities are where things still get done,” Mayor Castro said. “As Mayors who work at the local level we have a prime opportunity to collaborate with our school systems, with nonprofits, with the private sector, and with our education system to achieve great things in education.”

Mayor Castro is joined by Mayor Michael Hancock of Denver who started the MEET initiative, as well as Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento and Mayor Angel Taveras of Providence. All four Mayors are products of their own city’s educational system and belong to a minority group that is underperforming nationally. While the tour seeks to improve education for all citizens, finding a way to combat inequality is a high priority.

Mayors tour Pre-K 4 SA educational center. (From left) Mayors Julián Castro, Kevin Johnson of Sacramento and Michael Hancock of Denver. Photo by Andrew Moore.
Mayors tour Pre-K 4 SA educational center. (From left) Mayors Julián Castro, Kevin Johnson of Sacramento and Michael Hancock of Denver. Photo by Andrew Moore.

“If you look at this country, the public school system by and large is just failing our children, who look like us,” said Mayor Johnson. “There’s no one who is going to disagree with that. If you are a black or Latino you are graduating high school at 50 to 60 percent if you are lucky. If you are white you are graduating at nearly 80 percent. That’s a gap, that’s just real. If you’re black and Latino and you look at third and fourth grade reading scores, 20 percent of us are reading at great level and 80 percent aren’t – that’s just real. That’s a crisis.”

The first stop on the San Antonio tour was Café College – an advising, test prep, and financial aid center located in the middle of downtown that helps students and families overcome the hurdles of applying to college for the first time. It has served more than 30,000 students since its inception. College enrollment has increased 7 percent in the last year and FAFSA completions have increased  5 percent in the last five years. Of the high school graduates Café College serves, 67 percent are first generation college students.

The Mayors toured the facility and then met with a panel of administrators while taking notes and asking questions.

“I love the number of people who are served by Café College,” Mayor Taveras said. “And what I’m seeing – it’s like college is for everyone. College is almost an expectation. And you are also creating that feeling with the college signing or college week that’s coming up April 28 to May 3.”

The Panel also touched on the SA2020 goals of college enrollment, readiness, and completion and how they used surveys to find those goals – an approach that impressed Mayor Hancock.

Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento tours a Pre-K 4 SA educational center. Andrew Moore.
Mayor Kevin Johnson of Sacramento (right) and Michael Hancock of Denver (left) tour a Pre-K 4 SA educational center. Andrew Moore.

“Those to me are some phenomenal goals because they go to the heart of economic development in your community and the economic and cultural sustainability of your community,” Mayor Hancock said. “So if you are talking about 85 percent of your kids who graduate are ready for college and 80 percent are enrolled in school, and 50 percent come back after completing school – those are very laudable goals that every community should reach for.”

On Friday the mayors paid a visit the 50,000 square foot Pre-K 4 SA center on the southeast side which opened in August of last year. The center currently serves 350 children, but has the capacity for 500, and 81 percent of the children attend free of charge.  The mayors met with San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Pre-K 4 SA CEO Kathy Bruck, and Board Members John Folks and General Joe Robles before taking a tour of the facility.

“I’m impressed with the commitment to pre-K,” Mayor Johnson said. “This is a model for other cities. We are all borrowing and going to see what we can take back to Sacramento. If there are opportunities to emulate the great work that they have done in San Antonio we certainly want to do that.”

Mr. Johnson wants to put a team together to come out to San Antonio and Denver and see if they can do something similar in Sacramento. Mayor Taveras is also interested in implementing such a program.

Mayors answer questions at the MEET town hall. Photo by Andrew Moore.
Mayors answer questions at the MEET town hall. Photo by Andrew Moore.

The Mayors for Educational Excellence Tour concluded at a town hall meeting located at St. Philip’s College where the mayors talked about their own cities education initiatives and then fielded questions from the community. The leaders had several goals and programs in common, such as insuring third graders are reading at grade level and providing Pre-K services so youngsters are ready for the education system.

Mayor Hancock already created the Denver Preschool Program in 2005 which was paid for a by 12-cent sales tax on $100 purchases in Denver. The first class of preschoolers under the program just finished third grade last year.

“Last year that first class of young people who came through that program were tested as third graders. They tested above their peers going into fourth grade in reading and other proficiency exams. So that is the program that I have really considered the signature piece (of my administration),” said Major Hancock. “I was excited to see the same model – a different twist on it – but the same model for your (San Antonio) community and with the same emphasis and expectations.”

Denver has had over 20,000 students go through their pre-K program to date. The city does not build or administer the pre-K centers as in San Antonio, but works with the private sector pre-K centers. Parents receive vouchers for the pre-K center of their choice, and the city rates the many centers to insure the educational quality.

Mayor  Taveras has focused on literacy in Providence with Providence Talks, Providence Reads, and Leyendo (Spanish for “reading”).

“Providence talks” helps students grow their vocabulary early by using existing home visitation programs in Providence. The program actively encourages parents to talk to their children with new words regularly and the children then wear a high-tech vest once a week that records the number of distinct words they say. In some cases, the collected data has shown parents speaking up to three times as many words to their children each day with the program.

Providence Reads and Leyendo help insure students are reading on a third grade level when they leave third grade by increasing school readiness, decreasing absenteeism, and providing summer learning programs.  Taveras has also worked to get Providence students scholarship money by working with Brown University, Latino Dollars for Scholars, and other partners.

Mayor Kevin Johnson is Vice President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and has served on the Board of Directors for the California Charter School Association. In the U.S. Conference of Mayors, he has worked to pass resolutions to help charter schools work with public school districts. As Mayor of Sacramento, he worked to raise money to bring Teach for America, City Year, College Track, and other educational nonprofits to Sacramento. Many of these nonprofits where already in place in San Antonio and other cities.

“My focus in Sacramento was to try to find what they were doing and bring those proven successful programs to Sacramento, so even when I’m not mayor  these programs will be in place and be able to impact student scores in our community,” Mayor Johnson said.

The mayors will not specifically focus on how to emulate each other’s policies until the tour ends in New York, but they are already considering some new ideas and approaches. This goes for Mayor Castro as well, who is impressed by the progress in Sacramento.

“In Sacramento it seems they have been able to effectively integrate both public school excellence and charter school excellence into neighborhood revitalization. I’d like to make sure that as we look at the east side neighborhood and other urban core neighborhoods that the public schools and the charter schools work well together, and are not in (conflict),” Mayor Castro said. “The second thing that was interesting was that Mayor Johnson has basically adopted a Harlem children’s zone model of improving the neighborhood, bringing in new business, and improving the quality of the schools. That’s something that we are at the very beginning of with the Eastside Promise Neighborhood.”

*Featured/top image: (From left) Mayors Kevin Johnson of Sacramento, Julián Castro, Michael Hancock of Denver, and Angel Taveras of Providence. Photo by Andrew Moore.

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Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore is a native of San Antonio and a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. He wrote on tech startups for a year as a freelancer for Silicon Hills News and loves reporting on the cool...