When San Antonio Independent School District Board President Patti Radle introduced Superintendent Pedro Martinez for his “State of the District” report to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in February, she said the superintendent goes “90 miles per hour” with success as his only road sign. The board is moving in lock-step with Martinez, and decisive incumbent victories in the May elections signaled that public support is behind the district’s ambitions as well. 

As Martinez has rolled out his plans for the district, new campuses have been created. All so far are in-district charters and lab schools. Critics claim that this has happened at the expense of neighborhood schools.

However, the next round of innovations highlights another pillar of Martinez’s reforms: stakeholder engagement. On the former Pickett Academy campus, SAISD will house two new departments: the Department of Family and Community Engagement, led by Tiffany Grant, and the Office of Innovation, headed up by Mohammed Choudhury.

Grant is SAISD’s chief of staff, and her department is a reorganization of what might be considered constituent services. It brings together government relations, legislative affairs, family and parent engagement, partnerships with nonprofits and philanthropic agencies, and the new attendance task force. 

“This reorganization was about aligning those departments within the district that serve and support our families and community members,” Grant said. “We really want to wrap our arms around our parents and our kids this year.”

To do so, Grant first has to wrap her head around the needs and resources. Most of those services existed before, but were spread across administrative departments. The reorganization will allow those services to be under one roof, and their providers to talk to each other and strategize together.

SAISD Chief of Staff Tiffany Grant sits inside the new Pickett Parent Center.
SAISD Chief of Staff Tiffany Grant sits inside the new Pickett Parent Center. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

City Year Corps members will now go on home visits, increasing the capacity of the district to sit down face to face with parents. Parent and family liaisons, whose jobs and effectiveness have varied from campus to campus, will now have a more cohesive strategy, backed by resources from Grant’s department. Grant wants to see parent and family liaisons pushing out positive messages to parents to cheer them on as partners in the students’ education. 

Educators can come to Pickett to get information on parent and community engagement plans that have worked in the district. Grant wants to see principals inviting community members onto campus, and campus-wide discussions on attendance.

Martinez’s leadership has also attracted interest from community members seeking to lend their support to the district, Grant said. Now they can do that effectively.

For instance, the new attendance task force will partner with Muncipal Court Judge John Bull, who tries truancy cases. SAISD will facilitate family and campus consultations with Bull, who wants to take a proactive position on breaking cycles of chronic absenteeism and truancy. 

Pickett Parent Center, as the campus is now known, will have a computer lab, resource library, and spaces for PTA meetings, information sessions, parent classes, tutoring services for students, and help desk for parents who need to address issues of concern.

Sometimes school buildings intimidate parents whose main communication with teachers and principals in the past has been negative. Pickett will be an entry point to help them get comfortable.

“We want to cultivate a culture that makes parents and volunteers feel welcome and valued,” Grant said. Once that is accomplished she hopes they will see that reflected at their home campus.

For Grant, the work of her department is a “labor of love.” She graduated from Davis Middle School and Brackenridge High School before going on to Texas A&M University. It was her parents, she said, that put her on that trajectory.

Sharing Pickett with Grant will be Choudhury, SAISD’s chief innovation officer. He held a similar role with Dallas ISD until SAISD hired him in the spring of 2017. The Dallas Morning News’ website Dallas News said that Choudhury focused on one of the city’s biggest challenges: “whether it is possible to break up entrenched socio-economic and racial segregation through the city’s schools.”

San Antonio Independent School District Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury enjoys an iced coffee at Rosella.
San Antonio Independent School District Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury enjoys an iced coffee at Rosella. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In San Antonio, the office of innovation will be made up of three divisions: the innovation zone, access and enrollment services, and school design and redesign.

The innovation zone is made up of those schools taking advantage of state allowances for altered school calendars, curricular autonomy, and other structural changes. Twelve such schools currently fall into the category. Some are in-district charters like CAST Tech and Steele Montessori. Others are neighborhood schools that will be extending their school year or shortening the formal school week to make time for intensive tutoring. The innovation zone also included “legacy schools” Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA), Travis Early College High School, and St. Philips Early College High School. YWLA and Travis have two of the highest performance records in the city.

The innovation zone is both a “lab and a bridge,” Choudhury said. The plan is for new ideas to be hammered out on the 12 campuses in the innovation zone, and, if they work, to be spread throughout the district. Specific changes won’t be mandatory on every single campus, Choudhury said. Campus leaders throughout the district will be able to look at the various “labs” in the innovation zone and determine if there’s something being piloted that would help their campus. “Not every school is a square, not every school is a triangle, not every school is a hexagon,” Choudhury said.

When district educators and school leaders decide they are ready to try something new at their campuses, they will go to the school design and redesign division of the Office of Innovation. Existing schools can redesign according to their needs, and new campus design ideas can bubble up from the front lines of the district. More of a seasonal event than a standing division, school design and redesign initiatives won’t launch until spring 2018 at the earliest.

All of this campus autonomy could easily lead to greater inequity in the district, Choudhury said. The legacy campuses, highly successful in-district charters, and increasingly successful neighborhood schools could easily fill with students who don’t reflect the demographics of their current neighborhoods. “Autonomy without guardrails leads to inequity,” Choudhury said.

This is where the access and enrollment services division comes in. Not only will it help parents navigate the cumbersome enrollment process, it will also create consistent messaging about the choices available in the district.

Who gets to take advantage of those choices will not be determined by whose parents have time to do the research and go through the enrollment process, Choudhury said. Instead, a “controlled choice framework” balances poverty and opportunity on each open-enrollment, or “choice” campus. Choudhury has developed an index that allows him to make sure that students at choice campuses reflect true economic diversity.

In some cases, that balance can be achieved by using a 50% in-district, 50% out-of-district enrollment policy. In other cases, SAISD officials will have to use income information or other criteria that ensures the lowest income students are benefitting from the new opportunities.

Of course, integrated new choice campuses are only one way to address the toll that poverty takes on learning. In SAISD, Choudhury realized, neighborhood schools are going to have to get very good at educating kids who are not only living in extreme poverty themselves, but are surrounded by communities of extreme poverty. You can’t integrate every school when the “attendance zones reflect 1930’s red lining practices.”

Choudhury’s index allows him to get a closer look at what kind of poverty affects the various SAISD campuses. Are most students in two-parent households living just above or below the poverty line, such as in the Jefferson High School area? Or are they in and out of homelessness, living with neither parent, as is often the case in the area around Lanier High School? Those are very different kinds of poverty, Choudhury explained.

By looking at the way poverty is concentrated at various schools, Choudhury’s office can allocate resources and initiatives to add support where needed. It also lets him see which campuses might benefit from similar strategies being worked out in the innovation zone.

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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.