Northside Independent School District has started the process to become a District of Innovation, which would allow it to be exempt from certain laws in the Texas Education Code that include start dates, teacher certifications and campus behavior coordinators.
The district is one of the last in Bexar County to apply for the exemptions, which were made possible by a 2015 state law to put public school districts on even footing with public charter schools, according to Nicole Franco, a member of Northside’s leadership development team.
Franco told the San Antonio Report that the possibility of adopting the plan has been bandied about for years.
“The conversations have been ongoing since the state allowed districts to have a District of Innovation opportunity,” Franco explained, adding that the last few years have changed the conversation.
“For a long time, Northside didn’t necessarily need those flexibilities,” she said. “But as COVID has sort of affected us all, and the teacher shortages have affected us across not only the city but the state, there are things and flexibilities in the District of Innovation [plan] that would really allow us to stay competitive with our surrounding districts.”
Since many districts in the region have already adopted the District of Innovation status, Northside has among the latest start dates for the school year — putting it at a disadvantage when it comes to hiring teachers, Franco said.
For districts that do not have the status, the first day of school cannot be before the fourth Monday in August, according to state law. Northside’s 2022-23 school year began on Aug. 22.
A committee made up of teachers, parents, community members, principals and district staff came together to decide on a draft plan that includes exemptions from the following rules:
The district is seeking community input on the plan before submitting it to the Texas Education Agency. The deadline to submit comments is March 30.
The district is hoping to have the plan approved by its board in April and to become a District of Innovation soon after.
If approved, any changes to the school calendar would not take effect until the 2024-25 school year.
Franco said the district's plan is not set in stone and can be amended based on feedback from the community and the board.
"If we wanted to add any flexibilities that aren't in this current plan that you see posted in draft form, we would have to go back to the board and ask permission to reconvene their board-appointed committee and explain what flexibilities we were asking to add," Franco said.
Extending the probationary period for teachers would allow the district to have more time to evaluate the efficacy of teachers before giving them longer-term contracts.
Franco said the district doesn't have immediate plans to use the proposed flexibility on the state teacher appraisal tool, adding that the district will be able to use that flexibility anytime over the five-year term of the plan.
The Texas Teacher Evaluation and Support System “has been written really to support a statewide … evaluation system,” Franco said. ”So many districts will write their own that is more tailored to the expectations of the teachers in their district.”
Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD also included that exemption in their District of Innovation plan, citing the time the mandated appraisals take.
“Administrators spend an exorbitant amount of time on the appraisal process, from pre-conference to post-conference, which poses a challenge for them to provide quality and timely feedback to the individual teacher,” the plan reads.
SCUC ISD also asked to give incentives to teachers who communicated their plans to retire by a certain time in order to more efficiently replace them.
Districts use flexibility to allow larger class sizes
Other districts in the region, including the San Antonio and Boerne ISDs, have exemptions from laws governing class size, which free the districts from the state-mandated cap of 22 students per classroom and the need to apply for waivers every time a class exceeds that size.
According to Boerne's plan, which was renewed this year after initially taking effect in 2017, that flexibility “provides an opportunity for the district to determine guidelines for managing larger class sizes, which provides consistency across the district.”
Other districts, including Judson ISD, have plan exemptions that allow the revocation of transfers for students who have received disciplinary consequences, did not meet state attendance guidelines or failed a course.
Districts with particularly unique learning situations, like Randolph Field ISD, have used the plans to alter rules, including one requirement about the number of instructional minutes.
RFISD is on a military installation, which presents unique challenges to district access in times of national security, according to the plan.
“In the event of an act of God, such as inclement weather, or a national security issue that prevents RFISD from holding class, the district seeks additional flexibility under this section.”
Another military school district, Lackland ISD, requested exemption from a rule requiring students to attend at least 90% of class days to receive credit.
Exemption from that rule “will address the social and emotional issues that the district encounters due to military transitions and opportunities for students to engage with the community and social agencies,” according to the district's plan.
SAISD was one of the first districts of innovation
One of the first districts to become a District of Innovation after a law was passed in 2015 was the San Antonio Independent School District, which has used the flexibility to hire teachers and select a custom calendar.
John Norman, the chief strategy officer of SAISD, said one of the main benefits of the District of Innovation is its ability to help schools address teacher shortages by allowing them to hire teachers in hard-to-staff areas.
"We requested exemptions specifically in the fine arts and career and technical education area,” he said.
The program also allows for flexibility in the school calendar, which Norman said benefits the district's staff and students.
"We always do a lot of community engagement with our calendar,” he said. “We put it out to a vote to all of our employees. We have several options, so I think it gives us the flexibility to design a calendar that's more aligned to the needs of our staff and our students.”
The District of Innovation program has allowed SAISD to pursue innovative strategies aimed at improving education for all students, Norman said.
With the recently passed "Always Learning" strategic plan, the district is taking further steps to ensure that students receive a high-quality education, Norman added.
Comal ISD, which covers part of Bexar County, has also drafted a District of Innovation plan for board approval later this month.