While presidential hopefuls are criss-crossing the country promoting their platforms before interest groups and energized crowds, new San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Superintendent Pedro Martinez is on a whirlwind tour of a different sort. Since Sept. 9, Martinez has been debuting his ambitious five-year plan in a series of community input meetings in the cafeterias of each SAISD high school. Now five meetings down with two more to go before Oct. 14, hopes are rising for a new era in SAISD.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez – then a candidate for the position – answers reporters' questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez – then a candidate for the position – answers reporters’ questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: San Antonio Report file photo

Those who have yet to hear Martinez’s goals can attend one of the remaining public meetings: Oct. 5 at Edison High School (HS) and Oct. 14 at Burbank HS. Both meetings are at 6 p.m. in the schools’ cafeterias.

As a candidate for the position, Martinez asked the board for five years, promising in return to deliver meaningful progress. The board granted him position with the time he required, and Martinez hit the ground running.

Calling on his experience in Chicago and Reno as well as a series of meetings with SAISD staff, Martinez has set a series of ambitious and pragmatic goals for the district.

The superintendent’s approach to the meetings demonstrated his sober ambition. In a district plagued by the aftermath of quick fixes and anemic turnaround plans, Martinez has sustainability in mind. He began meetings at both Sam Houston HS and Brackenridge HS with the same forecast. SAISD’s five-year goals are not meant to the be terminal.

“It’s a down payment on a ten-year plan,” Martinez said.

The ten goals are fundamental, data-driven and measurable. Schools will be graded by the state. Martinez wants those grades to be good. Graduation rates, test scores, and college readiness will reveal performance. Martinez wants those statistics to be high.

Image courtesy of SAISD. Click to enlarge.
Image courtesy of SAISD. Click to enlarge.

His plan places a heavy emphasis on resources for high achieving students to then raise the bar for the wider district. Until now, SAISD has focused on remediation, getting students to grade level. While Martinez applauds the district for its achievements in that regard, he wants to complete the picture.

“We have gotten very good at helping them catch up,” Martinez said.

Once the students catch up, the data shows that they stall. Like many districts in the country, SAISD underserves its high achievers. For Martinez, these students hold the key to changing the expectations of their peers, and creating an atmosphere of ambition, interest, and realized potential.

Gifted programming, as well as increased participation in accelerated programs like dual credit, AP, and International Baccalaureate are part of the solution, but so is increased rigor and innovation in instruction.

At the Brackenridge HS meeting Martinez revealed his plan for getting the most talented teachers into SAISD classrooms. Rather than trying to match available talent to available openings through an inefficient process, he wants principals to recruit the best and brightest and do what they have to do to get them in front of the classroom.

“Just hire them!” he said.

Likewise, he wants principals to be able to moderate the well-intentioned resources and programs offered to their school. With clear vision, and the support to obtain the resources and staff they need, Martinez hopes to set school leadership up to succeed.

Hearing a superintendent discuss high level structural and philosophical changes signaled two things: a new era of transparency, and the level of interest from community stakeholders.

The Career and Technology Education building at Brackenridge High School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Brackenridge High School. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

At both Sam Houston HS and Brackenridge HS the crowd was made up mostly of neighborhood leaders, educational advocates, and educators. A handful of parents attended, but the largest turnout was from those with a long history of investment in the district.

At the Sam Houston HS meeting, the crowd included leaders in the African American community, including Nettie Hinton and Jason Mims. While Sam Houston HS is continually ranked among the lowest performing SAISD schools, it has a community support network committed to its success as an icon of the city’s Eastside. At Brackenridge HS, one of the district’s higher performing high schools, three current and several former SAISD board members attended.

Many of the gathered stakeholders have been around for decades. They have seen others try and fail to do what Martinez is attempting: turn SAISD into a model school district, in accordance with its own mission statement.

Needless to say, some were skeptical. During the Q&A portion of the Brackenridge HS meeting,  a longtime SAISD resident expressed his exasperation at what he feels are incomplete reforms.

“It’s always the same…we do something for the highest and something for the lowest, but what about the middle?”

Martinez answered that engagement is the key to success at every level. Remediation to engage those who struggle, stimulation to engage the most voracious learners, and special interest programs to engage those whose academic performance will be tied to the perceived relevance of their education. From day one, Martinez plans to help students see how their education is guiding them on a path to the lifestyle they want. For some that will be stable or high-paying jobs, for others higher education in areas that interest them.

At Sam Houston HS the questions focused even more on preparing students to enter the workforce. Sam Houston alum and education advocate Brian Dillard asked about bringing STEM into the regular curriculum. Martinez replied that he saw the value of STEM and wanted to bring it into the realm of possibility for every student. He later encouraged those with collaborative ideas in STEM and any other field to bring them to the district.

“Everything we do has to open the eyes of our students to the possibilities,” he said.

Brian Dillard poses questions to SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez at a community input meeting at Sam Houston HS. Photo by Bekah McNeel
Brian Dillard (right) poses questions to SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a community input meeting at Sam Houston HS. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Another question from a Sam Houston HS volunteer highlighted a community concern that low-level goals like test performance didn’t solve the issue of low expectations—both the teachers’ expectations of the students, and the students’ of themselves—and lack of critical thinking.

Martinez assured her that his approach to raising the bar was to raise expectations and require critical thinking. His quantifiable goals would naturally follow. 

Martinez has confidence in his plan, and feels that the coming decade is the do-or-die moment for SAISD’s future. He pointed to the projections of San Antonio’s growth. An estimated population of 2.1 million in 2030 will make their real estate decisions based on school districts. Their tax dollars will follow them. Right now, Northside ISD, NorthEast ISD, and Alamo Heights ISD bring in two and three times the revenue per student, creating a virtuous cycle of resources and performance.

Rather than bemoan the lack of resources SAISD currently has, Martinez’s goal is to kick off that virtuous cycle in the classrooms, and create the kind of schools that parents will choose. He wants SAISD to be an asset, not a liability to the urban core. While real estate investors, businesses, and politicians would love to see this dream come true, the real winners would be the children whose zip code just became the right zip code.

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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.