By all accounts Monday night, San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez left the school district of roughly 48,000 students better than he found it six years ago.

Martinez, 51, is leaving San Antonio at the end of the month to lead Chicago Public Schools, the third largest public school system in the country in his hometown. At his final meeting as SAISD superintendent, community leaders, elected officials, and school board members thanked Martinez for his service and lauded his accomplishments.

A native of Mexico, Martinez moved to Chicago with his family when he was 5 years old. After graduating from high school, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s in business administration from DePaul University. The eldest of 12 children, Martinez was the first of his siblings to graduate college.

That story influenced many of Martinez’s decisions and helped him understand the background of SAISD students, about 88% of whom are economically disadvantaged, multiple people said at Monday’s school board meeting.

SAISD trustee Patti Radle, who was board president when Martinez was hired, said the superintendent shifted expectations for students, raising standards for children who live in poverty. That cultural change was “one of the most important differences” Martinez made, she said.

“For too long, too many people have thought of our students as the ‘pobrecitos,’ and that has been an obstacle to our own students’ vision of themselves.,” Radle said. “You don’t accept that.”

She recalled Martinez replying to people who would say “we love our students.” He would say, “You should love them all the way to Harvard.”

The SAISD board hired Martinez in 2015. He earns about $315,000 a year. Before joining SAISD, Martinez served as superintendent-in-residence for the Nevada Department of Education. He also worked as the Washoe County School District superintendent in Reno, Nevada, which enrolled about 64,000 students.

Board President Christina Martinez listed the superintendent’s accomplishments during his tenure in San Antonio, from helping improve the district’s state academic rating to a B to increasing graduation rates to expanding dual language programs. Voters also approved a record $1.3 billion bond package in November 2020.

During the pandemic, Martinez charted the path for large urban school districts to keep schools open and keep students and staff safe. He partnered with the local nonprofit Community Labs to provide free COVID-19 testing at all SAISD campuses. He also coordinated vaccine clinics and recently issued a staff vaccine mandate that led the state attorney general to sue him and the district. The board adopted a mask mandate at the same time.

Christina Martinez said the superintendent helped the district and the community “evolve,” and that is a task that will continue after he leaves.

The superintendent said he also evolved during his time in San Antonio. When he saw how many students were discouraged from speaking Spanish and engaging in their culture, he knew that as an immigrant himself he had to change that.

“It was something very personal for me because it helped me grow as a human being,” he said. “It helped me understand my own background. I was able to see myself through our students.”

A resolution coordinated by state Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio) and signed by the Bexar County Coalition of state legislators honored Martinez for “his outstanding service as superintendent” and extended “sincere best wishes for continued success” in Chicago.

Former San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros said Martinez has had an indelible impact on the school district.

“You left it better than you found it and touched many lives,” he said to the departing superintendent.

Marisa Pérez-Díaz, State Board of Education District 3 member, read a proclamation from the state board honoring Martinez. For Pérez-Díaz, the message was personal because she attended SAISD schools.

“The work that you all do here is changing lives every day,” she said. “Your leadership, Superintendent Martinez, has been instrumental in the changes that we see in this community, and I’m so grateful to your service.”

Pérez-Díaz also recognized Martinez’s commitment to raising expectations for all students, regardless of their economic status or cultural background.

“We know that when we raise our standards, every single child will meet them. It’s a matter of expecting that they will,” she said. “You’ve done that for them.”

Trustee Arthur Valdez said SAISD students and community members saw Martinez’s passion and advocacy for the children in the district and that it was evident in every decision Martinez made.

“You have by far exceeded and gone beyond my expectations of what a superintendent should be,” he said. “Under your leadership, SAISD has experienced phenomenal growth in all areas of student performance, achievement, and academic excellence never before seen in SAISD and providing every student the opportunity to reach their full potential. This board stands united. We will not falter, and we will not go backwards.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.