San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez painted a picture of a school district in the midst of transformation in his annual “State of the District” speech before the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday morning.

Martinez outlined the innovative changes he is pursuing in the district in accordance with the blue print he laid out at last year’s address.

“You may call it innovation. We are doing things differently, we’re problem-solving, and we’re giving options to families,” Martinez said, addressing a full house at the Witte Museum’s Mays Family Center.

The breakfast came less than 24 hours after the resignation of SAISD Board Trustee Olga Hernandez, who is facing federal charges for conspiring to commit honest services wire fraud. It fell to Board President Patti Radle to address the issue ahead of Martinez’s forward-looking address.

“To our board it brings a sadness. It is a time for some grieving, but it will not be our distraction,” Radle said. “Our focus, as it has been, is on 53,000 children.” 

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Martinez spent the last year considering the opportunities and challenges facing the district, and began his speech with an exploration of the context for SAISD’s renaissance.

Projections point to a job market in which 65% of jobs will require some post-secondary training or education. While Texas schools, including those in SAISD, are graduating 88% of students, only 17% are scoring college-ready on their SAT/ACTs, and only 24% graduate from 2-year or 4-year colleges. The situation is more bleak below the poverty line, where only 5% of students score at college-ready levels on their SAT/ACTs.

Meanwhile, the population is getting poorer, Martinez said. It is getting harder and harder to climb out of poverty, make ends meet, and see a brighter future. It may not surprise anyone that the average family income in SAISD is around $30,000, significantly less than the $50,000 average in Texas and Bexar County. What surprised Martinez was seeing that average family income in North East ISD and Northside ISD was not that far above the state average – $58,252 and $60,057 respectively. While they do have some wealthy neighborhoods within the districts, they also have free lunch qualification rates over 35%.

Poverty is affecting every school district, Martinez said. “This is the challenge of the nation. This is what everyone is trying to figure out. If we don’t understand it, we will make the same mistakes over and over.”

When people observe SAISD, they might be taken aback, Martinez said. It looks like rapid change, he admits.

In her introduction, Radle said that Martinez drives at 90 miles per hour, and the only signs he looks at along the way are the ones that say, ‘This way to success.’”

In his first year as superintendent, Martinez focused on increasing offerings for academic excellence and studying what was going well with the existing ones.

Travis Early College High School and Young Women’s Leadership Academy continue to be two of the top performing high schools in the city. Travis is a nominee for the National Blue Ribbon Award this year, and YWLA won the award in 2015. Thanks to a strong partnership with San Antonio College, 100% of Travis’ 2016 graduating class left with an associate degree.

At Young Mens Leadership Academy, young men of color are captured in 4th grade, right as test scores and preadolescent behaviors would begin to change the way their teachers and parents see them.

“We wanted to create a school that was different for them,” Martinez said.

Each student receives five high-fives a day and the confidence to use their energy to their advantage. They are expected to succeed – and they do.

At the Advanced Learning Academy, which was opened in just six months as a monumental public-private partnership, innovative classrooms are speaking to different learning styles and best practices aimed at opening up possibilities to curious young learners.

As the district implements best practices and places strong leaders in struggling schools, it has already seen some progress.

Davis Middle School was in its fourth year of “improvement required” accreditation status (IR) from the Texas Education Agency. In one year they not only met standard, but earned a state distinction in science.

Gates Elementary School saw double digit gains in test scores to come out of IR and earned five of six possible state subject matter distinctions.

In year two, Martinez has focused on laying the groundwork for scaling the transformation. To him, this means investing heavily in talent.

To do this, he knew he would need more money. When the Texas Supreme Court sided with the State of Texas in a lawsuit that required changes to the school funding system, Martinez was not sure what they would do.

“The community stepped up,” Martinez said.

Radle praised the efforts of the business community in passing SAISD’s 13-cent tax rate increase and $450 million bond on the November ballot. 

“The successes and the opportunity we anticipate have come with the support of the people in this room,” Radle said. “How many cities vote at 70% to raise their taxes in two different ways?”

SAISD Board President Patti Radle.
SAISD Board President Patti Radle. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SAISD followed up on the success by aggressively pursuing grants, including the highly competitive Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant. With the $46 million awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, the district plans to create a Master Teacher track, which will create 1,000 positions with added responsibility and pay. The majority of these positions will be converted from existing teaching positions. These highly successful teachers from within and outside the district will work five extra hours per week, one extra month per year, and receive an extra $15,000 per year to increase their salary cap from $65,000 to more than $80,000.

The Master Teachers will pass through the district’s lab schools at ALA, CAST Tech, and the Relay Graduate School of Education Program at Ogden Elementary School.

In addition to the lab schools, the district will open three other innovative models for the 2017-18 school year. Steele Montessori will be the first public Montessori school in the county. Twain Dual-Language will aim to have all students biliterate in English and Spanish by 8th grade, and Lamar Elementary School will also implement a dual language program with an 11-month school calendar.

As more schools move toward the pre-K-8 academy model, Martinez hopes to see the district retain students who were being lost to other districts, charters, and private schools as they entered middle school.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) school-within-a-school model currently operating at Burbank High School will become part of a larger network of IB programs in the district, primarily in the Jefferson High School feeder pattern. This will be the largest IB network in the county.

Martinez’s tenacious pursuit of a college-oriented culture has already resulted in nearly 90% of students applying to four-year universities. Almost 50% applied to Tier One schools. The goal is to see more SAISD students enroll and graduate from those institutions. However, even by daring to apply, they have elevated the conversation, Martinez said.

“When you have children who can elevate to the highest level, it sets the tone for everybody else,” Martinez said.

This year 83 of the top-performing juniors will make college visits across the country.

In year three Martinez hopes to turn his attention to further culture shift and stakeholder engagement. He plans to introduce performance pay for principals, as well as parent empowerment programs, industry partnerships, and other initiatives to open up campuses to community involvement.

Hispanic Chamber President Ramiro Cavazos welcomed business leaders, elected officials, and educational leaders from across the city. Cavazos highlighted the integral role of education in the collective endeavors represented by those in attendance.

“Education is the most valuable currency in the world,” Cavazos said. “It is the key to success, the key to the American dream, the key to prosperity.”

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.