San Antonio ISD is seeking 370 “master teachers” to spearhead an accelerated learning program that will provide longer school days and targeted interventions to students at risk of grade retention.

The district hopes to attract successful teachers from other districts and develop its best in-district talent by offering up to $15,000 in stipends and enhanced leadership and training opportunities.

“The biggest factor in student success, the number one variable, is the quality of the teacher,” SAISD Deputy Superintendent for Instruction Matthew Weber said at a job fair at the Henry B. González Convention Center Saturday.

Weber described the program as a way of more methodically “matching our best teachers with those students who have the greatest need,” and giving students extra time and resources to quickly close learning gaps.

The initiative will continue the wave of innovations implemented by Superintendent Pedro Martinez since his appointment in June 2015, expanding on teaching models and support structures in experimental schools like the Advanced Learning Academy. While the master teacher program would support about 10% of SAISD teachers next year, the district hopes to expand that figure to 33% – or 1,000 teachers – over a period of five years.

According to Weber, 91% of SAISD students are economically disadvantaged, 21% are English language learners, 70% are deemed “at risk,” and nearly 30% are retained at one point during their academic careers. Compounding these issues, SAISD’s low tax base has caused it to lose some of its highest performing teachers to districts with higher salaries.

But the district hopes a $46 million teacher incentive fund awarded by the U.S. Department of Education will help change the equation by supporting master teachers on 25 campuses. Allocations from SAISD’s recent Tax Ratification Election (TRE), which adds $32 million to the district’s annual budget, will also pay for another 114 teachers in other schools. This will ensure that high performing SAISD teachers would not be required to leave their campuses to be master teachers, Associate Superintendent of Human Resources Toni Thompson said.

Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Independent School District

Unlike many reforms, which rely on blanket, district-wide policies, the master teacher model attempts to leverage teachers’ independent strengths by giving them increased autonomy and support. Weber expects teachers and administrators to adapt resources to their needs, though key ingredients to all master classrooms will include strong relationship-building, inquiry-based learning models, intensive data tracking, and real-world application.

“We’re taking a risk with a number of things, and that’s where we want to be careful not to just create a cookie cutter design for this,” Weber said to a crowd of nearly 100 teachers from districts all over the city and other parts of Texas.

Most schools will have between four and a dozen master teachers. Twenty-five will be placed at Ogden Elementary to serve as mentors in a new teacher residency program in partnership with the Relay Graduate School of Education.

Teachers of general elementary and core secondary subjects with at least two years of experience by the end of this year are encouraged to apply by an initial March 27 deadline. While the district typically hires about 400 teachers each summer, it intends to fill its master teacher positions as soon as possible and is even advertising in Houston and the Dallas Fort Worth area.

More than 300 instructors – about half of them from other districts – have already applied for the position, Thompson said.

The district will hold two other information sessions at its central office board room on March 24 and April 4.

Master teacher stipends will include $7,500 to compensate for five hours of extended teaching each week, as well as an optional $7,500 for a 20-day summer school instruction period – a major bump up from normal summer school salaries. Master teachers would also have opportunities to mentor other teachers, take on leadership roles, and attend professional development seminars.

Increased teaching hours and systems of performance-based pay, though common in charter schools, have been controversial in traditional districts across the country. Weber, however, said the master teacher model will simply recognize and support teachers who already go above and beyond to support their students.

“There are a lot of teachers who are in [school] early doing planning and staying until five or six o’clock, who really have a passion for it,” he told the Rivard Report. “So they’re just getting rewarded for what they’re already doing.”

A teacher sifts through an information folder at the SAISD Master Teacher Job Fair.
A teacher sifts through an information folder at the SAISD Master Teacher Job Fair. Credit: Courtesy / SAISD Communications Office

Teachers attending the job fair echoed this sentiment.

“I’m a very driven teacher,” said Michael Calderon, a middle school teacher in Harlandale ISD. “I really like to see my students succeed. I put a lot of hours and hard work in. I think I’m already doing this, and here’s an opportunity to keep doing it plus make a lot more money.”

Other teachers were eager to more intentionally develop their craft and mentor other teachers.

“I know as teachers – sometimes when we’ve been teaching for a while – we become stagnant, and we don’t really want that,” said Stewart Elementary pre-K teacher Melinda Godoy, who has eight years of teaching experience. “We want to keep learning to be able to apply [that knowledge] and do more for the [students].”

Weber recognized that the program has the potential to create divisions in a profession historically opposed to performance-based differentiations in salary, but he said it should be framed as a motivational tool for all employees.

“We need to be sensitive and respect all of our teachers that are devoted to their craft,” he said. “But at the same time we need to recognize that there are differences, and some people are more effective than others … This is something any teacher can have an opportunity to move into.”

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.