At a time when traditional public school districts often seem at war with charter schools, San Antonio Independent School District has welcomed them, with more than 20 in-district charters instructing students.

SAISD, a district with six campuses rated by the Texas Education Agency as failing for four consecutive years, is enlisting New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep Public Schools to take over chronically failing P.F. Stewart Elementary.

After a lengthy executive session Monday night, the SAISD board took a near-unanimous vote to advance the charter’s application. Trustee James Howard abstained from the 6-0 vote.

The application will next be sent to the Commissioner of Education for approval before Democracy Prep can officially take over. The board still plans to craft a management and performance agreement for how Stewart will operate. That agreement will come before the board for a vote at a February board meeting.

State law mandates that if a campus has been designated “improvement required” (IR) for four or more consecutive years, the TEA can take corrective action if an additional consecutive failing rating is given. This action can take a variety of forms, including a campus closure or the TEA assigning a board of managers to take over district operations.

This year is the first that campuses will reach the four-year mark of the rating system; as of December 2017, 59 campuses statewide received four consecutive “improvement required” ratings. Of the state’s public school districts, SAISD has the second-most campuses at this threshold with six. Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, was first with 10 campuses rated failing for four or more years.

Texas law allows districts to partner with charter operators to turn around failing schools, thereby delaying TEA corrective action. Should a district hand off campus operations to a charter operator, the accountability rating system is put on hold for two years. 

SAISD’s partnership with Democracy Prep would allow Stewart to avoid a closure or TEA takeover.

In 2017, Stewart met only one of four indices within the TEA’s accountability system. The campus failed to meet standards in the areas of student achievement, closing performance gaps, and postsecondary readiness.

If approved by the commissioner, Democracy Prep will begin operations at Stewart starting in August 2018. Attendance boundaries will remain the same, and no students will have to apply for a place at the school, district spokeswoman Leslie Price said.

“It will continue to be their neighborhood school,” she said.

The campus also would work toward adding sixth, seventh, and eighth grades with a maximum enrollment capacity set at 600. Initial enrollment is expected to be 328.

Sen. Jose Menendez (D-San Antonio) spoke at the board meeting, asking the board to discuss options outside of a charter partnership in the turnaround of Stewart Elementary. The San Antonio state senator was part of drafting the legislation that allows partnerships to pause the IR process. He reminded the board that the legislation allows partnerships not just with charters, but also with nonprofits and higher education institutions.

On Jan. 26, the commissioner of education will draft some more concrete rules about the legislation that may impact the agreement voted on Monday. Menendez said he had concerns that “the vote [the board] may take may change on the final implementation of SB 1882” with Friday’s rule announcement.

SAISD officials said they chose to partner with Democracy Prep because of its track record in New York City. Democracy Prep Charter Middle School, the charter’s first campus opened in 2006, became a high-performing school.

“It became the highest [performing] school in Central Harlem and was ranked the No. 1 public middle school in New York City by 2009,” Price said.

If approved, Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary would be the charter operator’s first Texas campus. It currently operates schools in New York; Washington, D.C.; Louisiana; and New Jersey.

The district met with parents and faculty last week to discuss the transition. Price said most parents had questions about how the change would impact students. Democracy Prep would operate Stewart with longer school days and a longer academic calendar year. The charter operator also brings a “heavy focus on literacy and math and also a strong focus in fine arts,” Price said.

Some members of the community and some SAISD employees have voiced opposition to the selection of Democracy Prep as the charter partner for Stewart. The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, a group of SAISD staff and teachers, plans to rally in protest prior to Monday’s board meeting.

“Democracy Prep schools in New York City tend to have fewer students with [individual learning needs], many fewer English language learners, and fewer children from poverty than the districts in which they are located. How will they meet our Stewart students’ needs?” Alliance President Shelley Potter said in a prepared statement.

Councilman John Courage (D9) attended the rally in support of the Alliance’s efforts to protest Democracy Prep, calling the charter operator a “for-profit entity that has nothing to do with San Antonio.” Courage is a former teacher who taught in SAISD for 20 years. He said there should be greater partnerships between the City of San Antonio, Bexar County, and SAISD to help fix chronically failing schools like Stewart.

Democracy Prep would hire its own staff for the revamped Stewart, although current employees will be invited to apply for open positions. Price said no current employees at Stewart would lose their jobs as a result of the transition. Should a staff member not continue working at Democracy Prep, he or she would be placed in another role within SAISD.

The SAISD board of trustees would continue to govern the campus, holding Democracy Prep responsible for meeting goals for academic achievement, organizational viability, and fiscal health as laid out in the school’s charter. Should Democracy Prep fail to turn around Stewart’s accountability ratings in two years, the process laid out by Texas law would resume.

“We don’t want to have to close Stewart. We don’t want that option for that neighborhood,” Price said. “This is the best way to improve student achievement and keep the school running.”

SAISD already has more than 20 in-district charter schools and plans to add more than just Democracy Prep at Monday night’s meeting. The board will also review applications for the creation of two additional in-district charter schools: the Irving Dual Language Academy and Storm Residency Lab School. Both would serve Pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade students.

The new dual-language academy will open in Fall 2018, taking the place of Irving Middle School after its last class graduates in 2019. Irving is one of the campuses that received an IR rating for more than four consecutive years. It will cease to exist after its last class graduates.

Storm Elementary has three consecutive IR ratings and if approved by the board will transition to a lab school that allows collaboration between graduate school teachers and a school in need of improvement through innovative teaching strategies. The model is similar to the one in place at the Relay Graduate School of Education at Ogden Elementary.

The board also is scheduled to approve “turnaround plans” for five campuses at Monday night’s meeting. These plans are mandated by state law once a campus receives two consecutive IR ratings. The plans then span for two years, with the hopes of improving the campus’ score to “met standard.”

Other districts in the San Antonio area already have approved their own turnaround plans.

The SAISD campuses needing turnaround plans include Foster Elementary School, Page Middle School, Poe Middle School, Rogers Middle School, and Highlands High School.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.