In a city that likes to be on a first-name basis with San Antonio’s most admired people, Pedro Martinez, San Antonio Independent School District superintendent, became known as simply Pedro from the very start.

His vision for academic transformation and his passion for sharing that vision caught fire quickly in the city. With Martinez a finalist for the superintendent’s job with Chicago’s public school system, it’s worth recounting the story of how he ended up in San Antonio. It was thanks only to the moonlighting work of a single SAISD school board trustee, attorney Steve Lecholop, that Martinez even became a long-shot candidate for the job.

In the months preceding Martinez’s eventual 2015 hire, the divided school board narrowly rejected the hiring of a nationally recognized search firm and instead gave the contract to George McShan, a one-man search firm based in Harlingen who partnered with Rubén Olivárez, a University of Texas education professor and former SAISD superintendent.

The process and selection smacked of an inside deal.

McShan and Olivárez failed to even surface Martinez as a potential candidate in the long list of candidates presented to the board for possible interviews. McShan stumbled badly and struggled to speak coherently when appearing before the board to present his findings. It appeared to be yet another disaster in the making for a school board accustomed to such outcomes.

Lecholop, surfing the web for other candidates, found that Martinez, a Spanish-speaking native of Mexico who grew up in Chicago and was now working in Nevada, had been a finalist for coveted superintendent positions in both Philadelphia and Boston.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks during his state of the district speech in April.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks during his state of the district speech in April. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Lecholop researched Martinez’s background dating to his days as chief financial officer in Chicago Public Schools. Finding what he believed was the ideal candidate to lead SAISD, he argued at a closed-door board briefing for Martinez’s inclusion on the list of candidates. While he succeeded, the search firm ranked Martinez a lowly 15th out of 17 candidates. That ranking reflected the unwillingness of McShan and Olivárez to promote a candidate not of their choosing rather than any objective assessment of Martinez’s considerable qualifications.

Lecholop was undeterred and made a passionate speech in executive session on behalf of Martinez, and he met individually with each of the board members. He must have been persuasive. After viewing the alternatives, the board overruled the search firm and unanimously voted to make Martinez one of two finalists invited to San Antonio for an interview.

The other finalist, from Atlanta, pulled out of the running before he could be interviewed. Pedro was hired, and the rest is history. Lecholop, the board’s District 1 representative for eight years, and its most passionate voice for good governance and reform, was defeated in his bid for reelection in May of this year.

Challenger Sarah Sorensen, one of four candidates backed by the teachers union, unseated Lecholop with almost 55% of the vote, or 3,010 votes. Lecholop finished with 45% of the vote, or 2,478 votes. The other union-backed candidates were defeated.

The city and the district owe a debt to Lecholop. Had he not embarked on his solo quest to reach higher in search of candidates, Pedro Martinez would never have come to San Antonio and the district would not be on its improved trajectory.

How exactly has Pedro brought about improvements in the district’s performance? In short, by bringing a laser focus to academic outcomes while reforming the district’s dysfunctional administrative practices and its culture of cronyism.

I see several key areas where he has made a demonstrable difference.

  • Human capital. He replaced a system that prioritized patronage and tenure with one focused on achievement and expectations. The days of parking a failed principal at a desk in headquarters ended. All but one member of the superintendent’s cabinet was replaced. New principals were elevated, others demoted. Many teachers left, and many new ones were recruited, including master teachers paid higher salaries in return for accepting higher expectations of academic performance.
  • An unrelenting focus on student achievement, and a deep reliance on the data became the basis for all activities in the district. 
  • Preaching to students and their families the value of a college education. “Love them and hug them all the way to Harvard,” Pedro was heard to say to colleagues as he refused to accept that high poverty in the district meant poor education outcomes.
  • The creation of dual language programs at the majority of the district’s 90 campuses. There were only a few when Pedro arrived in a district where decades of racial bias had prevented whole generations of Mexican-American students learning Spanish and celebrating their culture. Pedro made being bilingual a skill and a birthright, not something to be shunned.
  • The school board was divided before Pedro’s arrival. Votes of 4-3 were the norm. Pedro’s vision united trustees. He convinced the school board to launch ambitious bond programs that will improve every one of the district’s aging campuses.
  • Community advocacy. For all his work inside the district, Pedro embraced the downtown business community, inviting business leaders to get involved and take responsibility for inner city education outcomes. He openly spoke of racial and economic segregation and the hurdles the district faces. His evangelical zeal for surmounting that historic inequality convinced many that one day SAISD could become a model urban district.

 

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.