Students stand in line in the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary.
Students stand in line in the hallways of Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

From the outside, Stewart Elementary on San Antonio’s East Side looks about the same as it did one year ago, but inside the halls and classrooms on Monday, change was evident.

What was once San Antonio Independent School District’s worst-performing school is now an in-district charter run by New York-based Democracy Prep.

More than 340 students returned from summer break Monday to Stewart, alongside tens of thousands other SAISD students starting the new school year.

Stewart Principal Virginia Silva arrived on campus a little before the doors opened at 7:15 a.m. and stationed herself in the hallway to greet students and meet families.

“We want kids to have multiple touch points coming into the door, shaking different people’s hands and seeing different teammates,” Silva said, noting that she thinks Stewart students will be able to notice a change from last year in the energy level of the personnel and school culture.

After arriving, students gathered in the cafeteria with their teachers – all but two of whom are new to campus – and started the day with a greeting. Teachers used their first assembly to start getting to know students and go over the school’s dismissal process.

Principal Virginia Silva.
Principal Virginia Silva Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Stewart, which is now formally known as Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary School, last week hosted Owl Academy, which introduced families to campus before the start of class. It also gave students the opportunity to learn about new campus rules and procedures, including using hand signals to ask teachers for help and a four-step transition that takes a student from sitting at a desk to standing up straight, pushing in a chair, and getting ready for an activity.

Devoting attention to such details is important to Silva. She credits procedures like consistent dismissal processes and uniform hand signals that all instructors understand as bringing a sense of stability to students.

“While that might not seem like a big deal, for a kid, they know that no matter who is in front of [them], if [they] need something, if [they] need help, or if [they] need to go somewhere, [they can] have fair expectations and a sense of security,” Silva said.

Students in Amy Singh’s fourth-grade class got a taste of this when the teacher invited them to join her in a school cheer at the beginning of the day. After asking her class to stand, Singh called out the numbers one through four, prompting students to follow the four-step transition process as they rose.

Later on, Singh reminded students to sit in “STAR,” an acronym that stands for sit up, track the speaker, ask and answer questions, and respect the speaker.

Across the hall, Amanda Lauria addressed her third grade class using the same language. She asked students to “track” her – pay close attention with eyes and ears – and other students selected to speak as they went through their morning activity.

A third grade classroom at Stewart Elementary on the first day of school.
A third-grade classroom at Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary on the first day of school. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

SAISD turned to Democracy Prep to operate Stewart after the school drew failing grades for five consecutive years under the state’s school performance standards. Last week, SAISD officials projected that the Texas Education Agency would find Stewart, where 95 percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged, achieved a “met standard” grade when school ratings come out later this week.

With the forecast of a passing grade, the threat of Stewart’s potential closure is lifted, but Silva still believes there is work to be done to better serve students. From day one, teachers will be evaluating students and identifying who needs additional support.

“As we collect our preliminary data, we will be goal-setting,” Silva said.
“But we want to individualize that goal-setting based on where that student is.”

Silva hopes one goal will impact every child at Stewart: aspiring to attend college. Right now, Silva hopes students will return home to tell parents about their caring teachers and good days. Soon, though, she wants kids to start talking about higher education.

“Week one, I want kids to just be excited and feel a sense of joy coming to school each day,” Silva said. “As we go forward, I want them to walk into school with a goal and a purpose each day.”

Charly Rivera, 8, personifies Silva’s vision. A third grader, Rivera just moved to San Antonio and is spending her first year in her new home at Stewart.

“[This school year,] I’m most excited about thinking more, having more education, and getting ready for college,” Rivera said before reciting Democracy Prep’s mission to “educate responsible citizen-scholars for success in the college of their choice and a life of active citizenship.”

When she grows up, Rivera wants to be a dancer. She already knows how to do hip hop, lyrical, ballet, and cumbia, although her favorite style is jazz. But first, she said she wants to go to college. When she is there, Rivera said, “I want to work hard.”

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.