San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez gives an update on the school district's progress. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

One of the few local school leaders who has embraced the state’s A-F grading system for districts, San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez said Wednesday he’s confident his district is “on course” to score a B in 2020.

The Texas Education Agency awarded San Antonio’s inner-city school district a C in 2018, about three years after Martinez took over as superintendent.

“At that time [when I started] if the district would have had a grade – the state verified this for us – we would have got an F as a district,” Martinez said during his annual State of the District address at the Pearl Stable. “Thirty-five thousand of [the district’s 50,000 students] were in the bottom 5 percent of schools in the entire state.”

Since that time, SAISD has reduced that number to about 8,200 students on 16 campuses that failed state standards. In his speech, Martinez explained the challenges and opportunities SAISD faced over the past few years and how he hopes his district will continue to progress.

To attack challenges like charter school growth that can deplete his district’s enrollment numbers, Martinez said he and SAISD staff created new school models to attract more students to the district and diversify the district’s offerings. The superintendent claimed SAISD has been impacted by charter schools the most of any Bexar County school district.

“When I started, I realized very quickly I had families that were choosing these options, and if we didn’t change the conversation about our district there was no way we would be competitive,” Martinez said.

SAISD’s new school models include the technology-focused CAST Tech, Steele Montessori Academy, and the Advanced Learning Academy for students interested in accelerated learning opportunities. Next school year, SAISD will add 1,304 new seats through new school models. Charter schools will add about 800 new seats either within or near SAISD boundaries, Martinez said.

Working “defensively” against SAISD’s challenges, Martinez said his district had to turn around schools and systems that weren’t serving students well. In 2016, 5 percent of students tested as college-ready on the SAT. Now, about 11 percent test are assessed at that level, he said.

Martinez said the district improved student performance by focusing on instructional leadership. SAISD implemented the master teacher initiative, which rewards high-achieving educators with higher salaries and elevated responsibilities like coaching peer teachers and tutoring students outside the school day.

The district expects to have 600 master teachers in 2019-20, with the eventual goal of having 1,000. SAISD also identified what it calls the “irreplaceables,” or staff who would be hard to replace if they left the district. The district focused on these teachers, 475 in total, and was able to retain 94 percent into 2018-19.

In addition, SAISD looked at making varied investments in other fields of education, including technology, dual-language programs, fine arts and sports, and dual-credit programs.

The district secured a Verizon grant for four SAISD middle schools to give tablet computers to each student and provide Wi-Fi access at home and on those campuses. It also expanded its dual-language programs from just two when Martinez arrived to 45 going into the next school year.

During his speech, Martinez announced a $1.5 million donation from The Greehey Family Foundation that will benefit the district’s dual credit programs.

Over the next three years, the programs funded by the donation will target “middle-tier students.” The goal is to increase the percentage of students not enrolled in early college high schools who graduate with 15 or more hours of dual credit from 7 percent to 20 percent by 2022, SAISD Foundation Executive Director Judy Geelhoed said.

The program will start next fall and is expected to impact approximately 2,000 students by 2022.

All of these efforts work toward the goal of making students ready for college.

“We have a ways to go, folks, but … we are instilling hope in children that many times for generations have lived in poverty,” Martinez said. “It is one of the things that held them [and their families] back. And we are pushing the [idea] that poverty should not determine your destiny.”

SAISD is a high-poverty school district, with about 90 percent of students qualifying as economically disadvantaged. About 99 percent of SAISD students fall into the bottom two income quartiles, in which annual income is less than $63,600.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.