SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez visits with faculty and guests of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy Primary, a school that opened during Martinez’s tenure in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

All who care about public education outcomes in San Antonio anxiously wait to learn whether Pedro Martinez will depart San Antonio’s biggest inner-city school district to become superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, where he is a finalist for the job.

The people of Chicago who care about education outcomes are watching closely, too.

Martinez, hired out of Nevada as superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District in May 2015, has been the most transformative inner-city school district leader in this city in memory. Losing him after five-plus years would be a singular setback and pose a huge challenge for the school board to recruit his equal amid the pandemic.

Martinez’s status as a finalist for the Chicago Public Schools job speaks to the extraordinary turnaround he has engineered at SAISD in his time here. Martinez hadn’t been on the job 60 days when he united the board behind an ambitious five-year plan with 10 distinct metrics. It seemed unrealistic to me then, but much of it has been achieved after all.

A second column on Friday will take a closer look at the fortuitous actions that led to Martinez becoming a candidate for the SAISD job and, once hired, the decisions he made and the actions he took, with unanimous board support, to accomplish so much in the space of five years. His change agenda led to almost every senior administrator in the district’s cabinet being replaced, a wave of new principals promoted or hired, and significant turnover in the teacher ranks.

The district’s culture went from accepted mediocrity to high expectations.

Martinez has not hesitated to act when expectations were not met or individuals resisted his change agenda. Martinez earned the wrath of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the teachers union, which tried and failed to capture four school board seats in the last election. It won a single seat.

Martinez’s very presence seemed to heal long-festering wounds, dissolve feuds among trustees, and end the tradition of trustee meddling in individual campus staffing decisions and operations. A board that consistently voted 4-3 against reform began to vote 7-0, and for a number of recent years every subsequent vote was a unanimous one.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez (right) listens as Patti Radle approves the extension of his contract to 2024.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez (right) listens as the board of trustees approves extending his contract to 2024. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

From day one Martinez worked to prove that a school district where 93% of students live in poverty could deliver rising education outcomes. Click here to read his open letter to the city published after his arrival.

As the politically divided board squabbled over search firms in the months preceding Martinez’s hire, I wrote a two-part series on the board and district’s dismal record dating back decades. Newcomers to SAISD who might not fully appreciate the turnaround in board governance and district leadership can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here to gain an understanding of that history.

All that progress, however, is at risk as the pandemic persists and education leaders everywhere struggle to close the gap on learning loss over the last 18 months, especially in the inner city where the digital divide is so pronounced.

Martinez has had other opportunities to leave, but his dedication to the district’s academic transformation became a singular calling. If there is one school system that can recruit him away, it’s the one in his hometown of Chicago. Martinez now oversees a district with 47,000 students and declining enrollment. There were 54,000 students when he arrived. Chicago’s school system has more than 340,000 students.

Martinez, who was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and is one of 10 siblings, immigrated with his parents to Chicago. He was the oldest and first to attend college; eventually, all of his brothers and sisters graduated with college degrees. Three sisters went on to teach in Chicago’s public schools. Martinez and his wife, Berenice, attended and graduated from public schools in the city. He began his professional career in the school system and eventually rose to become chief financial officer.

Who can fault Martinez if he decides to come full circle and return to his hometown school system?

Meanwhile, the school board should fight to keep Martinez but recognize retaining him might not be an option. In 2012, I thought the school board, led by Ed Garza, now the District 7 trustee, produced a new mission statement that was unrealistically ambitious:

“To transform SAISD into a national model urban school district where every child graduates and is educated so that he or she is prepared to be a contributing member of the community.”

It’s still more aspiration than reality, but Martinez has taken the challenge to heart and SAISD is much closer now than it was the day he arrived. With him or without him, the transformation must continue.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that teacher union-backed candidates won seats in the previous two school board elections. The union won only a single seat in the most recent election.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.