SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Despite rhetoric that increasingly pits traditional public schools against charters, most parents don’t care which form their children’s public education takes as long as they are learning, San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez told a national charter school conference Monday.

“Families want an environment where their children are going to thrive,” Martinez told an audience at the National Charter Schools Conference in Austin. “We get caught up in the philosophical debate.”

Martinez spoke alongside educators from Denver, Indianapolis, and Louisiana as part of a panel discussion hosted by Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit that brings together education leaders throughout the country.

Martinez and the other panelists emphasized that the most successful education systems experience collaboration between charters and traditional schools.

In SAISD, this issue is particularly relevant – of the district’s 90-plus campuses, there are more than 20 in-district charters. Some were created by the district, while others came about through partnerships to turn around failing schools.

Martinez told the audience that for roughly 2,000 “option seats,” at schools that students can elect to attend, rather than be zoned by neighborhood to attend, there are 10,000 applications submitted from SAISD and out-of-district students.

In recent years, Texas legislators have made it easier for these charter partnerships to exist in school district where schools are failing. During the last legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill that would allow districts to pause the state’s accountability system and give schools a two-year chance to improve through a partnership with an outside operator.

SAISD took advantage of this policy by forming partnerships with Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary and the Relay Graduate School of Education at Storm Elementary.

Martinez said his requirement for any partnership is that charter operators must work with students already enrolled at the campuses at which they assume control.

“The priority will always be the neighborhood,” he said.

Panelists also addressed the rivalry traditional districts and charter schools often feel with one another. This year, tension has been especially high in San Antonio, where many school districts have pointed to growing charter enrollment as the reason for declining enrollment and tighter budgets.

In his home city, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said he notices heightened competition in gentrifying areas where the number of school-aged children is declining. However, he said the competition can be positive when it causes schools to promote their offerings and appeal to parents.

Martinez said San Antonio schools should look past the competition to develop better educational practices. Charters present an opportunity to positively disrupt a school district’s traditional habits, and both entities should be able to share best practices, he said.

“How do we create disruption but at the same time be able to work together and learn from each other?” Martinez asked.

The SAISD Superintendent offered Ogden Elementary’s partnership with Relay Graduate School of Education as an example that the district could learn from and apply to other traditional campuses.

Relay uses Ogden as a teaching lab for its graduate school with a two-year residency program. Resident teachers learn from master teachers and earn a teaching certification within their first year. In the second year, teaching residents earn a master’s degree and become lead teachers.

The same model will be applied at Storm Elementary, Martinez said. Some veteran teachers at Ogden described the model as a massive culture shift that helped produce better results for students.

“It has never been a lack of work, but [Ogden teachers] were seeing results and you could see it in their faces,” he said, noting that he wants to replicate successful strategies regardless of their origin.

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee stressed that having great choices is important, but without community engagement, none of it matters.

Ferebee said that many of his students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and when he speaks with families, many of them don’t know the options they have, or even how their student is performing.

“We only get true choice when everybody understands how to play the game,” Ferebee said. “Our effort is ensuring we engage those that are disenfranchised.”

Avatar photo

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.