This story has been updated.

San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez is leaving the district to become CEO of Chicago Public Schools, the third largest U.S. public school system.

His appointment was announced Wednesday morning at Chicago’s Benito Juarez High School, where he was once a student. Martinez will be the first Latino to lead the school district.

Martinez told the San Antonio Report he plans to start his new job at the end of the month, returning to the city where he grew up and the school system where he began his education career.

“I will always love San Antonio,” Martinez said Tuesday. “I will always love the community because it was a community that embraced me from day one, and the only district that would even have an opportunity to take me away is my hometown of Chicago.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot welcomed Martinez, “a son of Chicago, back home” at a press conference Wednesday morning. She said it was important for the school district to be led by “someone who embodies excellence and also has lived experience similar to the students” he serves every day. Almost half of CPS students are Latino.

“It says quite clearly that you can be what you see,” Lightfoot said.

Martinez, who attended the press conference with family members, said he was grateful to have the opportunity to come back home for his “dream job.” He listed several Chicago teachers who made a difference in his life and “saw something in me that I couldn’t see myself.”

“I remind our teachers every day how powerful they are because that’s what they do for our children,” he said.

Last month, Martinez emerged from a pool of 25 applicants as one of four finalists for the Chicago CEO position. He served as the school system’s chief financial officer from 2003 to 2009, managing a $5 billion budget. Arne Duncan, then the head of Chicago’s public schools and later the U.S. Secretary of Education, recruited Martinez to join a team working to turn around the school system.

Now, Martinez will lead the district of roughly 340,000 students through the next phase of the coronavirus pandemic, but the 51-year-old said that he is ready for the challenge. While he is familiar with the school system, Martinez is prepared to listen and learn about the changes Chicago’s public schools have endured in the past decade, such as declining enrollment.

In SAISD, Martinez faced similar challenges, including generational poverty and declining enrollment that led to a $31 million budget shortfall in 2018. He acknowledged that there is still work to be done, but Martinez said he believes he is leaving the school district in a strong position, from the school board to the staff at each campus. At every level, the culture has shifted to prioritize supporting students, Martinez said.

“When we as a community unite together, there is no limit to what our children can do,” he said. “We have raised expectations for ourselves as SAISD staff. We have shown what’s possible when we support our children. It’s been a whole effort across the entire district, starting with our board all the way down to our principals and down to our teachers. I don’t see our district going back. I don’t see that ever changing.”

SAISD board of trustees President Christina Martinez said it was “no surprise to us” that the district’s superintendent was sought-after by a larger school district.

“Our board stands cohesively ready to embrace the next great superintendent,” she said in a prepared statement. “… Our district is in a great position to recruit a nationally respected leader to lead our students, teachers, administrators and families into the future.”

SAISD trustee Patti Radle, who was board president when Martinez was hired, said the superintendent’s greatest accomplishment was raising expectations for students, which involved changing staff members’ attitudes about how they treated children who live in poverty. She and Martinez would often talk about “the pobrecito attitude” that people have toward SAISD students because many are economically disadvantaged.

“Raise your expectancies because you’re going to get what you expect, and we hadn’t been expecting enough,” Radle said. “As a former classroom teacher, I know that to be true. You will get out of the students what you expect.”

A native of Mexico, Martinez moved to Chicago with his family when he was 5 years old. After graduating from Benito Juarez, he earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master’s in business administration from DePaul University. The eldest of 12 children, Martinez was the first of his siblings to graduate college.

The SAISD board hired Martinez in 2015. He earns about $315,000 a year. Before joining SAISD, Martinez served as superintendent-in-residence for the Nevada Department of Education, where he advised the governor’s office and the superintendent of public instruction on education policy decisions. He also worked as the Washoe County School District superintendent in Reno, Nevada, which enrolled about 64,000 students.

Supporters of Martinez credit him with turning around the district that serves about 48,500 students, about 88% of whom are economically disadvantaged. During his tenure, SAISD’s state academic accountability rating improved from a C to a B, which prompted praise from state Education Commissioner Mike Morath. The ratings are largely based on state standardized test scores.

Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath arrives at San Antonio ISD’s Schenck Elementary School, to announce an A-grade from the state’s accountability system in 2019 as Superintendent Pedro Martinez, left, walks alongside. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Martinez helped launch a series of in-district charters and create career-focused high schools with the Centers for Applied Science and Technology. He also started dual-language programs that continue to grow and established graduation and college-bound goals for students in an inner city district that saw fewer students receiving a higher education.

His critics, the district’s teachers union among them, decried the in-district partnerships as devastating to neighborhood schools.

In a statement Wednesday, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel reiterated its criticism of Martinez’s leadership, such as his “pro-charter agenda,” and pledged solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union.

“We should seize this moment to move decisively away from the top-down decision-making of the Martinez years, and to recommit to decision-making processes that authentically center the voices of those most impacted by decisions about our schools: educators, students, and their families,” the statement said. “We look forward to engaging in a collaborative, community-centered process to find a new superintendent.”

This isn’t the first time a larger urban school district has pursued Martinez. In 2018, the Los Angeles Times reported that Martinez was a candidate for the city’s public school district superintendent position. At the time, Martinez told the San Antonio Report he was not a candidate and intended to stay in San Antonio. Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest district in the country with about 600,000 students.

During the pandemic, Martinez made national headlines for his ambitious plans to keep students in schools by partnering with local nonprofit Community Labs to implement free COVID-19 testing for students and staff and holding numerous vaccinations clinics at district facilities. He said the testing has allowed SAISD to catch countless asymptomatic cases before they could spread. That, in turn, has helped create a sense of stability and safety within classrooms.

Recently, Martinez and the board imposed a mask mandate for all students, staff, and visitors to SAISD campuses, defying an executive order issued by Gov. Greg Abbott in July barring governmental entities from requiring masks in their facilities. Martinez also instituted a staff vaccination mandate, requiring all SAISD staff to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 15.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued SAISD and Martinez over the vaccine mandate a second time last week, after the first case was dropped. SAISD’s board of trustees voted 6-1 to adopt a resolution Monday night supporting Martinez’s staff vaccine requirement.

“Our district has been ahead of the curve,” Martinez said. “I still have no doubts about the decisions we’ve taken for our mask mandate and our vaccine mandate.”

Martinez said his only regret is not implementing a staff vaccine mandate earlier, which may have saved the lives of several unvaccinated staff members who recently died from COVID-19 complications.

Looking back over the past six years, Martinez said he knows SAISD did not make academic progress just because of him. He believes the dedication of school board members, teachers, support personnel, principals, and other staff members will help ensure the district does not “skip a beat.”

“I am proud of our district, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next five or 10 years because I think San Antonio will continue to be a leader,” he said.

For now, Martinez said, the hardest part will be leaving San Antonio.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.