While introducing a fresh line of school board candidates and a road map to make South San Antonio Independent School District more accessible, accountable, and transparent, Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) called this the “most critical year” in the district’s history at South San Kids First’s third town hall meeting. The grassroots education advocacy group’s vision was presented to a crowd of about 70 people at Palo Alto College Tuesday night.

“In a world where silence is an expectation – silence from the community, silence from teachers, silence from students – what we’re doing is providing a loudspeaker,” Saldaña, a South San alumnus, told the Rivard Report. “Now you can hold accountable not only your teacher and principal, but the school board and superintendent whose jobs it is to ensure student success, whose jobs it is to ensure college and career readiness.”

In response to town hall meetings this March and May that brought a total of 200 frustrated community members together, the organization designed three programs aimed at increasing long-term academic achievement and addressing the notorious financial mismanagement and inappropriate conduct that has required a Texas Education Agency (TEA) conservator to intervene in school board affairs.

According to Gilbert Morales, one of the founders of South San Kids First, these programs include a “family university” designed to “create a pipeline of informed and inspired family members, who will transform PTAs, booster clubs, and teacher and parent relationships,” a “school board school” that would educate families on “the ins and outs of school district governance,” and the district’s first impartially moderated candidate forum “for all to better understand the candidates’ expertise and the issues facing our district.”

Community members were invited to a meet-and-greet with school board candidates on Sept. 15 at Taqueria Mexico and two candidate forums on Oct. 13 and 22 at Palo Alto College. Other upcoming events include:

  • Parent Teacher Conference 101: Thursday, Sept. 22, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
  • Voting 101: Thursday, Oct. 6, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
  • How to Build a PTA: Tuesday, Nov. 15, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
  • School Board School: TBD (January 2017), 9 a.m.-12 p.m.

The goal behind these programs is not to address the array of specific challenges that have led to South San ISD’s historically low performance, as described by the tables below, but to equip families with the knowledge and engagement spaces to hold the educational system accountable.

Several of the key metrics for South San ISD decreased from 2014 to 2015. Table provided by South San Kids First.
Several of the key performance metrics for South San ISD decreased from 2014 to 2015. Table provided by South San Kids First.
South San ISD performed significantly below Bexar County as a whole in 2015 in the district's key metrics for success. Table provided by South San Kids First.
South San ISD performed significantly below Bexar County as a whole in the key metrics evaluated in 2015. Table provided by South San Kids First.

The programs come following months of unsatisfactory reports on the current board of trustees by conservator Judy Castleberry, appointed by the TEA to oversee the district in February.

In her July 31 report, Castleberry wrote, “The increasingly dysfunctional behavior of the Board has been a matter of major concern during this month. Board members’ walking out of meetings, talking over each other during meetings, and showing disrespect for each other and for the administration present an unprofessional image for the community and poor role models for students.”

The report concludes, “The Conservator continues to see no evidence of commitment by the Board to change behavior to address the identified concerns.”

Attendees read through the South San ISD Conservator. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Attendees read through the Texas Education Agency’s conservator report on South San ISD. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Board Secretary Angelina Osteguin (D1), one of only two trustees who attended the community event, defended the board’s actions, saying Castleberry has overstepped her authority and blaming Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra for obstructing the board’s progress.

“We’re not understanding the conservator and her reasoning for giving us directives, her reasoning for saying she’s highly concerned with the board members,” Osteguin told the Rivard Report. “The things that she’s citing are, in my opinion, not the issues she was instructed to address in coming to our district.”

A handful of community members, whose involvement with South San Kids First inspired them to run for school board in the Nov. 8 General Election, did attend. Those interviewed described themselves as team players who would leverage their professional experience and long commitment to the community.

“I want to bring the strong parent voice, I want to bring a lot of cooperation and education to the board,” said Louis Ybarra Jr, a ’91 South San High School graduate running for District 2, where his three daughters attend elementary, middle, and high school. “I want to bring back the board integrity and trust that I think has been lost.”

Elda Flores, who spent most of her 38 years as a teacher, administrator, and central office executive with South San ISD, likewise spoke optimistically about her run against trustee Stacey Estrada (D7).

Elda Flores, former Director of Pupil Services, is running for the District 7 spot on the South San ISD Board. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Elda Flores, former Director of Pupil Services, is running for the District 7 spot on the South San ISD Board. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

“We want to take it in a positive direction,” she told the Rivard Report. “We all bring different experiences into the board – all of us, even those who are still there. … Let’s work together to give the superintendent the staff and the schools the tools that they need to go forward.”

Parent Maricela Polendo, whose nephew, Eugene Polendo, is running for District 5, praised South San Kids First as a long-needed catalyst for community engagement. Comparing her experience as a teacher in North East ISD (NEISD) with her four decades living in South San Antonio, she told the Rivard Report, “It’s a very different spectrum in how the community reacts to education, the parent involvement, and how the standard we’re held to as teachers for our students. We’re accountable (in NEISD). We don’t see that in South San, unfortunately.”

Having finally left South San three years ago, Polendo blamed the community’s “downward spiral,” as she called it, on the failure of school leadership to maintain high educational standards.

“If (people) don’t have anything to do because they’re not educated,” she said, “they’re going to go to the bad side and do things they should not do and cause those of us who really like the community to have to go somewhere else for safety and a better life.”

To Saldaña, rebuilding means translating these frustrations into action and providing “a runway for a community that for a long time hasn’t been invited to the table.”

This means going beyond election day and providing long-term support for the community. For this reason, the organization doesn’t support any specific candidates.

“We also don’t believe our work is done after November 8,” Saldaña explained. “If our organization is all about electing individuals that we believe are right for the community, then we’re no better than anyone else who is part of a particular faction. So what we’ve decided to do is build a program of events to provide the community with accessibility, accountability, and transparency around creating a successful school district.”

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) introduces the work South San Kids First will do to improve the South San ISD schooling. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) explains the work South San Kids First will do to improve board functionality in South San ISD. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Top Image: Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) greets families at the South San Kids First town hall.  Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

Related Articles:

South San Looks for Solutions to Continued Board Failures

‘South San Kids First’ Seeks to Reform Troubled School District

Stewart Elementary: A Case Study for Change

Martinez Offers Glimpse of SAISD’s Changing Academic Strategies

Rey Saldaña’s Journey Home: South San to Stanford and Back

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Daniel Kleifgen

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.