On Monday night, the SAISD school board will vote on a partnership with Democracy Prep, to take over the failing P.F. Stewart Elementary School.
On Monday night, the SAISD board will vote on a partnership with Democracy Prep to take over the failing P.F. Stewart Elementary School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

For the last 30 years, San Antonio Independent School District has been one of the lowest performing school districts in Texas. That the district has been underserving students became more obvious over the last 10 years as state accountability standards grew more rigorous.

Case in point: when the State’s high school graduation requirement moved from an eighth-grade proficiency standard to a “college ready” standard in 2013, SAISD went from having six schools earning the lowest accountability rating to 17.

Today, 18 of the district’s 90 schools are designated “Improvement Required” (IR), a euphemism bestowed by the Texas Education Agency upon roughly the bottom 5 percent of all schools statewide based on standardized test performance. SAISD has one of the highest percentages of IR campuses in the state. Four of the 18 IR schools have been labeled as such for four straight years, two for five consecutive years. One of those, Irving Middle School, is transitioning next year from a comprehensive middle school into a dual-language academy. The other is P.F. Stewart Elementary School.

Think of fifth-graders who have attended Stewart Elementary since kindergarten. They have never known a school that’s not in IR. Has the district’s neglect predetermined their life outcomes, future education level, and earning potential? Have we failed an entire generation of students on our city’s southeast side?

SAISD has had its success stories. It’s unquestionably harder to teach students who live in poverty – as do 93 percent of SAISD students – but SAISD’s struggles have perpetuated the cycle of generational poverty that afflicts San Antonio’s urban core. Unless SAISD improves, that cycle is doomed to repeat.

In recent years, the Texas Legislature passed two laws to hold districts more accountable for persistently struggling schools like Stewart. One, House Bill 1842, enacts strict requirements for schools classified as IR for five consecutive years.

Under HB 1842 and the newer Senate Bill 1882, school districts have only two options for IR schools: close the school, or partner with an external group – a nonprofit, university, or charter school provider – to operate the school. If a district opts for the latter approach, the partner has two years to get the school out of IR. If the school fails to emerge from IR after two years, state law requires the TEA to either force the school’s closure or appoint a board of managers to replace the elected school board.

Since HB 1842 applies to Stewart, SAISD was left with a stark choice: close the campus and bus its 500 students elsewhere, or find an external partner to operate the school in partnership with the district. To district leadership, campus closure was a non-starter, so SAISD began scouring the city, state, and country for potential partners.

Before beginning the search, however, SAISD identified a few non-negotiables:

  1. The partner must have a track record of success turning around schools. SAISD is unwilling to negotiate on this point and adopted exacting standards by which to measure the academic results of potential partners.
  2. The school must remain a neighborhood school. SAISD refuses to partner with any entity that would alter Stewart’s zoned boundaries or insist on implementing a lottery-based system for selecting students.
  3. The school must serve all children without regard to whether they qualify for special education services, are English-language learners, or have other special needs.
  4. The partner must adopt and operate in accordance with SAISD’s core values.

The first non-negotiable proved the most challenging to overcome. Most possible partners weren’t interested in partnering as they considered the two-year turnaround time too risky. But even among the willing, very few entities have the experience or expertise of successfully turning around failing schools.

After an extensive national search, the district identified only a few prospective partners that had a proven track record of success. Of those, the district’s first choice, and the best fit was a charter school operator out of New York City called Democracy Prep.

Democracy Prep Public Schools was founded in New York City in 2005. According to its performance data, it has achieved excellent results for students who live in poverty. Their track record of success has supported the network’s growth to 22 schools, including 12 in New York City and, more recently, expansions into Camden, New Jersey; Washington, D.C.; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Las Vegas.

Unlike most charter schools, Democracy Prep is committed to “turning around” schools, as opposed to starting new schools from scratch. One of the hardest things to do in public education is to “turn around” a persistently struggling school without starting over with a new cohort of students. Yet this is the model that Democracy Prep has embraced and at which it excels.

Despite false narratives being circulated locally by opponents of the partnership, SAISD can learn from Democracy Prep, especially when it comes to discipline practices. While founded as a “no excuses” charter school network – a school model that enforces rigid discipline requirements – it evolved earlier this decade to focus on restorative justice practices – an approach that engages students and is much less punitive – for student discipline. SAISD aspires to implement that model.

Democracy Prep also has a better track record than SAISD of achievement among its English-language learner students. Contrary to opponents of the proposed partnership, Democracy Prep is not rejecting bilingual education. Instead, it embraces English-language learners and are dedicated to employing effective ELL instruction. Stewart’s ELL students have been underserved for years, and Democracy Prep is committed to serving them at a high level.

Another impressive aspect of Democracy Prep is how it incorporates arts and civics education as core components of its academic model. SAISD struggles in both areas, and this partnership will allow the district to learn how to improve services in those critical content areas.

Three years ago, the SAISD board unanimously hired Pedro Martinez as superintendent and charged him with transforming the district into a national-model urban school district. We knew difficult decisions would have to be made to improve students’ academic outcomes, and the board remains steadfast and unified as the district addresses systemic inequities and remedies historic failures under his leadership. Martinez has proven to be the change agent the board directed him to be, and the district is already seeing the types of improvement our students deserve.

But despite all this, certain forces, including the teachers union, within the district are deeply committed to preserving a status quo that has resulted in the wholesale failure of our moral obligation to provide an excellent education to all students. These same forces have resorted to spreading mistruths and making ad hominem attacks against district leadership and school board members in an attempt to submarine much-needed changes within SAISD, including the proposed partnership with Democracy Prep.

Never mind that Democracy Prep has an excellent track record of serving students, that SAISD’s options were severely limited by state law, that these forces have not proposed a viable solution for the quandary at Stewart, or that they sat quietly while Stewart repeatedly failed students for five years.

On Monday night, the SAISD school board will vote on a partnership with Democracy Prep, and in doing so take a long overdue step to transform a long-floundering school.  We can no longer put Band-Aids on a problem that requires a comprehensive solution.  We must act with conviction and with the best interests of our students in mind. They deserve nothing less than a transformed Stewart Elementary.

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Steve Lecholop

Steve Lecholop represents District 1 on the San Antonio ISD school board, which is comprised of downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. He is a lawyer and a Teach for America alumnus. He grew up in...