San Antonio should have great hope in the scrappy systematics of San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and straight-talking ring fighters like Stewart Elementary School Principal Traci Smith. Both began the school year with big ambitions, and plans to raise the bar for students under their supervision.
They knew the numbers, and both had experience with high-poverty systems. Still, the challenges proved more complex with every step. In spite of this, at the end of the year they still have hope and they still have big plans.
With this final installment of our Stewart series, we want to take a larger look at what these reformers are up against as they take the resources designed for a true minority population and try to create something workable for close to 100% of their students.
School as usual is not cutting it for the students of Stewart Elementary School. They, like so many in inner city public schools, are passing through an underfunded system that was not designed for them in the first place and not flexible enough to account for just how much change is needed.
“Our school funding system was developed in a time when we didn’t want equal resources for everyone,” said Chandra Villanueva, policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.
Students at Stewart – 99% on free and reduced lunch and 33% English language learners – are not a special population or outlying group, as implied by the language of school funding. They are the entire student body, which closely reflects the demographics of SAISD.
Bexar County, Texas and the United States have a growing population of students in these categories. Right now 25% of children statewide are living below the poverty level. Some studies estimate the national child poverty rate at 22%.
The percentage of students who fit the mold for U.S. public schools as they were designed is shrinking.
More and more students are like Joseph, Angelica, and Elizabeth. They are achieving at different levels, but none of them come to the table with the support and enrichment of students in middle class neighborhoods.
College and professional goals are not part of their daily conversations. None of the children we interviewed had a consistent father figure in their homes. Meanwhile they face enormous pressure from bad influences in their neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Their strong mother figures pieced together financial and food security from a mix of extended family and government assistance, which had been in flux over the past two to three years.
These don’t seem like academic problems, but they are. They affect student’s cognition, focus, and ambition.
When President George W. Bush called for an end to “the soft bigotry of low expectations,” he proposed to do so through more rigorous testing, implying that the problems began with the teacher in the classroom. Now we know that they do not.
According to Smith and 4th grade teacher Joanna Tudon, many students have even fewer resources than those we interviewed. They spend a lot of time teaching the basic social and self-management skills needed to create a learning environment in the classroom. Research shows that these skills, which are essential to success, are not adequately developed in many high-poverty contexts.
“We need to break the cycle of poverty for our Stewart kids,” Smith said.
Not all poverty is the same. While it is never advantageous to lack resources, especially when you are being held to standards that assume you do have those resources, the stakes are higher for children in concentrated poverty.
Concentrated poverty is what happens when 40% or more of residents in a given area live below the poverty line.
Martinez sees a difference between the poverty experienced in different parts of SAISD. He considers the pockets of poverty in the Jefferson High School and Edison High School areas “stable poverty.” Neighborhoods like Monticello Park, with its good housing stock and engaged families, sustain strong support networks even though many families in the school struggle financially.
By contrast, schools like Stewart have almost no pockets of stability and almost no middle class neighborhoods creating economic diversity in the learning environment. Concentrated poverty increases student needs beyond what Title I funding can cover.
One of the major needs in schools like Stewart is intensive counseling.
In a listening session on the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act, U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) agreed with educators that the old model of a generalist “school counselor” was inadequate for schools in which many students have experienced instability and trauma.
Far from engaging the occasional aimless or troubled student, dedicated emotional and social services would play a fundamental part in education if they were allowed inside.
“If we could provide resources like that, I think we could see a really big change,” Tudon said.
That is one of many needs that Title I funding and supplemental allowances from the state do not fully cover. They don’t meet the growing needs of food security and healthcare. If students are to perform to expectations, schools have to address these needs. They have to do so piecing together community programs and grants where school funding isn’t adequate.
In addition to the needs of the campus, the very structure of public schools are often a bad fit for students. Stewart will make innovative changes to the structure of its classrooms, as well as participate in the University of Virginia (UVA) School Turnaround Program.
The UVA program will be a leadership development track for Smith, and will help her to implement best practices at Stewart such as professional learning communities and 90-day action plans. Smith doesn’t anticipate a lot of new information, but she looks forward to the accountability.
“It’s a lot of best practices that we should be implementing anyway, but we find excuses not to,” Smith said.
While Stewart participates in the UVA turnaround program, SAISD as a whole will participate in the Texas’ District of Innovation (DOI) program, which will allow it to choose from an approved list of state law exemptions to help meet the needs of the student populations.
SAISD’s application for the District of Innovation designation includes changes to class size, length of the school day, and district calendar.
The SAISD school board will vote on a district plan at their June 13 meeting. Schools within SAISD will later submit proposals for modifications to current class sizes and length of the school day. Proposals must show how the modifications will serve their unique students. The board will also consider a district-wide change to the school calendar to keep kids in school more consistently throughout the year.
Stewart was prepared to propose a plan that included not only changes covered by the DOI, but also other innovations like flexible grouping across grade levels. After consulting with the district, some of their proposals, like non-graded second grade classes, would have to wait (though next year the district will extend non-graded kindergarten to first grade as well).
“There were some things we wanted to do that just were not possible,” Smith said.
They were encouraged to go forward with the other innovations, but in the end decided that the most important changes for their campus were those that did not need DOI approval. The staff’s feedback helped Smith hone in on the changes that were most needed.
Martinez wants to see more freedom to accommodate the unique needs of kids at each campus. Campuses have been asked to submit plans that reflect input and considerations from teachers and campus administration.
“We are saying, ‘No, you are the teacher. You know your kids best,’” Martinez said.
Teachers’ organizations remain skeptical of the state’s intention with the Districts of Innovation program, but feel confident that Martinez will not use the available exemptions to replace or punish teachers, nor will he make changes that place budgets ahead of student safety.
“Districts that are creative and well-intentioned can actually use the program to be innovative,” said Shelley Potter of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel.
Upon implementation, these changes will not remake the entire system – far from it. However, they are steps in the direction of local control, remaking elements of the school experience with the actual school population in mind.
Top image: Brothers Isaiah, 4 and Adam, 5 run through the front door of their house for much needed play time. Photo by Scott Ball.