A student walks down the stairs at Stewart Elementary School. Photo by Scott Ball.
A student walks down the stairs. Photo by Scott Ball.

Throughout Pedro Martinez’s first year as superintendent of San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD), much of the attention will continue to be on his ambitious, district-wide goals to improve educational outcomes at every level. Martinez and his team plan to reach those goals by focusing on academic achievement, talent management, culture shift, stakeholder engagement, and fiscal management.

While the implementation will be mapped in the halls of SAISD’s central offices, it will be lived in the halls and classrooms of SAISD schools like Stewart Elementary School on the city’s southeast side.

Over the course of the semester, the Rivard Report will be taking an inside look at the places in Stewart Elementary where change is needed most. We will look at high-level decisions and changes as well as the people who stand to benefit from them: principals, teachers, and students.

We aren’t looking for immediate change. The district has seen enough quick-fix proposals. Instead, we’re heeding Martinez’s admonition that this process is built for the long term. While we visit Stewart Elementary, we are looking for a direct connection between people and policy.

We’ll meet underserved gifted/talented students wilting without adequate services. Sitting beside them in class are students coasting by in elementary school, but already showing signs of poor attendance and ambivalence about their own futures. We’re looking for the early elementary students already behind in reading, a key indicator that they will struggle throughout their, likely short, academic careers.

Stewart Elementary Teacher Mrs. Montez gives a reading lesson to student Jeimy Rojas in the schools hallway. Photo by Scott Ball.
Stewart Elementary teacher Mrs. Montez gives a reading lesson to student Jeimy Rojas in the school’s hallway. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Surrounding these students are teachers and parents trying to do their best against overwhelming odds, and a principal tasked with campus turnaround.

For many, the superintendent’s goals have been a welcome breath of fresh, energetic air. As the city’s largest inner-city school district, covering real estate targeted for development, there are plenty of stakeholders who want to see the district succeed.

Martinez is well aware of the eyes watching his progress. However, he insists his primary motivations are the students of SAISD. It is their future success shaping his goals and informing his strategies. 

So, what does this mean for the students of Stewart Elementary? How will they benefit from the expanded services and high expectations of this new regime?

At the end of the 2014-2015 school year, Stewart Elementary was in its third year of “improvement required” status under the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) accountability standardsOf the four indices of student achievement, Stewart only met standards in Index 2, student progress.

Student progress measures the improvement of each student from one year to the next. This is the standard currently plaguing high-performing schools, where students have a hard time outperforming their already high scores from the previous year. In low-performing schools, student progress is still a good thing, obviously, but it is easier to attain when test scores from the previous year leave ample room for improvement.

Stewart Elementary failed to meet standards in Index 1, student achievement; Index 3, closing the performance gap; and Index 4, post-secondary readiness. Together these indicate an overall struggling school where underserved populations, here the majority of students, are falling behind their well-resourced peers across the state.

Dr. Smith greets every child as they enter the school every morning without fail, often using her trusty radio to multi-task operational issues such as staff call-outs and no-shows. It’s her mission to memorize every name of every student attending Stewart. If she can’t remember a child’s name, she asks them to quiz her the following day on their way in to school. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

New principal Dr. Traci Smith was sent to Stewart Elementary for a reason. She is one of SAISD’s powerhouse principals with the grit and creativity to inspire change. She will be the one to put Martinez’s plans into action at Stewart Elementary.

Smith has her work cut out for her. Serving 96.8% economically-disadvantaged students in a somewhat under-the-radar corner of the district, the school has had very little to lean on for community support. The mobility rate alone, 22.9%, means that building trust and rapport with families is constantly in stage one.

When Smith walked onto campus to start the 2015-2016 school year, only 36% of Stewart Elementary third graders were reading at grade level.

“That’s a huge problem because the STAAR tests are written on grade level,” Smith said.

The school’s gifted/talented students were given 40 minutes per week of targeted service, delivered by the school librarian, not a certified gifted/talented teacher. This librarian was left to find her own curriculum.

Of the 32 classroom teachers and six support teachers, ten were brand new to teaching, seven were second-year teachers, and four were new to SAISD. Teachers were discouraged, and students and parents were disengaged.

“As can be the case in a low-performing school, I arrived to find that morale was very low,” Smith said.

Already, there are signs of change, mostly building on those new teachers and the stalwarts holding out hope for campus leadership that would help them help their students. Every day the faculty and staff celebrate the little victories, Smith said.

Principal Traci Smith (left) talks with second grade teacher Annabel Hernandez while filling out her classrooms ITF (individual tracking form). The form measures individual student success from a teacher’s perspective. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“I found staff members who were very on board, realizing that there’s potential here,” she added.

Smith frees her staff to communicate and think independently, something their previous administrator reportedly discouraged. Her office is open and welcoming, and she is constantly empowering her staff to make decisions.

“Teachers are growing. They’re attending lots and lots of professional development,” she said.

But this is only the beginning. Smith can only do so much with the tools given to her by previous district administrations. The changes Martinez proposes to bring to the district at large should vastly expand the potential for Smith and her team.

*Top Image: A student walks down the stairs at Stewart Elementary School.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.