San Antonio Independent School District board chair Patti Radle assured hundreds of representatives of the business community on Thursday that the district is experiencing a new day of focus and transparency with Superintendent Pedro Martinez at the helm.
“We are a different board from what we were five years ago,” Radle said as she introduced Martinez during the “State of the District” breakfast with the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.
Radle proposed that leadership of Martinez and a united board should inspire confidence in those wondering how to support the city’s largest inner city school district. It is confidence that once might have been shaken by counter-productive board decisions and dismal student outcomes. Now, Radle and Martinez said, the district is committed to major change, it’s going about it in the best, not the easiest, ways.
“We are so focused on our students, so focused on the right things, so focused on our mission,” Radle said.
The full room at the Pearl Stables indicated that the business community does indeed stand ready to support SAISD, a point made by both San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Board Chair Renée Flores and its CEO Richard Perez.
The event was moved from its original location at Sunset Station, as ticket sales surpassed expectations. Many attendees represented the most successful organizations and businesses in San Antonio, such as philanthropist Harvey E. Najim and Tom Frost of Frost Bank. Five members of City Council and State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) were also in attendance. Their interest points to the crucial role of SAISD in the success of San Antonio’s core and, by extension, its future.
While business and political involvement could pose as many questions as answers, Radle maintained that Martinez’s priorities were iron-clad.
“He doesn’t want any distraction that takes us away from the success of our students,” said Radle.
Martinez asked for very specific support and involvement from the community. He asked for support during the tough conversations inevitably ahead. Changes, especially the bold ones Martinez is calling for, always involve some discomfort and pushback.
“When these changes start occurring, it’s critical that our community is behind us,” Martinez said.
He also laid out exciting opportunities for the business community to get involved in SAISD’s efforts to expand student options after high school. Martinez wants to see students thinking about their careers early. Job shadowing programs will be key to helping kids think strategically about their futures.
Ramirez reminded attendees that SA Works had just such an opportunity coming up on Feb. 2, and that the program was still looking for more businesses to open their doors to students.
Thursday’s address marks the beginning of what Martinez calls “Phase II” of his five-year plan to transform SAISD.
In the first phase, Martinez and his team laid out goals for the district and individual campuses. Among the goals were increased college readiness, more students learning at advanced levels, and increased performance in reading and math. Now, he said, it’s time for strategy.
Martinez presented his strategy as five pillars: academic excellence, talent management, culture shift, stakeholder engagement, and fiscal management.
For Martinez, academic excellence means raising performance across the board. Even from those students considered high-performing now. Only 7% of SAISD students perform at an advanced level. Martinez wants to see that number hit 30%, well above state averages.
His plan will raise the bar at every level.
“We are putting our stake in the ground and making sure that every child in our system is literate by third grade,” Martinez said.
Three middle schools are currently in the process of applying for International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, which will increase participation in high school programs at Burbank High School, and soon Jefferson High School, which is in the process of applying.
Magnet programs, early college high schools, and career pathways will allow students to accumulate degree-oriented college credits, and stacking certifications.
For students focused on specific career pathways, SAISD will work with Alamo Colleges to ensure that students earn credits that will count toward degrees.
Students whom are already advanced, gifted and talented (GT) programs will be fortified at every grade level, with the first targeted GT campuses opening in 2017. Of course, identifying these kids presents a tension that Martinez must resolve. Universal screening will help identify those students who demonstrate giftedness in ways other than academic achievement.
“The traditional ways of identifying our gifted, frankly, don’t work for children in poverty,” Martinez said.
The challenges faced by kids living in poverty must be dealt with across the board. He encourages staff to get to know individual students and understand their family situation, not so that they can lower expectations, but so that they can give kids the tools they need to excel.
“Don’t make excuses. Embrace (the child’s situation). Know that, and let’s shape the work around it,” said Martinez.
In a conversation after the breakfast, Martinez discussed the balance of reality and expectations. He said that when a child is under-resourced, it is the duty of the school to engage partnerships to make up the deficit. Simply having children clothed and fed, however, isn’t the goal. With strong community partnerships like Communities in Schools, the SA Food Bank and others available for practical support, Martinez encourages teachers to express their love through expanding the child’s future.
“Love them to Harvard. Love them out of their situation,” he said.
Having a strong staff of teachers that love the kids is another strategic pillar. SAISD has historically hired the bulk of their new staff in the summer, causing them to miss out on talent that gets snatched up early. Martinez wants 50% of new teacher hiring to be done by April, a goal the district will meet and exceed this year.
Martinez also wants principal and teacher residency programs where staff can, like doctors, learn from master teachers and principals.
The culture shift pillar involves many new ideas and big changes aimed at raising expectations, but also some expansion of good things already in place. Martinez pointed out six bright spots in the district: Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Young Men’s Leadership Academy, Hawthorne Academy, Bonham Academy, Travis Early College High School, and Lamar Elementary School.
“We have a history of innovation in our district, and it’s been working,” said Martinez.
He now wants to take that innovation to scale.
Stakeholder engagement and fiscal management, the last two pillars of Martinez’s strategy have mostly to do with the promise of openness, transparency, and accountability. Martinez is ready to engage partners from every sector, as long as they advance the mission of SAISD.
“We are bringing the smartest people in our community to work with us,” said Martinez.
When he looked for partners who do a good job helping students align middle school and high school education with their college and career aspirations, the clear expert on this was KIPP San Antonio Public Schools.
Martinez worked with KIPP to develop a chart of target local and state universities ranging from community colleges to Rice University. The chart shows students the ACT, SAT, and GPA they will need to qualify for admission, so that they can place their goals in context of the work required to achieve them.
As resources are spent, Martinez plans to track them closely. Each effort must be aligned with the goals, and show acceptable academic return on investment. There will be no wasted energy or money on scattershot programs. This is holistic transformation.
*Top image: SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez gives the State of the District address. Photo by Scott Ball.