SAISD's Highlands High School will become an in-district charter.
In-district charter Texans Can Academies at Highlands High School will be located on the same campus as Highlands High School, starting in 2018-19. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio Independent School District board voted unanimously Monday to bring Dallas-based charter operator Texans Can Academies to Highlands High School for students who have dropped out or are behind one or more years.

It was the board’s second approval of an in-district charter deal in as many weeks. However, unlike the district’s hiring of Democracy Prep last week to completely take over operations at Stewart Elementary, Texans Can Academies’ reach will have limited scope, serving 250 students in 2018-19.

Eligible students will be able to opt in or out of the program. Highlands is the first school approved through the agreement with Texans Can Academies, but the district could approve additional locations.

SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price said this pilot program provides an option for those who want to remain enrolled at a comprehensive high school, but require more “extensive support to get them on a strong trajectory to graduate.”

Texans Can Academies describes itself as offering “a second chance to any students who have struggled in a traditional high school setting.” SAISD previously conducted interest meetings with parents from both Highlands and Lanier high schools, although Monday night only approved the contract for the former.

“I would be so anxious to see the people in the Lanier community benefit from such services,” SAISD Board President Patti Radle said, encouraging communities at other schools to  examine the program and evaluate if it could be a good fit at their campus.

Highlands Principal Julio Garcia spoke at Monday night’s meeting about how the district tried to get feedback before bringing the proposal to the board.

Garcia said he collected feedback from 61 faculty members, 89 students, and 44 parents. Of all those who responded, more than 85 percent approved.

Texans Can Academies at Highlands will operate out of classroom and office space at the Eastside high school.

The dropout rate at Highlands High School is higher than the district average. Nearly 12 percent of Highland’s class of 2017 is projected to have dropped out before graduation, while SAISD’s projected overall dropout rate is 9.7 percent. In 2016, the state’s dropout rate was 6.2 percent.

One-third of Highlands’ students are “over-aged” students who are behind one or more academic years.

Highlands dropouts alone comprise 16 percent of the district’s total dropouts. Lanier High School’s student body is responsible for 14 percent of the district’s dropouts, and Sam Houston High School claims 10 percent. District officials said by recovering the students who dropped out at Highlands alone, the district could improve its overall dropout rate by 2 percentage points. 

Assistant Superintendent of High Schools Daniel Girard said about 120 students who would otherwise attend SAISD schools already attend San Antonio Texans Can Academy, which exists independently of the district. Creating an in-district charter for over-aged or at-risk students provides an opportunity for the district to add to its enrollment.

SAISD’s agreement sets specific goals for Texans Can Academies at Highlands High School over the next five years, including reducing the dropout rate from 39 percent to 20 percent and improving the percentage of students who graduate, continue, or obtain a GED from 63 percent to 80 percent.

The SAISD Office of Innovations will monitor these goals and publish reports on the campus’ performance each year. The district will use this to decide whether to place the campus on probation, revoke its status, or renew the agreement on a three- or five-year cycle.

The management contract approved by SAISD on Monday stipulates that the ideal mix of students would include 80 percent of those living in the Highlands High School attendance zone, and 20 percent from outside, although this can fluctuate with enrollment. District staff said 50 percent of the students should be 17 or older.

Amanda Aranda-Buenfil, president of the Highlands Parent Teacher Student Association, spoke before the board’s vote, asking trustees to reconsider supporting the agreement. She said the process didn’t provide enough opportunity for feedback.

When parents did gather to talk about Texans Can Academies, Aranda-Buenfil said they opposed the proposal.

“We should focus on our own students instead of bringing new ones in,” she said. “What is the rush on making Highlands High School into a charter school?”

SAISD drew criticism from the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel at last week’s meeting for a deal that will convert Stewart Elementary into an in-district charter run by Democracy Prep. Under the agreement, teachers at Stewart must apply to remain at the campus, and if hired, would become Democracy Prep employees.

Alliance President Shelley Potter said the agreement at Highlands is just another example of the district “contracting out” the education of SAISD students.

“The district can run its own program,” she said, addressing the board. Potter called the “march toward contracting out” SAISD schools “disturbing, to say the least.”

Potter said she has seen this trend play out around the country, and believes it will end with neighborhood schools being stripped from community control.

Texans Can Academies also will hire its own staff, including a principal, administrative team, and teachers.

Texans Can Academies students would still be able to take advantage of the fine arts, athletics, career and technical education, and extracurricular offerings at Highlands.

Girard said this allows students at the in-district charter to remain “engaged within their home school.”

Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) said this agreement will provide another tool to catch the district up from where it is which is “so far behind.” It also opens up the possibility of additional funding made available by the State to districts that partner with charter operators.

“This is one more option in a suite of services that we have in our district to serve at-risk students,” he said.

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Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.