SAISD Executive Director of Accountability, Research and Testing Theresa Urrabazo presents 2014-2015 data to the SAISD board. Photo by Robert Rivard.
SAISD Executive Director of Accountability, Research and Testing Theresa Urrabazo presents 2014-2015 data to the SAISD board. Photo by Robert Rivard.

When newly hired Superintendent Pedro Martinez presented his five-year plan to San Antonio Independent School District trustees on July 20, he made the case for profound change in setting new goals and holding district and campus staff accountable for academic outcomes.

Martinez won’t celebrate his first 100 days in office until November, yet his detailed plan was unlike anything school board members had seen from past superintendents.

Three weeks later, on Aug. 7, the Texas Education Agency released its annual report card for the state’s public schools, and any doubt about Martinez’s call to action were erased as the district and community digested the ratings.

Even after the Texas Legislature relaxed the TEA’s mandatory standards during the recent session, San Antonio’s biggest inner city school district still had 19 failing campuses in its 93-campus network. Martinez, for one, wasn’t willing to measure the district by the relaxed standards. Instead, he asked staff to grade the district based on the former measures.

By that standard, the district has 37 failing campuses, meaning as many district schools are failing as are achieving standards with distinction, with 19 in between, meeting standards, but just that.

MET standards and improvements required_SAISD board presentation

Martinez met with the school board again Monday with the new school year soon to be underway. For more than one hour, the TEA’s 2014-15 data was parsed and discussed. Theresa Urrabazo, the district’s executive director of accountability, research and testing, led the room through 18 pages of facts and figures breaking down SAISD performance by grade, subject matter, and race and ethnicity.

There was enough good news in the report to give optimists hope. There was enough bad news in the report to remind district leaders how much work lies ahead if real change is to be achieved. Click here to download the report.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez – then a candidate for the position – answers reporters' questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez – then a candidate for the position – answers reporters’ questions during a press conference. Photo by Scott Ball. Credit: San Antonio Report file photo

“Let’s recognize that we have 43 campuses that met the state standards with distinction, and 31 more that met state standards,” Martinez told trustees as his district Cabinet and a full house looked on. “If the regulations had not been relaxed, we would have had 37 campuses that were rated Improvement Required. That is why the 10 goals we have set going forward are so aggressive.

“We are not happy, and neither are our principals or our staff,” Martinez said. “And we can’t expect to get better unless we take a very candid look at exactly where we are at today.”

School Board President Patti Radle (D5) spoke first, but was echoed later by other trustees when she said, “You have a team here that is behind you all the way.”

Whatever political or personality differences exist or have existed among trustees in recent years that have seen board turmoil in selecting and supporting superintendents, there now seems to be common cause among all seven trustees who seem united in a shared belief that the low-performing district has to improve.

Trustee Olga Hernandez (D6) pointed with concern to the high number of underperforming middle schools in the district.

“If there is a level right now that needs urgent support, it is our middle schools,” Martinez said, adding that long-term improvements in high school academic outcomes will not come until middle school students perform better.

Speaking about a working breakfast he attended earlier Monday at Jefferson High School, Trustee and former Board President Ed Garza (D7) described the intensity of a meeting at which the school’s principal led faculty members through a presentation of the TEA data about the district and Jefferson, which led to discussion of how the school could change current practices to improve.

“It was really refreshing to see the same message at the school level, too,” Garza said.

Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) also sounded an optimistic note, even as he noted the huge gaps between current measures in areas like college-ready high school graduates and Martinez’s ambitious five-year plan. Only 5% of SAISD’s current graduates post college-ready ACT and SAT test scores, compared to 25% statewide. Martinez wants to raise SAISD’s rate to 43% over the next five years.

“I do genuinely look forward to the future and I have great hope,” Lecholop told Martinez.

How Martinez intends to implement his plans involves a lot more than unfolds at a school board meeting.

In the three days after his initial July 20 presentation to the school board, Martinez gathered elementary, middle school and high school principals on successive days to share his five-year plan and invite campus leaders to assemble in-school teams to determine exactly how the individual schools would assess their strengths and weaknesses and devise a first-year improvement plan.

“I don’t want to say people are openly embracing this plan, but we are finding an appreciation for what we are doing,” Martinez said. “It’s going to be a messy year, but we will get every school leader focused on long-terms goals. There has to be ownership of this. Right now there isn’t collective ownership across the district. This is the start.”

Martinez said he purposely directed staff to set aside the TEA ratings and apply the older, stricter ratings to give everyone a more accurate picture of district performance and to underscore the necessity for transformative change.

The summer meetings that began in July also led to key faculty leaders at each campus being invited to return to work one week early to help build the first year plan, a move designed to give teachers a seat at the table.

Martinez, meanwhile, is meeting with the 7,400 district employees, one group at a time to preach his change message. He said he talks about a changing, ambitious city and the necessity of the district is being part of that growth.

“I met with PE (physical education) teachers Friday, I met with librarians Thursday, and I met with bus drivers today,” Martinez said. “With every group of employees I am making the case of why we have to do better.”

Martinez said a district turnaround is a 10-year proposition.

Pedro Martinez' goals_SAISD board presentation

“When I interviewed I told the trustees I wanted a contract for as long as state law allows and that is five years in Texas,” Martinez said. “We have five-year goals, but I say this is a 10-year journey. When you look at the Northside and Northeast ISDs, look how long their superintendents were in place.

“When I go out and talk to employees, they say, ‘We want you to stay a long time, too.’”

Martinez said SAISD needs to achieve levels of leadership stability that lead to the best high school principals staying in place 10 to 20 years and middle and elementary school principals serving for 10 years.

Behind the scenes, he has been quietly building a district management team that blends current Cabinet members with new leaders recruited from outside the district. In his biggest move, he reassigned Rachel Cervantes, the senior executive director for curriculum and instruction, who will retire at year’s end, and hired Lisa Riggs, an educator whose work he knew from his prior work in Nevada.

Martinez said there were 50 candidates for the position, six of them from inside the district. Melinda Baiza, the selection committee’s second choice for the job, also was hired by redefining an open management position and naming her assistant superintendent for instruction, giving her oversight of principal training programs, advanced and gifted students, and the district’s underachieving 37 schools.

Three of the district’s campuses scored the highest possible rating by the TEA, meaning they scored Distinction Designations in all seven measurement categories: reading, mathematics, science, social studies, student progress, closing performance gaps and postsecondary readiness. Those schools were the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, Barkley-Ruiz Elementary School and Highland Hills Elementary School.

Martinez announced the promotion of Highland Hills Principal Joanealda DeLeon to a new assistant superintendent position in which she will oversee a seven-school cluster including Lanier High School that is the focus of a University of Virginia School Leadership Turnaround Program.

With more district leadership changes coming in the coming months, Martinez said the district will be subjecting every district program to a performance and financial review. Reallocating resources is essential to give principals the tools they need to achieve improved academic outcomes, he said, and the only option off the table is adding staff.

Martinez said the flurry of activity now underway would culminate in January 2016 when he delivers the State of the District address and lays out plans for the 2016-17 academic year when the pace of change will intensify.

*Featured/top image: SAISD Executive Director of Accountability, Research and Testing Theresa Urrabazo presents 2014-2015 data to the SAISD board. Photo by Robert Rivard.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.