The search for a new SAISD superintendent has narrowed to a final candidate, Reno, Nevada’s Pedro Martinez, but the races for two seats on the board are still in hands of the voters, and every vote counts.
Covering the majority of SAISD’s Eastside territory — though conspicuously leaving out the Dignowity Hill Historic District thanks to gerrymandering— District 2 contains some of the lowest performing public school campuses in the city, including its high school, Sam Houston High School, and middle schools Wheatley and Davis. Many of the District 2 schools’ struggles to succeed can be traced to deeply entrenched poverty and lack of resources and public or private investment in the area. In SAISD as a whole, 93.4% of students are economically disadvantaged. The Eastside has long struggled with particularly high levels of violence and mobility. For decades the area was anathema to developers. Realtors rarely if ever mentioned it to families with school age children.
All that finally seems to be changing, as public and private entities turn their attention to the long-neglected Eastside.
The Eastside Promise Neighborhood, a $25 million grant-funded initiative to improve education outcomes for the five schools within its footprint, Bowden ES, Wheatley MS, Washington ES, Pickett Academy and Tynan Early Childhood Education Center. The most noticeable initiative underway right now is the conversion of Wheatley MS into a community school, where wraparound services will be available to students and residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
With SAISD’s 2010 bond, $45 million flowed into the District 2 schools, resulting in a new career and technology building at Sam Houston HS, the brand new Cameron ES, and renovations at Hirsch ES.
The near-Eastside is also a target for high performing charters like IDEA Public Schools, which took over the formerly private Carver Academy in 2012. SAISD has seen success with its own specialized campuses, magnet programs, and in-district charters. In addition to the early college high school on the campus of St. Phillips College in District 2, SAISD will convert W.W. White ES into the Young Men’s Leadership Academy at the beginning of next school year.
Through public and private investment, federal grants, and increased non-profit activity, the community will look to the school board to see that resources are efficiently and fairly mobilized. They are looking for leadership to harness the momentum for the good of the District 2 students.
Jason Mims believes he is the right man for the job.
After graduating from Sam Houston HS, Mims went on to Notre Dame on an ROTC scholarship. He retired from the US Army as a Lieutenant Colonel after 21 years, just in time for his son to enter middle school. The more involved he became in his son’s education, the more he realized the need for guidance most students experience as they move into middle school and high school. He got involved with the public schools in the Florida city where he retired, and saw great outcomes.
“I crafted an ability and passion for helping young people navigate the public education system and achieve destinations they might not otherwise achieve,” said Mims.
A return home to San Antonio be with his mother-in-law through cancer treatments brought Mims and his family back to the Eastside in 2011. He immediately began to engage the administration at Sam Houston HS to see how he could help students at his alma mater meet their potential.
Around this time, SA2020 and the office of then-Mayor Julián Castro were rolling out big visions for the future of education in San Antonio. Destination College resonated with what Mims sees as his ministry to students.
“I sensed that there was political leadership helping young people look beyond high school,” said Mims.
Mims participated in Leadership SAISD, and began to seek ways to unlock and channel resources to students. In his experience he sees that the resources do exist through grants, non-profits, mentorships, and public programs. Students just need help accessing them.
Online enrichment is one resource he would like to see brought to classrooms in SAISD. He believes that this blended learning technique should be available for those performing above grade level as well as students trying to catch up.
Mims plans to call upon his breadth of experience to lead the district. His military and non-profit experience have exposed him to the various pathways available for students to excel beyond what their financial situation would lead them to believe.
“I call it my academic excellence bucket,” said Mims.
He hopes to unseat long time incumbent James Howard, who has represented the district since 1998.
James Howard (Incumbent)
Howard also is a product of SAISD. He has a degree in music education from Prairie View A&M, and currently works as an employee relations specialist for the Texas American Federation of Teacher.
After years of representing the district, Howard is outspoken in his stance that the greatest challenge for educators and administrators is lack of resources available to families in the area.
“Our families face many obstacles, including crime rates, poverty wages, unemployment, housing stock, access to health care, and parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet,” Howard said.
While he honors the resilience of District 2 residents, he claims that the effects of poverty and long time neglect of local government have done significant damage. By the time children in poverty reach school, they are already behind their wealthier peers in language acquisition and literacy.
Where resources lack, Howard believes that pride is essential. When Sam Houston HS was on the district’s chopping block years ago, Howard worked with a group of neighbors to save the school and seek additional resources to help improve the school’s educational outcomes.
“With a united Sam Houston Community, we not only saved our school, but rejuvenated a sense of pride in our whole Eastside community,” said Howard.
He also sees early childhood education and family involvement as ways to combat the effects of poverty. Two of SAISD’s four early childhood education centers, Tynan and Carroll are in District 2, and under Superintendent Sylvester Perez, who will retire at the end of the school year, the Parent-Family Liaison position was added to every school in SAISD.
Howard maintains that progress is being made in District 2. He points to statistics showing that more students are in school. Graduation rates are climbing at Sam Houston HS, and Wheatley MS is #1 in attendance of SAISD’s 14 middle schools. He also sees students experiencing more success. Sam Houston HS’s Academic Decathalon team finished 5th in the state, and the school’s 2013 graduating class collected $2 million in college scholarships.
“While I am proud of the accomplishments of our students, we must continue to provide even more opportunities and resources for our children,” said Howard.
He sees that battle as one to be fought on the state level, where inadequate funding has contributed to the achievement gap, and he has lobbied with other board members for ways to unlock new streams of revenue into the district.
Howard is excited about the investment, improvements and successes experienced by his district in the past year, and says that he looks forward to working with the new superintendent to see that things continue on that trajectory.
Residents of District 2 have had 17 years to evaluate the service rendered by James Howard. They now have the democratic opportunity to decide whether he should continue as a board trustee, or whether it’s time for a change. Whatever the outcome, let’s hope that the choice is made by the many who are effected, instead of the usual few who show up to vote.