San Antonio ISD is making plans to deliver on the campaign promises that led voters to approve a $450 million bond and a 13-cent tax rate increase. In a special meeting on Dec. 5, the SAISD school board saw a presentation from Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his executive team outlining exactly how they intend to maximize the impact of their new funds.

Martinez distilled the areas of impact to three main issues: enrollment trends, talent management to improve student success, and 21st century classrooms.

Enrollment Trends

Over the past eight years the district has been losing students. Current projections have the enrollment just under 52,500, down from more than 56,000 in 2006.

The district attributes some of this to the explosion of charter schools within and near SAISD. Right now there are 48 charter school campuses in or near SAISD. Three are new as of this year, and four more are scheduled to open next school year, totaling 52 by the 2017-18 school year. Three of those are on the Eastside, represented by Trustee James Howard (D2).

“They’re targeting certain communities,” Howard said. “It’s the areas that are socioeconomically poor.”

Meanwhile, Howard pointed out, families with the means to move north are being encouraged to do so by realtors and local marketing.

The district estimates that it lost 577 students to charter schools for the current school year, which translates to $6.2 million in funding. The situation, Martinez said, merits urgent action and bold steps, not against charters, but against complacency.

“These are real threats that we have. That’s why we want to be aggressive,” he said. “We want to give parents these choices, and hopefully they choose us.”

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board President Patti Radle, and board member Olga Hernandez address the inaugural class. Photo by Daniel Kleifgen.
Credit: Daniel Kleifgen / San Antonio Report

If the district isn’t careful, all the added funding from the TRE would go to offset the enrollment losses, Martinez said. He plans to be proactive to prevent that from happening.

Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) urged caution in attributing all loss to charters, and called for more data to see which students and which charters actually account for the district’s attrition.

“We have kids going to private schools that we’ve just given up on,” Trustee Ed Garza (D7) said. This population, he added, would diversify the economic base of students in the district.

One of the most effective initiatives to retain and grow enrollment is already happening. The TRE will allow SAISD to continue rolling out new programs and academies that bring innovative curriculum.

Already the Advanced Learning Academy (ALA) has brought 190 new students into the district from other districts, charters, or private schools. Young Men’s Leadership Academy (YMLA) has brought in 67 new students over the last two years. The conversion of campuses into PreK-8 academies has brought about the first increase in 6th grade enrollment in four years.

More innovation is on the horizon, thanks to the funds of the TRE. CAST Tech has already generated excitement and investment from the business community. Ogden Elementary will serve as a lab school for Relay Graduate School of Education, and Lamar Elementary  and Twain Middle School will become dual language academies. Lamar will also become a project based learning charter.

One new development announced at the board presentation is a district Montessori school. The details were discussed in closed session, but even the utterance of the words “public Montessori” has already generated excitement.

Existing academies will also continue to expand until they serve PreK-8. The rollout of the academy model is gradual, adding one year at a time. As this happens, the various feeder patterns will adjust, including some boundary shifting to be finalized in early 2017. Meetings with trustees and affected communities will begin right away.

The district also plans to use funds from the TRE to create an enrollment center, international welcome center, and various web based information portals aimed at engaging families and making it easier for them to explore their options within the district. At these centers, families can learn about district educational services, as well as “wraparound services” in the community that can help students stay healthy and secure.

Part of the effort to attract families will be a campus beautification plan.

“Like it or not, families are attracted to clean, attractive campuses,” Martinez said.

Talent Management to Improve Student Success

While students who need intervention might make up a small subgroup in many places, they make up the majority in SAISD. At least 66% of SAISD students are in need of some form of intervention.

Of SAISD’s 52,500 students, 25,784 are below grade level, 3,433 are over-aged (too old for high school), 12,968 have not mastered the STAAR test.

The district has developed new roles for teachers to help differentiate instruction and increase teacher retention. It aims to provide the kind of professional development and supportive environment that attracts and keeps top talent.

“Keeping academics at the forefront is the best way to retain our families,” Martinez said.

A teacher at Tafolla Middle School uses a smart board to teach a math lesson. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
A teacher at Tafolla Middle School uses a smart board to teach a math lesson. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

In addition to new teachers, master teachers, and multi-age accelerated class (MAC) teachers will provide the additional support a high-need population requires.

Master teachers, those with proven track records of student success, will take on extended school day responsibilities and larger classes, allowing newer teachers to focus on manageably-sized primary classes. Master teachers will also serve as mentors to the younger teachers.

MAC teachers will work with the highest need students. Their classes will have two or three grade levels in them, allowing students to remain with their age group, even if they cannot be promoted in all subjects. It keeps teachers from facing the dilemma of advancing students who are bound to struggle more or stigmatizing them by holding them back. This will be especially helpful for students who primarily struggle in one or two areas.

“Virtually every campus would have one of these classrooms,” Martinez said.

The MAC classrooms will not be repeating the same strategies that failed students the first time around. Project-based learning, gradual release of responsibility, socratic seminar, portfolios, and increased technology will give teachers a full arsenal of tools to engage students who are difficult to reach with the traditional model.

Those teachers will also engage families and community partners to strengthen the support network for students, and be part of increased summer services throughout the district.

Along with the professional development and innovative, supportive culture, teachers who become master teachers or MAC teachers will have access to $15,000 in incentive pay as well as Master’s programs. Partnerships with Relay, as well as the districts $46 million Teacher Incentive Fund (TIF) grant will support these initiatives.

21st Century Classrooms

“21st Century Classrooms” was one pillar of the campaign for the TRE. It’s a catchy phrase that really means infrastructure to access technology. 

SAISD classrooms currently lack needed technology infrastructure and equipment. Without it, students cannot learn to effectively use the tools that they will encounter in universities and the workplace as they are not learning how to leverage the internet and information technology to strengthen their education.

The bond and the TRE together will bring facilities up to date. To assess the needs and help guide the priorities, the district will be forming a 24-member Bond Citizens Advisory Committee. Members will be selected and appointed for 2-year terms, beginning in February 2017. The district will hire a chief operating officer as early as January, and will then begin the procurement process with an RFP for architects.

Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA) sent their first ever robotics team to the Alamo-FIRST (Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition on March 10-12. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Young Women’s Leadership Academy (YWLA) sent their first ever robotics team to the Alamo-FIRST (Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics competition on March 10-12. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Right now, the working group recommends that high school renovations and infrastructure upgrades included in the bond begin immediately, as they tend to go slower and have a more widespread potential for disruption. After that, middle and elementary schools can be scheduled in order to minimize disruption.

The district has committed to a robust communications campaign which will keep families and community stakeholders informed and allow for ample feedback.

Bekah McNeel

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