What if we declared that by 2040 — the year our pre-K students enter the workforce — poverty, obesity, and illiteracy will no longer be synonymous with our city? 

Yes, this declaration is bold, especially after the learning loss and negative mental health impact on our children from the COVID-19 pandemic. But if all our public investment decisions, policies, and accountability actions were informed by data-driven rubrics to measure impact on our most vulnerable and underserved children, that bold declaration becomes possible.

San Antonio has a rare window of opportunity to review the impact of the pandemic and re-center the vision for our city’s future with a laser focus on our youngest citizens. If local leaders, businesses, and community groups rally around such a bold declaration, it will transform into a united vision.

The vision

Imagine a world-class metro center where all children become literate, emotionally intelligent, healthy citizens who live happy and purposeful lives in inclusive, safe, and diverse neighborhoods. Over the course of this transformation, San Antonio can become the global center of creativity and innovation resulting in high-paying jobs in our target industries, like aerospace, bioscience, cybersecurity, financial services, manufacturing, and technology. 

San Antonio will be known as a solutions-driven city if we begin this transformation with vision and purpose. It’s possible with commitment.

Commitment matters 

During my first term-and-a-half serving on the San Antonio Independent School District board between 2010 and 2015, SAISD was consistently one of the lowest-performing school districts in Texas. The children of SAISD, often from high-poverty families, were performing below grade level. Those who graduated high school had low college completion rates and required significant core subject remediation.  

During that same five-year period, there was a transition of new board members and superintendents. Starting in the 2012-13 school year, SAISD rallied around a vision commitment to become “a national model urban school district where every child graduates and is educated so that he or she is prepared to be a contributing member of the community.”  This vision statement became our “just cause” when hiring Pedro Martinez as superintendent in 2015. Since then, our vision has been the gravity for all goals, and budget and policy decisions.  

A direct result of the district’s vision commitment was recognition as the most improved school district in Texas in August 2019 by the Texas Education Agency. For the first time in decades, SAISD was realizing higher growth rates in student academic achievement and college readiness indicators than the rest of Texas. 

Pandemic wipe-out 

Seven months after the turnaround celebration, the global pandemic halted our positive trajectory and our students’ academic decline began immediately. Due to the high concentration of poverty in the district, the negative impact on SAISD was more severe than in other local school districts and in Texas.

SAISD saw a 42% drop in the rate of third grade students who were on grade level in reading, from 31% in 2019 to 18% in 2021. In math, these students went from 33% on grade level in 2019 to 8% in 2021, a 76% drop. The district also saw a decline in the percent of students meeting college-ready criteria and enrolled in college. Last week, the district released its Fall 2021 Beginning-of-Year Assessment results. Across all grade levels, the decline continues into this school year, impacting the younger grade levels hardest.    

And although we were justified, the district took its eye off the vision commitment and shifted to a new one emphasizing health and safety over student academic achievement. Student-to-teacher, face-to-face connectedness was lost.  

Powerful partnerships for recovery 

There are not enough hours in a school day for districts to adequately engage every student who requires academic and social-emotional interventions. This will require powerful local partnerships and strategic investments with the city, county, colleges, universities, school districts, nonprofits, target industries, and residents.  

Examples of how public dollars can be leveraged and aligned to transform the lives of children include data-driven after-school and extended-day education enrichment programs located at parks and other community centers near Title I schools, free broadband internet service in neighborhoods and apartment complexes, free health and nutrition programs, access to academic and life skills mentors, and new college readiness resources located where our kids congregate after school, in our neighborhoods. 

Vision asks, “What if?” What if we declared that by 2040 poverty, obesity, and illiteracy will no longer be synonymous with our city? But for this vision to be realized, we need to be asking, “How?” How can we make it happen?

Pursuing this audacious declaration will empower students attending schools today and graduating from high schools in Bexar County between 2023 and 2040 to become the first generation to reverse the cycle of poverty. As these empowered young graduates become adult members of our community, the San Antonio metro center will eradicate poverty, illiteracy, and obesity.    

Ed Garza

Ed Garza is a member of the San Antonio Independent School District Board of Trustees. He also served on the city council and as mayor of San Antonio.