The signage in the Fort Sam Houston ISD school board room.
The signage in the Fort Sam Houston ISD school board room. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A fence outlines the boundaries of Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, dividing the civilian part of the city from the section cordoned off for military operations. Similar barriers exist at Lackland and Randolph Air Force Bases, and on Wednesday, a new dividing line emerged.

Of the 15 school districts in Bexar County, only the three military school districts received top marks from the state in the Texas Education Agency’s accountability system. Fort Sam Houston, Lackland, and Randolph Field ISDs were all graded an A, which the TEA says indicates “exemplary performance.” The majority of other districts in the county received a C or D.

Lackland Superintendent Burnie Roper credits high expectations set by the district and parents for his students’ strong performance.

“Because they move around so much, [military families] are exposed to all types of educational systems – some good, some bad,” Roper said. “They are really picky about where their kids go to school because of them having to pick up and move every three or four years… High expectations are definitely one of the things that we have at Lackland and I’m sure at the other military districts.”

Roper also credits strong engagement with families, who, in large part, live and work in close proximity to the schools on base. He described his base as a “small community.”

Many families stay at military bases for just a few years before moving to the next assignment, resulting in highly mobile student populations. The district and teachers place special emphasis on creating a familial culture to welcome new arrivals, Roper said.

Julian Treviño, a former school board president in San Antonio ISD and current educational consultant, points to the culture as a reason for military school districts’ success in accountability ratings.

“People live on post, or on base, or in close proximity… and they know one another. The commander’s kids go to school there, the colonel’s kids go to school there, the major’s kids go to school there, your boss’ kids go to school there,” Treviño said. “The culture and community has a lot to do with it.”

In addition, he said, military careers foster a dependence on studying and a strong work ethic, and when children see this dedication to career, the diligence becomes contagious.

But there are other factors at play outside the classroom that can impact a student’s performance, Treviño added – poverty being one of them. Military school districts serve populations with lower levels of poverty, which some have said make it easier for the districts to achieve at high levels.

“In the non-military school systems, you have varying percentages of low socioeconomic children. In the military districts, you don’t have significant amounts,” Treviño said. “It is the opposite, so that is a significant difference to me.”

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez has repeatedly emphasized that poverty plays a role in student achievement.

“Children that live in poverty come in below grade level, and that is consistent everywhere,” Martinez said at a Wednesday afternoon briefing on the accountability ratings. “They need extra support.”

The district that scored the highest on the state’s accountability system, Randolph Field ISD, has the highest median income of the county’s school districts at just under $90,000, per 2016 American Community Survey data. In comparison, the district that scored the lowest, Edgewood ISD, had the lowest median income at just above $28,000.

But many educators agree that median income isn’t the only indicator of poverty. SAISD Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury uses a number of factors to define poverty in his inner-city district: median income, single-parent homes, family home ownership, and educational attainment.

When looking at family composition, military school districts have higher rates of two-parent households than any of their peers. In Fort Sam Houston ISD, for example, 83.8 percent of families are comprised of married-couple families, compared to San Antonio ISD’s 53.2 percent. Lackland and Randolph Field ISDs’ rates were both above 85 percent. None of the San Antonio districts that scored a C or lower cracked 75 percent.

Educational attainment paints a similar picture. In all local military school districts, close to 100 percent of those living on base have a high school degree or higher. Save for Judson ISD, all districts that scored a C or lower show less than 71 percent of the area population earning a high school degree or higher.

Fort Sam Houston. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“Parents really care… and the education of their children is extremely important because a lot of them obviously have some level of education – whether that education is through the military or through civilian schools,” Roper said of his district families. “Our parents — not that other parents don’t — know for sure the importance of getting a good education. I believe that is instilled in their kids, it is kind of a requirement.”

And then, of course, there is the most widely used indicator of poverty – the percentage of children who qualify for free and reduced lunches based on federal standards.

In military districts, this figure is low. Randolph Field is considered 8 percent economically disadvantaged, Lackland 27 percent, and Fort Sam Houston 30 percent. Throughout the rest of San Antonio, numbers are higher. San Antonio ISD qualifies at 91 percent, South San and Harlandale ISDs at 87 percent, Northside ISD at 48 percent, and North East ISD at 47 percent.

Some educators have been critical of the TEA’s accountability system for penalizing schools with higher levels of poverty. While all schools and districts have the ability to receive an A – Commissioner Mike Morath ensured this was feasible – some say it is harder for poor districts to achieve at high levels.

One category in the grading scheme seeks to take this into account. Morath built in the relative performance category, that measures the progress students are making relative to their peers at similar schools or districts.

“What I like about this system, though, is that it recognizes that children are starting at different levels. And it recognizes that I’m compared to a similar district,” Martinez said of SAISD.

Peer districts are determined by the level of economically disadvantaged students. The TEA applies a curve to this system that benefits districts with higher populations of economically disadvantaged students.

Credit: Courtesy / Texas Education Agency

Whereas Lackland, Fort Sam, and Randolph Field ISDs scored As overall, each district scored lower in relative performance, with Lackland and Randolph Field scoring a D when compared to peer districts with similar poverty levels. Fort Sam Houston ISD scored a C.

Roper said he is still trying to make sense of this area of the grading system.

“When you are dealing with kids, [it] doesn’t mean that because the kids are economically disadvantaged, that they are not going to perform well,” Roper said. “[Districts] may have the same percentage of economically disadvantaged students and one may perform high, and one may perform low. What are all those factors in between that contribute to them being high or those being low? I think it is complicated.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.