Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, San Antonio ISD (SAISD) Superintendent Pedro Martinez, and North East ISD (NEISD) Superintendent Brian Gottardy, participate in a panel moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard on Oct. 6, 2016. Photo by Mary Flannigan for SAYL.
Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods, San Antonio ISD (SAISD) Superintendent Pedro Martinez, and North East ISD (NEISD) Superintendent Brian Gottardy, participate in a panel moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard on Oct. 6, 2016. Photo by Mary Flannigan for SAYL.

More robust and accessible pre-K and early literacy programming and a genuine statewide commitment to educational funding are critical to addressing current elementary reading gaps and their lifelong repercussions, said the superintendents of San Antonio’s three largest school districts at a panel discussion Friday.

“In Texas, really, it’s a simple question: What do we want, and what are we willing to pay for?” Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said in front of an audience of 270 members of the business, educational, and philanthropic communities who convened at the Pearl Stable. “And in our state, that has been skewed. We say we want this, and we’re only willing to pay for that. And the Supreme Court basically refused to connect those things together.”

Woods was referring to the Texas Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the state’s public school funding system as constitutional, while nevertheless encouraging the Legislature to implement “transformational, top-to-bottom reforms.” Like Superintendents Brian Gottardy of North East ISD (NEISD) and Pedro Martinez of San Antonio ISD (SAISD), Woods fears without a court ruling to compel this change, lawmakers in the 2017 legislative session might actually decrease educational funding in the face of budgetary challenges.

That would put an added strain on the kinds of interventions all three leaders know are necessary to ensure students with fewer resources at home have the same opportunities as their more affluent neighbors.

One such intervention at the top of the list for all three superintendents was bringing more targeted, full-day pre-K and literacy programming to the highest-need students.

“I think that’s our biggest challenge,” Gottardy explained. “What we’re seeing over the last five to 10 years in (NEISD) is that many more students are coming into our schools that are in a high at-risk and high economically disadvantaged population. Many of those people are coming in behind.”

The panel, moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard, was hosted by San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL), an organization founded in 1984 that partners community volunteers with struggling elementary readers. Volunteers, called “Reading Buddies,” read with students for one hour a day once a week. Last year, the organization provided one-on-one reading buddies to 1,374 students across 68 schools.

The San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL) luncheon took place at the Pearl Stable on Oct. 7, 2016. Photo by Mary Flannigan for SAYL.
The San Antonio Youth Literacy (SAYL) luncheon took place at the Pearl Stable on Oct. 7, 2016. Photo by Mary Flannigan for SAYL.

According to SAYL’s website, children who are not reading proficiently in third grade have a four times greater chance of dropping out of high school. Crime statistics show how this disadvantage has major social repercussions: 40% of Bexar County inmates, for instance, do not have a high school diploma, and 68% of people arrested for all crimes in the U.S. are illiterate.

Ideally, schools would put more students on a track to an educated and productive life by providing strong pre-K programming. Many studies have shown that such programs pay far greater dividends then later interventions.

Unfortunately, state funding only covers half-day preschool, according to Gottardy. This means children whose families can’t afford private, full-day services are already at a significant disadvantage before they reach elementary school.

If early childhood educational funding is a worry for NEISD and NISD, whose combined 172,000 students include some of the wealthiest in the city, then for SAISD the situation is even more challenging. According to Martinez, 93% of the district’s 53,000 students are economically disadvantaged, putting them at significantly higher risk of entering kindergarten with little or no literacy.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez outlines details about the new program. Photo by Scott Ball.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks at a recent press conference. Photo by Scott Ball.

Growing up in poverty, Martinez says, children are exposed to a smaller vocabulary, and few, if any, books. According to SAYL, while in middle income neighborhoods the ratio of books per child is 13-to-1, in low income communities there is only one age appropriate book per 300 children.

“It’s not the fault of the parents,” Martinez told the Rivard Report. “I mean, they’re working two jobs. They’re doing the best they can. You know, I grew up in poverty. I (was never) exposed to books until I went to school. And, a lot of it, frankly, is that parents just don’t know.”

With 50% of the district’s students moving schools during the school year, low-income children’s early childhood and elementary education is also frequently disrupted, making it more difficult for teachers to implement coherent academic plans.

Martinez points to community initiatives like SAYL’s Reading Buddies and its distribution of 11,600 books to students this year as an important start in raising parental awareness. But just encouraging families to read to their children, he says, is not enough once major gaps have already formed.

What students need, Martinez argues, is a targeted diagnostic that empowers teachers and parents to focus on the particular components of literacy that a child is struggling with. That’s just what SAISD teachers are implementing in the NWEA MAPS Assessment, a personalized literacy diagnostic which rolled out this year. Accessible across districts, Martinez believes the tool may help with student transience as well.

Martinez doesn’t think this or any particular strategy is a silver bullet. What matters to him is collaborating, thinking systemically, and trying out research-based innovations. All three superintendents agreed that community initiatives like SAYL and district-wide strategies can only go as far as their funding permits.

Diamond smiles at the completion of yet another book with her Reading Buddy Darryl Byrd. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Diamond smiles at the completion of yet another book with her Reading Buddy Darryl Byrd. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“All of the Reading Buddies in the room can testify to the fact that, especially with a struggling student, this is a very personal business, this is a very human business,” Woods said. “And with those that struggle the most, that one-on-one or very small group attention is essential. And that talent and that time takes compensation, frankly.”

With the Legislature more inclined to budget cuts than increased education spending, this kind of change will require meaningful agitation from voters. Woods believes the more people get involved in a school helping struggling students, the more they will advocate for the funding schools need.

There may be no more rewarding and effective way to do that than by becoming a Reading Buddy.

“I grew up always hating reading,” said Rachel Ferrier, who won the organization’s Volunteer of the Year award after volunteering for nine years. “So to be able to sit down and work with a kid each week is a wonderful blessing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that students in the Reading Buddies program improved their reading by four grade levels. Students in the program actually grew by “four reading levels,” a measurement SAYL uses that doesn’t correspond to actual grade levels. 

Daniel Kleifgen

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.