Then-Superintendent Mark Eads (left) and Dolores Sendejo, president of the Southside ISD board of managers, take part in a February board meeting. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Three-and-a-half years ago, Dolores Sendejo had been to just one Southside Independent School District board meeting. Her son was there to make a presentation to the board and she was there to cheer him on.

At the time, the board frequently attracted the attention of the media and state officials for its infighting. By late 2016, the Texas Education Agency had seen enough. The agency announced it would remove the district’s trustees from power after an investigation they violated contract procurement policies and governed the district in a dysfunctional manner.

When the TEA sought managers whom the agency would appoint to lead Southside ISD into a more stable future, Sendejo and her husband, both graduates of the district’s lone high school, debated if they should apply. Together, they decided Sendejo should submit her name. TEA selected her and four others to lead the district.

In the years since, Sendejo has attended many more board meetings, presiding over the dais as president of the board of managers and sitting next to Superintendent Mark Eads, who was hired just before the State takeover. Eads retired in June and the board selected a new leader as the TEA began allowing the district to transition back to elected governance.

TEA will add in trustees and subtract managers over the next two years until a fully elected board governs the 6,000-student school district in summer 2022.

Together, Superintendent Rolando Ramirez and the new hybrid board will face obstacles new and old. The public health crisis will require Southside’s leadership to think nimbly, addressing challenges as they arise. But they must also tackle issues that plagued the district well before the pandemic, such as campuses with poor academic performance and a community that frequently felt disconnected from Southside leadership.

In the past few years, the appointed board brought stability and a sense of calm to Southside. As the board evolves and a new district chief takes control over day-to-day operations, the future of Southside ISD will be forged.

Poor Performance and Accountability Struggles

Last August, schools around Texas received their letter grades from the State detailing their students’ academic performance and progress. For Southside ISD, the news was not good.

Six of the district’s eight campuses, including all of Southside’s four elementaries, received failing grades. The two that did not received Cs.

Families were disconcerted to see the low grades but feel the new superintendent may have the tools to help improve their children’s academic outcomes.

Gracie Lopez is a COPS/Metro Alliance leader and one of the parents who met with Ramirez on the subject. The new superintendent told her that he had experience improving outcomes in his previous district.

“He seemed very promising,” Lopez said. “He listened to the strategies we suggested and even sent out an email using some of the ideas we suggested.”

Ramirez came to Southside from Valley View ISD, a district in the Rio Grande Valley with high marks on the State’s report card. Each of Valley View’s eight campuses received an A or a B and the district received an A overall.

The TEA official who worked closely with Southside ISD over the last few years also expressed optimism for the district’s next phase because of Ramirez’s experience and curriculum expertise.

“Superintendent Ramirez’s track record for improving student outcomes in a school system very similar to that of Southside ISD was the differentiator in [the board’s hiring] decision,”said Jeff Cottrill, TEA’s deputy commissioner of governance and accountability. “His knowledge of curriculum and instruction positions him well to diagnose the current foundational struggles plaguing elementary schools in the district.”

The new district leader said he plans to work with committees of parents, students, and educators to diagnose the reasons campuses haven’t shown better academic outcomes and develop solutions. The district will then work to monitor progress weekly and ensure that best practices are followed on each classroom and campus in the district, Ramirez said.

Previously, Southside ISD didn’t assess student progress weekly, but that will change when the school year resumes, giving educators a quantifiable way to identify when a student is falling behind.

Ramirez implemented a similar system in Valley View ISD and found success. He plans to gather input from his new community on how Southside can make the same systems work. The process of building systems to improve a school district excites Ramirez and was one of the reasons he was drawn to Southside.

“We get into education to try to help as much as we can,” said Ramirez, who spent the first 22 years of his career in Valley View ISD. “To be able to take part in trying to improve a school district, I think that’s something that I would like my children to see. If we’re successful, I’d like to end my career with something like that.”

Valley View ISD Superintendent Rolando Ramirez.

Tapping Into the Community

All of the proposed improvements hinge on winning the community over, however. Without buy-in from educators, students, and families, the changes won’t endure. And for Ramirez, sustainability is important because his goal is to set up systems that remain no matter who oversees them.

“We want to be incorporated into the decision-making that’s going on within the district, especially now with the pandemic,” Lopez said. “When the pandemic began, parents and teachers had no idea to navigate the online system and there were parents who didn’t know how to use electronics.

“… We want them to remember our experiences when they make decisions for us and our kids.”

So far, community members have liked what they’ve seen. Ramirez is bilingual and chose to move into the community, which has similar demographics to his previous district.

Ramirez’s Spanish fluency grabbed the attention of COPS/Metro leaders Estela Sanchez, who primarily speaks in Spanish, and Vincent Arreguin, who is bilingual. Elsewhere in San Antonio, accommodations aren’t always made for Spanish-speaking residents.

“The district is one of the only places I have where I feel I belong and can be part of the decision-making process,” Southside ISD parent Sanchez said in Spanish. “I don’t have that privilege anywhere else, so I want to be incorporated into the decision-making process. I want to give my kids the tools to get through the education system.”

Arreguin added that the interactions he and other Southside ISD COPS/Metro leaders have had with Ramirez make them hopeful the community voice will be heard.

New Faces on the Board

The district’s two new elected board members are likely to play a large role in Ramirez’s effort to strengthen community engagement. Voters elected Maggie Morales and Katie Farias last May, but the State’s role in the district prevented them from having any real power.

That changed a little over a month ago when Morales and Farias began attending meetings as board members. Both are more than familiar with Southside’s history and have their own reasons for wanting the district to succeed.

Farias has lived in Southside for the last seven years. Her kids were in pre-K and kindergarten when the State moved to take over. Since then, she witnessed how the district transformed under the leadership of Eads and the board of managers.

“I didn’t feel like our school district was in a very good position,” Farias said. “I was so new to it that I wasn’t sure how it would affect my kids, but then I saw the following year how things started to shift around. You could really see that shift when [the State] started to take over.”

Morales witnessed the results of the district’s struggles firsthand as a student. She graduated from Southside High School in 2011 and upon entering college, she felt unprepared.

That’s why Morales wants to focus on how the district prepares students for life post-graduation.

“I remember going to school board meetings when I was a freshman in college … and I would always relate stuff back to whenever I was in school,” Morales said. “It made me see the changes I felt like we would be able to implement for students so we could motivate them sooner.”

Morales’ and Farias’ perspectives will be welcome additions to the board, Sendejo said.

When the State takes over a district and appoints leadership to govern, the perception is often that outsiders are coming in to take control. Sendejo said that hasn’t been true in Southside – she is a graduate of the district and has a student currently enrolled. Other managers live in the district, too.

But the addition of elected leadership does signal a significant change in Southside ISD. The phase of the State’s looming presence is coming to an end.

“Us now transitioning into this phase is really about giving [the board] back to the community, and I really feel that we are headed in a very positive direction,” Farias said.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.