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Improving Grades: A Texas School System Delivers on its Promise to Students

December 18, 2018
In San Antonio, school leaders earn high marks by embracing innovative, diverse models

How do you transform one of the lowest-performing school districts in Texas into one of the fastest-improving?

It starts with leadership.

When Pedro Martinez signed on as superintendent of San Antonio Independent School District in 2015, the 50,000-student system had just received an F in the Texas school performance ratings. Enrollment numbers were falling. Test scores were among the worst in the state.

Pedro recognized immediately the district needed to do something fundamentally different – and that tinkering around the edges wouldn’t give San Antonio students the schools they needed.

Pedro Martinez has put a clear focus on excellence and innovation as superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District.

So he embraced the opportunities for innovation presented by current Texas education policy, which encourages and incentivizes reform. In his three years on the job, Pedro has worked to ensure students in his district have a diversity of learning opportunities that are responsive to needs that were previously unmet.

I had the chance to learn firsthand about the changes occurring in San Antonio during a recent visit by the foundation’s Education Committee.

The city faces a rapidly changing education environment.

Schools in the city are challenged by a fast-growing population. The student population is almost 75% Hispanic and the concentration of families living in poverty has increased.

The district has created school options appealing to families that are both economically distressed and more affluent, creating campuses that are economically and socially diverse.

During our visit, Pedro talked about the importance of lifting the cloud of low expectations that can settle over lower-income communities, where some might assume a post-secondary education or jobs above minimum wage are beyond reach. The goal from day one, he said, has been to put a clear focus on excellence.

So, he invited leading charter school operators to partner in creating new in-district schools and to turnaround failing ones. He handed more autonomy to district principals. And he and his team identified leaders already working in the district, encouraging them to try new ideas on how to serve the student population.

The district has created school options appealing to families that are both financially distressed and more affluent, creating campuses that are economically and socially diverse. The dynamic is producing a positive exchange where students from backgrounds who do not often crossover now learn and achieve together.

Reforms led by superintendent Pedro Martinez are bringing students and families back to the San Antonio Independent School District.

Pedro’s strategy has led to the creation of a portfolio of autonomously governed schools that include models previously unavailable to district students – including Montessori, single gender, dual language, college preparatory, career technical and gifted and talented schools.

These models are bringing students and families back to the district because they provide real education options. The district’s innovation zone will open four new networks that were created by replicating high-performing principals’ models and providing these principals with the autonomy and resources to manage multiple campuses.

The foundation, through our K-12 Education Initiative, has invested in San Antonio since 2013 to help build a strong public charter school network and elevate high-quality educators as part of our commitment to high-quality and diverse schools of choice across the country.

Earlier this year, we made our first investment in the San Antonio Independent School District itself, to help develop school-level leadership and build capacity to create a pipeline of high-quality in-district charter schools.

I visited one of the new schools that the foundation has supported, CAST Tech, which embodies the spirit of educational diversity that students in cities like San Antonio deserve.

San Antonio's CAST Tech is an in-district charter high school focused on coding, cyber security, gaming, entrepreneurship and business.

The school uses project-based learning in areas ranging from coding to entrepreneurship, with emphasis on job shadowing, mentorships and internships that prepare students for high-demand jobs after graduation. Several major San Antonio businesses partner with CAST to generate projects that create that all-important pathway to employment for students.

In its efforts to build a high-quality system, the San Antonio Independent School District has been aided by strong Texas education policy. Under the leadership of Commissioner Mike Morath, the state’s education agency has pursued statewide reforms that we know help improve student outcomes.

The state has a strong system of accountability and rewards innovation within school districts. Texas encourages partnerships between the charter sector and districts that provide incentives to districts, such as increased per-pupil funding to create new schools or turn around low-performing schools.

Innovations in the San Antonio Independent School District have led to the launch of new schools like CAST Tech, where students benefit from job shadowing, mentorships and internships at local businesses.

The Texas Education Agency has also supported the creation of more autonomous schools statewide, launching a ‘System of Great Schools’ initiative. It provides technical assistance to districts and aligns state and federal resources to districts that give schools greater freedom to make reforms that are tailored to the needs of families and provide them with more diverse school options.

San Antonio has taken advantage of these pioneering policies. And the results have been impressive.

In the most recent Texas school performance scores, San Antonio Independent School District was one of the state’s fastest-improving districts. The system as a whole had risen from the equivalent of an F rating to a C - and 34 of its schools were recognized with the state’s school of ‘distinction’ designation.

It’s an impressive turnaround that is creating new opportunities for students – and demonstrating the positive impact that bold leadership and innovative policy can have on their futures.

In the Field is a series of stories by Walton Family Foundation Executive Director Kyle Peterson, who shares his perspective on philanthropy and insights into the foundation’s work.
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