The parent meeting Thursday night at Stewart Elementary on the southeast side bore all the regular features of any parent meeting at Stewart Elementary, from the coffee and cookies to the Walmart gift card raffle. A third of the parents wore earphones as they listened to San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) Superintendent Pedro Martinez’ message translated into Spanish.
Most of what the superintendent said sounded like business as usual.
“We want to make sure that our students have the best access to a high quality education,” Martinez said.
“We are committed to providing families with options,” he said later.
Both are platitudes Martinez has given throughout his two and a half years as SAISD’s superintendent. He said them as he rolled out ambitious college and career readiness goals, a master teacher initiative, and a series of new “specialized schools” developed by the district.
Thursday night, however, Martinez said these things in a different context: Beginning next school year, Stewart Elementary will become a charter school.
SAISD plans to authorize Democracy Prep Public Schools, a New York-based charter operator, to run Stewart beginning this fall. The arrangement, six months in the making, makes SAISD one of only a handful of districts in the country with a growing suite of charter partnerships to mix in with its traditional schools. A law passed during the 85th Texas Legislature allows schools like Stewart, which is mired in its fifth year of failure to meet state accountability, to escape closure by coming under management of charter operators.
At its regular business meeting Monday night, the SAISD board is expected to approve the partnership.
Given the political climate surrounding school choice — with debate over district-operated specialized schools and magnets, charter schools and vouchers — the move is a metaphorical crossing of the Rubicon for Martinez. For parents, however, the concerns are far more personal.
Graciela Chavarria has one student at Stewart. She’s nine years old, and struggles with reading. What would become of the student support services her daughter needs, Chavarria asked Martinez at the meeting. Would the campus lose its Communities in Schools site coordinator? She’s worried that students who can’t keep up with the rigor will simply be left behind.
Martinez assured her that Democracy Prep specializes in bringing students up, not leaving them behind. He could not promise her that the support would look the same as it does now. He doesn’t know yet how all of the support services will fit into the new model.
The new model will require some adjustments, he said. Longer school days, summer programming, and increased rigor will require parental support. However, the payoff that’s being promised is more fine arts, and other opportunities. Democracy Prep has flourished in Harlem, Baton Rouge, and Washington, D.C. “In neighborhoods that are even more challenging than this one,” Martinez said.
After the meeting, Chavarria told Folo Media that she’ll continue to worry until she sees it with her own eyes. Still, she said, she trusts Martinez.
“I’ll give it a try,” she said.
Her faith isn’t blind, she explains. Her younger child goes to nearby Steele Montessori, which is one of the specialized schools designed and operated by SAISD. She was skeptical when she first sent her five-year-old boy, who, in preschool, barely spoke and required speech therapy. Now, she said, he’s blossomed.
The changes the district wants to make are doing what’s best for the kids, Chavarria said.
The stars have aligned for such collaborations in Texas. Since taking office in January 2016, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has brought his reform-minded, charter-friendly philosophy to bear across the state.
Morath is a former Dallas ISD school board member who made plenty of enemies, but earned just as many admirers by pushing three controversial reforms for Dallas schools. Each of these concepts — school choice, merit pay for teachers, and home rule — were pulled from the same education reform playbook.
» School choice removes mandatory attendance zones from schools, opening them up to pretty much any student within driving distance. This is most obvious tool to respond to the common education reform refrain that a “zip code shouldn’t determine destiny.”
» Merit pay allows a district to tie a teacher’s pay to his or her performance instead of a set pay scale.
» Home rule, the one of Morath’s three reforms that was not carried out, removes the elected school board and puts the district under control of the city. The mayor appoints the school board, and there is some debate over what happens to employee contracts. Home rule has never been tried in Texas, despite heavy support from conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation. One barrier is that the law allowing home rule requires that the issue must be passed in an election with at least 25 percent voter turnout. In Texas, that’s all but unheard of for a local election, and it’s barely reliable in a national midterm election.
”I’d send my kid there.” — Kathleen St. Clair, Stewart Elementary principal
That’s a look into what Morath tried on the local level. As commissioner, he’s been just as active, creating incentives for districts to consider reforms that are outside the box of a traditional district.
Morath appointed two charter school veterans to high posts within the Texas Education Agency. He created the Transformation Zone Program, which allows districts to group low-performing schools together and give them whatever autonomy and redesign tools they need to turn the schools around. One option: partnering with charter school operators.
Meanwhile, one of the few bills to become law during the 2017 Legislative session was Senate Bill 1882, which allows districts to partner with charter operators.
Shortly after SB 1882 passed, SAISD entered an agreement with the John H. Wood charter district, which specializes in social and emotional special needs. The charter operator now runs Brewer Academy for SAISD’s highest need students.
A provision in the law allows charter operators to run a school that has failed to meet state accountability standards. For schools receiving a state rating of D or F (or, under the previous accountability system, “improvement required”) a school district can contract with a charter operator to take over the school, and in doing so, suspend punitive action from TEA (which can include closure) for one to two years.
Stewart is a prime candidate for this provision, and it happens to be in SAISD where more stars have been aligning within the education reform constellation.
A cohesive SAISD school board recruited Martinez from Nevada to lead an ambitious district agenda. Martinez has openly said that charter partnerships are on the table, though he has laid out strict conditions. The charters would be accountable to SAISD; employees would be SAISD employees.
This last claim turned out to be negotiable, at least in the case of Democracy Prep and Stewart Elementary. More on that later.
While Morath has incentivized districts to run their own charter schools, such as SAISD’s Steele Montessori, cooperation between districts and charter networks like Democracy Prep has remained somewhat of a holy grail of education reform in Texas.
Democracy Prep is similar to other familiar charters, such as KIPP, Great Hearts, and IDEA Public Schools. They are part of charter networks, run by charter management organizations, which are usually nonprofit companies. The Texas Education Agency authorizes these organizations, which can then set up their open-enrollment schools anywhere in the state.
In this case, SAISD will authorize Democracy Prep, which is not currently authorized in Texas, to run a single campus with a set attendance zone — not an open-enrollment school. Democracy Prep must serve every student zoned to Stewart, including English language learners and students requiring special education services, unless that student chooses to attend a different school.
The Stewart partnership with Democracy Prep may be more notable simply because it is a traditional elementary school, albeit one that has struggled more than most.
During the 2016-2017 school year, Stewart served 542 students, 96.3 percent of whom qualified as economically disadvantaged. One-third are English language learners. Enrollment had fallen from 560 the year before and 565 the year before that. Traci Smith, considered a rockstar principal, was brought in to turn the school around, but was not able to raise test scores in her two-year tenure.
As of the beginning of the 2017-18 school year, Martinez told parents, Stewart had more students learning below grade level than any other school in the district.
The district removed Smith, eliciting an outcry from parents and teachers who loved the high-touch, personable principal. To replace her, SAISD brought in Kathleen St. Clair, another rockstar principal, out of retirement. St. Clair has a strong record in the district, but had not completed her first year when the Democracy Prep announcement was made. The school is improving, and St. Clair is confident it will meet state standards this year. Still, she said, she’s excited about Democracy Prep. “I’d send my kid there,” she said.
St. Clair hopes to stay around in some capacity during and after the transition. Faculty and staff will have the opportunity to stay, Martinez told the parents, as long as it’s a good fit for them, and for Democracy Prep.
Shelley Potter, president of San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, raised concerns about what might be a good fit for Democracy Prep. Her union represents SAISD staff and faculty. Like most independent charter networks, Democracy Prep practices “at-will” hiring, meaning teachers can be let go at any point. This, Potter said, will create instability and higher turnover. It should be noted that Stewart has already seen teacher turnover as high as 50 percent as it has enacted various reforms to try to improve its performance.
Potter believes there were other solutions that would have been less drastic than the charter “takeover.” Of course, she recognizes, all of those solutions would likely have seen more roadblocks at the state level, where charters have many friends. Still, Potter claims the district did not do its due diligence, and points to red flags throughout the process, particularly in the late notice she said was given to teachers and parents.
“We feel like it’s disrespectful toward the parents and the staff,” Potter said, given that the district has been working toward the partnership for months. Board members visited Democracy Prep schools in New York City earlier this school year, and Democracy Prep posted a job opening for executive director of the San Antonio region more than a month ago.
Other concerns stem from Democracy Prep itself. Some of the campuses within the network have been criticized for being overly punitive, too quick to suspend students. The “no excuses” approach of many charters serving high poverty students, as Democracy Prep does, has come under fire for trying to use rigid discipline where counseling and social services are needed.
Many charter operators seem to have taken these criticisms to heart, softening their approach. KIPP was once among the most notorious of the “no excuses” brand of charters, but KIPP San Antonio CEO Mark Larson now shudders at the term as he moves to install social and human services at KIPP schools in San Antonio.
As part of SAISD, Democracy Prep will be subject to school disciplinary laws of Texas, which have lately been more favorable to restorative justice methods. Suspension before third grade is banned, and reporting laws have been tightened. TEA offers restorative justice guidelines for districts, and SAISD has been moving more in that direction, Potter said.
This is one of many hurdles that await SAISD as it builds what some have called the school system of the future: a blend of charters and traditional schools with varied enrollment policies. Martinez now crosses an invisible line, putting himself squarely at odds with staunch anti-charter voices within the state, city, and his own district.
Setting It Straight: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the cities where Democracy Prep has flourished. Also, the arrangements for dual language education have not yet been determined.
Clarification: This article originally mischaracterized Mike Morath’s reform efforts at Dallas ISD. Merit pay and school choice Morath got through; home rule he did not.