[Hall Monitor] With Democracy Prep, SAISD Is Making New Friends. Can It Keep the Old?

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[Hall Monitor] With Democracy Prep, SAISD Is Making New Friends. Can It Keep the Old? | San Antonio Charter Moms | San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel President Shelly Potter, speaks at a school board meeting on behalf of teachers at Stewart Elementary while teachers, parents and members of the Alliance wait for their turn to speak, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel President Shelly Potter, speaks at a school board meeting on behalf of teachers at Stewart Elementary while teachers, parents and members of the Alliance wait for their turn to speak, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

On Monday night, March 19, the board of San Antonio ISD passionately discussed—and ultimately voted to approve—a charter application and management agreement between SAISD and Democracy Prep Public Schools, a New York-based charter operator. The vote was unanimous, belying just how controversial the partnership has become.

Since the mid-January announcement that Democracy Prep will take over Stewart Elementary at the beginning of the 2018–19 school year, tensions between the district and its union, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel (henceforth, “the Alliance”) have intensified significantly. On March 5, the Alliance filed a complaint with the district accusing Superintendent Pedro Martinez of a lack of transparency in pursuing the partnership.

On Monday night, the Alliance took their cause to the steps of the SAISD board meeting.

“The superintendent continues to spin his web of misinformation,” Alliance organizer Katie Bravenec said to the crowd of around 100 members of the Alliance, San Antonio Firefighters Union, and other AFL-CIO affiliates. “We are not in the business of taking anyone or anything at their word.”

Before the Alliance rally, Martinez held his own press conference to explain the context of the decision.

“This was an intervention,” Martinez said. “The whole purpose of this, ironically, is to keep it as a neighborhood school.”

In 2015, the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 1842, which allows the State to close campuses that fail to meet standards for five years. The State can also appoint a board of managers in the districts that house those schools. 

The roots of the decision are found in a 2017 law offering districts an opportunity to avoid the stringent sanctions of the HB 1842: Senate Bill 1882.

SB 1882

SB 1882 incentivizes districts to create strategic partnerships with charter operators, non-profits, institutions of higher education, and government entities. For districts with schools that repeatedly failed state accountability, SB 1882 grants a two-year reprieve from sanction, if the failing campus becomes part of a partnership. New and existing schools can also create these partnerships to bring in enhanced, new, or innovative services.

State guidance for districts seeking to benefit from SB 1882 lists three kinds of eligible partnerships: turnaround partnerships, innovation partnerships, and new school partnerships.

SAISD currently has one partnership with a charter operator. Beginning this school year, John H. Wood Jr. charter network began operating Brewer Academy for students with behavioral and emotional needs too intense to function in a neighborhood school classroom or special education program. The structure of Brewer does not allow it to benefit from the SB 1882 incentives, which include increased per student funding.

Schools under SB 1882 will be funded at the same per-student rates as charter schools, which will add $1,404 per student per year for SAISD students.

In January, the district announced its intent to enlist nonprofits Relay Graduate School of Education and Democracy Prep to operate Ogden Elementary and Storm Elementary (Relay) and Stewart Elementary (Democracy Prep).

Relay is already operating at Ogden, providing additional classroom support from master teachers and teachers pursuing a masters degree through the nonprofit’s graduate degree program. Results have been positive, and the district plans to expand the partnership to Storm as well. Under SB 1882, Relay will officially operate these schools as a turnaround partner, as both schools were in “improvement required” status with the State.

SAISD is bringing Democracy Prep as a turnaround partner for Stewart, which is in its fifth year of “improvement required” status.

While the Alliance has raised concerns about other partnerships, the proposed Stewart arrangement is the only partnership to draw full opposition from the union, which characterizes the involvement of a charter operator as the abdication of district responsibility and a betrayal of public trust. 

“That ship sailed long ago,” trustee Steve Lecholop said, responding to the rhetoric at the board meeting. The abdication, he said, was in allowing Stewart to fail for so long.

“This is not an abdication, this is not a betrayal,” Lecholop said, “This is the board saying enough is enough.”

Because Democracy Prep, unlike John H. Wood, is not a charter school operator licensed in Texas, it will qualify for SB 1882 incentives as a non-profit partner. SAISD will license Democracy Prep to operate Stewart Elementary, and authorize the charter operator’s growth within the district. SAISD will also have the option to authorize Democracy Prep campuses around Bexar County. If it chooses not to, Democracy Prep will have to find another school district or state agency to authorize additional schools.

The performance agreement approved by the SAISD board anticipates two full K–12 “continuums” operated by Democracy Prep, contingent upon success at Stewart. To the alliance, this constitutes an unacceptably wide open door to the charter operator.

Community Concerns: Transparency

The Alliance has raised suspicion about the intent of the district, saying that the sudden announcement of the Democracy Prep plans represent a lack of transparency.

“The partnership with Democracy Prep has been anything but transparent,” Alliance member Nhu-Nguyen Tran said, “with decisions made behind closed doors.”

In an attempt to discover how long the partnership has been in the works, Alliance President Shelley Potter submitted a public information request for all communication between SAISD and Democracy Prep. The district has appealed to the Texas Attorney General to block the request, which Potter claims is proof of its duplicity.

It was urgency, not duplicity driving the admittedly quick timeline for the intervention, Martinez said, “I’m not going to apologize for wanting to keep the school open.”

Community Concerns: Bilingual Education

Stewart parent Leticia Hernandez addressed the board in Spanish, outlining concerns that the district was “selling the school” to a program with no bilingual program, which is essential for the community. Breaking with district protocol, Martinez spoke back to Hernandez in Spanish, asking her to wait until the presentation on Democracy Prep later on the agenda so that she could “get the facts.”

“Your facts are lies,” shouted an Alliance member in the crowd.

In the press conference before the meeting and at the board meeting, Martinez and Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury countered these claims, explaining that Democracy Prep actually does have a better track record with English language learners.

Hall Monitor SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

“Since 2012 . . . our district has never met standards with ELL students,” Martinez said, adding that Democracy Prep has committed to working with the district to develop the best system to serve English language learners.

Community Concerns: Discipline

Red flags also flew over the “no excuses” disciplinary policies formerly used by Democracy Prep and other charter schools working in high-poverty communities. In addition to demoralizing some students, critics say that these strict policies are used to drive out low performers under the guise of discipline.

Like many charter networks, Martinez said during his press conference, Democracy Prep has moved away from overly punitive policies toward more restorative discipline policies. SAISD is pursuing similar reforms, Martinez said, as its own track record on exclusionary discipline (suspension and expulsion) has been problematic.

“Our data is terrible, it is the worst that I’ve seen,” Martinez said, “Stewart is among the worst.”

While developing the performance agreement, Democracy Prep asked SAISD to see its restorative discipline policy, Choudhury reported during his presentation to the board, “We don’t have one.”

If the district were to draft one, Democracy Prep would be accountable to it.

The district is not of one mind on discipline, trustee Ed Garza pointed out. Teachers have come to him advocating zero-tolerance policies and even corporal punishment. Finding an effective approach is imperative, he said.

Community Concerns: Enrollment

Charter opponents in general claim that the schools use discipline and academic rigor to exclude or push out low-performing students. Per Democracy Prep’s performance agreement and the rules of SB 1882, Democracy Prep would have to serve every student living in the Stewart attendance zone (assuming the family wishes to send their child to that school).

This is why the district chose Democracy Prep, Martinez explained during the board meeting. His non-negotiable term was that the partner serve every single Stewart student.

Lots of charters would like the district’s empty buildings to fill with their own students, Martinez said, but that was not his goal. 

Once every student zoned for Stewart has been offered a spot, Democracy Prep at Stewart (and subsequent Democracy Prep campuses in SAISD) would open to students from anywhere in Bexar County. SAISD currently has a group of these choice schools, including CAST Tech, the Advanced Learning Academy, Steele Montessori, and the dual language academies, Twain and Irving.

To keep assertive middle class parents from dominating its choice programs, Choudhury’s enrollment office aims to balance the economically disadvantaged population with the non-economically disadvantaged population in any magnet, charter, or special school within the district. Democracy Prep schools within the district will be required to adhere to this enrollment policy, according to the charter application.

“The last thing I want to do is to displace families,” Martinez said.

[Hall Monitor] With Democracy Prep, SAISD Is Making New Friends. Can It Keep the Old? | San Antonio Charter Moms Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel members and Stewart Elementary parents hold signs at a school board meeting at Burnet Elementary, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018 before the school board votes on whether to move forward with a partnership between Stewart Elementary School and Democracy Prep Public Schools. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

Teacher Contracts

Serving every student was Martinez’s non-negotiable. Democracy Prep had its own non-negotiable: teacher contracts. Teachers at Democracy Prep will be employees of Democracy Prep.

Currently, Martinez said, this is the only difference between Stewart and the schools that will be operated by Relay.

“The main difference at Ogden is that the teachers are still our employees,” Martinez said, “They report to us.”

This means that Ogden and Storm teachers have SAISD contracts.

Currently, SAISD teachers have “continuing contracts.” This means that, once employed, they stay employed until they resign, retire, or the district takes them through a lengthy termination process with recourse to grievance hearings.

Almost every other district in Bexar County has what are called “term contracts.” This means that a teacher is hired for a set time, usually one to two years (no more than five), and at the end of that term, the district can choose whether or not to renew the contract.

In the first three years, teachers can also be on single-year probationary contracts, which must be renewed.

Democracy Prep employees will be “at will,” meaning that they can be let go at any time.

SAISD teachers moving from Stewart to Democracy Prep would move from the most protective contract allowed by the state to one of the least protective.

Monday’s vote was not the end of the Alliance’s fight; Potter said, “That fight has only just begun.”

By contrast, board president Patti Radle took a different tone, celebrating the Alliance as a partner in the struggle to better serve students, even as they are on the other side of that struggle. “We will be together in the end,” Radle said. 

Originally published as “With Democracy Prep, SAISD is making new friends. Can it keep the old?,” Hall Monitor, March 19, 2018

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