[Hall Monitor] “Who Is Coming With Us?” SAISD Rallies Supporters Amid Controversial Changes

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SAISD rallies supporters for a System of Great Schools | San Antonio Charter Moms

Lionel Sosa and Michael Burke going to learn more about SAISD’s new groove.

At Monday night’s SAISD board meeting, community member Eddie Bravenec, husband of San Antonio Alliance (the union) lead organizer Katy Bravenec, told superintendent Pedro Martinez that the business community felt he had to go. That whether or not the recent layoffs or charter network partnerships were a good idea, that they had been poorly handled, and that the solution was to get rid of Martinez.

“When you do something you think is right, but you do it in the wrong way, it gets messed up,” Bravenec said. “We’re going to do the right thing the right way, and that is getting rid of the superintendent.”

Two days later, Martinez heard from a few other members of the business community at a workshop luncheon hosted by City Education Partners, an education nonprofit committed to bringing teacher talent and high quality school models into the San Antonio area through grants and organizational support. Wednesday’s event hosted primarily businesses and nonprofits, with a handful of parents in attendance. It followed an event Tuesday for parents and teachers.

Members of the business community (at least the handful I asked) attended, primarily because they’d “heard good things” about what Martinez is up to from colleagues. Their message to him was summed up by Elizabeth Flavin Crawford of Sendero Wealth Management.

“The community out there wants to support you,” she said, “But we want big changes.”

The purpose of the luncheon was to learn more about one such big change: the System of Great Schools.

System of Great Schools Cohort 1 Texas map | San Antonio Charter Moms

Texas Education Agency map

Martinez was joined by author David Osborne, who studies new approaches to urban education. Martinez is pursuing something different than New Orleans, Denver, and Indianapolis, which each have their own approach to creating autonomous schools that can hire and fire their own staff, decide their own calendar and curriculum, and in some cases their own enrollment policies. 

SAISD’s central office will maintain control of enrollment, largely because SAISD serves kids already rejected by independent charters, Martinez has explained. He says he’s not willing to give charter partners the option. 

The System of Great Schools treats districts as authorizing bodies who have little to do with the operations of each individual school. They just hold them accountable to performance goals and standards. The elected board would have little stake in the particulars at each campus, and could more easily make the decision to bring in new operators for schools that are not helping students grow, Osborne said.

None of the business leaders seemed to blink at the idea of teachers being hired and fired more easily, or of principals being the ones to do the hiring and firing instead of school boards. Such things usually sit well with business folks in a way that protective contracts and government bureaucracy does not.  In fact, if members of the business community had any strong criticism for Martinez, it was that he needed get out in front of the story.

“The same kind of innovation you’re putting into schools, you need to put into communicating what you’re doing,” marketing veteran Lionel Sosa said at the event.

However, hit rewind to Monday night’s board meeting, filled with a different group of stakeholders (the teachers union) to get a sense of how this this message will play in-house. Think lead balloons. Ninety of them, because that’s how many schools SAISD has.

Shannon Elledge, a teacher at SAISD and a member of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers Support and Personnel participates in a rally outside Burnet Elementary before the school board votes on whether to move forward with a partnership between Stewart Elementary School and Democracy Prep Public Schools, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018. | San Antonio Charter Moms

Shannon Elledge, a teacher at SAISD and a member of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers Support and Personnel participates in a rally outside Burnet Elementary before the school board votes on whether to move forward with a partnership between Stewart Elementary School and Democracy Prep Public Schools, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.

Of course, not every campus would enter a charter partnership. Homemade charters like CAST Tech and Young Women’s Leadership Academy are part of the plan, as are the traditional neighborhood schools. But if SAISD is faithful to the System of Great Schools model, they will all have more autonomy.

Which brings us back to the trenches.

Since the district announced a partnership with Democracy Prep charter schools to turn around chronically struggling Stewart Elementary, protests have been the norm, intensified by recent layoffs during a reduction in force measure. The Alliance, in a way, has a similar complaint to the one voiced by Sosa: communication. They want more of it. More transparency. 

That would not have solved, and may have even prolonged, the conflict over charter partners and layoffs, which were never going to be easy fights. But to have accusations of duplicity isn’t helping the matter.

Martinez anticipated some blowback over the process, what he calls a “shift in the power base,” but not to the degree that he is facing it now. “This is the first time I’ve dealt with something like this.”

Osborne warned that these changes would call up challengers, come election time. There would be an anti-Pedro candidate in every race. (They can cull block-walkers from the Alliance members and their family members vowing to campaign against the incumbents.) 

Board president Patti Radle spoke up on the board’s resolve. She still considers “mediocrity and low expectations”—not the union skirmish—to be the real battle.  The Alliance, she said, is not an opponent in that battle, but rather has been an ally. She hopes it will be again. “We want that day,” she said, but the board isn’t stopping to wait for it.

“We will not be deterred by people who are not ready for our change. We will listen, and we will be reflective,” Radle said, however, “We are moving forward. Who is coming with us?”

At that luncheon, local business bellwethers Ed Kelley and Michael Burke were unequivocal in their continuing support for Martinez. The men reported that after hearing about Bravenec’s statement Monday night, they had taken an informal poll of the Civic Breakfast group —a weekly breakfast meeting of past Chamber of Commerce chairs and other business leaders— to see if there was indeed a portion of the business community that was getting cold feet about the now-embattled superintendent.

“I got an absolute resounding ‘no,’ they have not lost confidence,” said Kelley, “On the contrary they’re extremely pleased.”

Supporters are putting their money where their mouths are. Giving to the SAISD Foundation more than quadrupled during Martinez’s first full year as superintendent, and then doubled again after that. In 2015, the year Martinez was hired, the Foundation received $919,000. In 2017, it received over $11 million. It extends to board members as well. In 2017 board incumbents saw numerous campaign contributions from the business community. For the record, though, teachers vote, and the Alliance endorsed the incumbents as well. That’s probably going to change in 2019. Just a guess.

Martinez was thankful for the support, and openly asked for more (political, not financial). Losing any seats on the currently unanimous board would be a serious hindrance to these changes, he said. He did, however make something clear, in part to explain why this luncheon hadn’t happened sooner: He’s been busy doing stuff. “You’re not even really my audience. My audience is parents,” he said.

By that measure, the district has more work to do, as it seeks to recoup the thousands of students lost to charters and higher performing districts. These parents vote with their feet, Martinez said, and many are leaving as their neighborhood schools struggle. Many are also coming back when given options like the Advanced Learning Academy and CAST Tech High School, and he hopes to increase that number as schools improve across the district.

So he definitely has some work to do with parents, teachers, and no doubt members of the community at large, but there are plenty of people still in the room with Martinez, as William Manning with 100 Black Men of San Antonio pointed out gesturing to the nonprofits, businesses, and government agencies represented in the room, “Look at this room. Look at everyone who has come together.”

SAISD System of Great Schools business luncheon | San Antonio Charter Moms

“Look at all the people in the room,” said William Manning. Here they are.

Martinez’s goal since coming on board was to raise the number of students going from SAISD to top national colleges and graduating—despite the widespread poverty in the district. It’s the battle Radle referred to in her comments. It’s a mission that resonates with Manning. “Pedro has done a tremendous job taking us from mediocrity to where we are now,” he said, having conversations about student achievement.

The time for a “pobrecito” mentality toward kids in poverty is over, Martinez said, but change is hard.

In response, Ogden assistant principal Jackie Navar shouted from her seat, “Sí se puede!”

Originally published as “‘Who is coming with us?’ SAISD rallies supporters amid controversial changes,” Hall Monitor, May 24, 2018

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