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San Antonio ISD is taking aim at its largest producer of high school dropouts: Highlands High School. With a dropout rate of 12–16 percent over the past three years, the southeast side high school accounts for 16 percent of all SAISD students.
The numbers gets more stark when you look at students who are “over-age or under-credited.”
Right now, 39 percent of Highlands students who are one or more year older than their classmates (or have fewer credits than they should for their age) eventually drop out. SAISD wants to get that number down to 20 percent within five years.
To get that result, the board voted unanimously (with trustee James Howard absent at the time of the vote), to enter a partnership with charter operator Texans Can Academies.
The credit recovery charter will pilot a program at Highlands for up to 250 students who are over-age (17 or older), dropped out, or struggling to the point that they are at risk of not graduating. As is does at its independent campuses, Texans Can Academies at Highlands High School will offer flexible scheduling and intensified student support.
Qualifying Highlands students can opt in and out of the school-within-a-school as they wish. Students served by Texans Can Academies at Highlands High School will bring additional money into the district, $1,404 per student under the 2017 school partnership law, SB 1882.
In recent years, the school has seen its test scores and college readiness numbers decline drastically. One-third of all Highlands students fall into the over-age or under-credited category.
The San Antonio campus of Texans Can Academies has a dropout rate of 6 percent for the same population, SAISD assistant superintendent Daniel Girard reported.
“There’s something to be said when this is the focus of your work,” SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez said in response to criticism that the district should handle the work in-house.
“We’re asking high school principals to do everything,” Martinez said. Principals are trying to serve a diverse group of students across the performance spectrum, and pushing toward Martinez’s ambitious college graduation goals for the district.
“At the same time our high schools are trying to make up for what children didn’t receive in elementary school and middle school,” Martinez said.
Highlands eventually receives students from P.F. Stewart Elementary, the lowest performing elementary school in the district. On March 19, SAISD administrators referenced the effect on Highlands as justification for a much larger charter partnership at Stewart.
The district caused a splash when it announced that New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep Public Schools would assume control of P.F. Stewart Elementary beginning next school year. The move drew protests ahead of board meetings in January and March, and passionate comments during citizens to be heard.
Ahead of the vote over Texans Can, San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel president Shelley Potter addressed the board on behalf of the union, but without the flood of blue Alliance T-shirts and protest signs behind her. Potter’s tone was not conciliatory, but measured and resolute.
“I believe that you believe that you are doing the right thing,” she said. “We believe that you are not.”
The Highlands partnership is not as broad as the one at Stewart, but it still constitutes an abdication of responsibility, Potter said, “This march toward contracting out SAISD students . . . is disturbing to say the least.”
Rather than an abdication, the administration and members of the board describe the partnership as an intensive, specialized service for students who are falling through the cracks. Texans Can also maintains intensive social work and counseling services. Counselors carry a 45-student caseload, where comprehensive high school counselors often carry loads of several hundred.
“I don’t know how I could say ‘no’ to a program that would get to the depth of the need of this population of our students,” board president Patti Radle said.
Texans Can does have a long history of working with students who have fallen through the cracks.
The school, one of the original 20 charter schools authorized to operate in Texas in 1996, actually began 20 years prior as Freedom Ministries, a nonprofit working with students involved in the juvenile justice system. Now, as Texans Can Academies, the 13 charter schools across the state serve a broader spectrum of students whose lives don’t conform to the traditional school calendar.
Highlands High School principal Julio Garcia told the board about an 18-year-old freshman who had to work to support his widowed grandmother, and a 19-year-old sophomore who had to miss school to care for her young son.
Students who are parents or who carry heavy financial responsibility, like many over-age students, are often forced to drop out simply due to logistics. A rigid school schedule doesn’t allow them to tend to other responsibilities.
The Highlands program will also have smaller classes, 15 students for every teacher to help personalize lesson plans. Students will still have access to arts, sports, and career training programs at Highlands.
Texans Can Academies at Highlands High School will also use the literacy curriculum developed by Texans Can CEO Richard Marquez, Cognitive Development Through Reading Across the Curriculum (Marquez Reading), as well as Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment. Texans Can’s concentrated focus and innovative approach to literacy for older students is one of the reasons SAISD chose them as a partner, deputy superintendent Pauline Dow told the board.
Marquez took the helm of Texans Can in 2007 after stints as superintendent of Harlandale ISD, an administrator in Dallas ISD, a commission member with the U.S. Department of Education, and a private sector entrepreneur.
While overseeing DISD schools in the Oak Cliff area, Marquez was already advocating for some of the philosophies now informing Texans Can, according to a 1995 article in the Dallas Observer. What that publication called “new age” educational philosophy was largely focused on the psychology of education, keeping students motivated. Some of those practices appeared to run afoul of district policy.
At the U.S. Department of Education, Marquez headed a Hispanic education commission that died from neglect under the President George H.W. Bush administration.
Like many other charter CEOs, Marquez has voiced frustration with the system status quo, especially when serving particular demographics. Texans Can appears to have been born of the desire to do better by overaged and struggling students, especially those in predominantly Hispanic areas.
Highlands fits that bill, and the management agreement allows for room to grow if the district finds what it’s looking for in Texans Can.
Originally published as “Another charter operator to set up shop in SAISD,” Hall Monitor, March 26, 2018
- “[Hall Monitor] Stewart Welcomes Democracy Prep to the Neighborhood with Lots of Questions,” San Antonio Charter Moms, April 11, 2018
- “[Hall Monitor] With Democracy Prep, SAISD Is Making New Friends. Can It Keep the Old?,” San Antonio Charter Moms, April 4, 2018
- “[Hall Monitor] Rumblings Continue in the Battle Over SAISD-Charter Partnership,” San Antonio Charter Moms, February 19, 2018