Note from SA Charter Moms: We are proud to share guest posts from hallmonitor covering San Antonio’s public schools.
It’s not uncommon for educators to feel like they are too boxed-in by layers of standardization to be able to meet the needs of their students. Students can’t be standardized. Rather than continuing to try to apply more pressure to a single model, in hopes that it will suddenly work for students it has never served well, San Antonio ISD wants educators to create schools that work for their populations.
The district’s Office of Innovation has issued a call for school design, one of the original components of Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury’s plans to stock SAISD with high-performing, autonomous schools. The effort is also a key component of the district’s plan to work as a System of Great Schools, wherein autonomous schools are authorized (not operated) by the board of trustees and supported (not operated) by central administration.
Most, if not all, of the new schools will be in-district charters. These are schools run by the district, but operating under a separate contract that changes their operations and curriculum using increased funding and flexibility from the state.
The Office of Innovation is accepting three kinds of applications: from-scratch schools, redesigned neighborhood schools, or renovations of existing in-district charters.
From-scratch schools are entirely new campuses, such as the new K–5 Young Women’s Leadership Academy at Page, which after this school year will fully phase out its middle school. The 6–12 YWLA principal, Delia McLerran, will become the network principal over both campuses, with an associate principal at each.
CAST Med, a career training high school closely aligned with local industry, is also a from-scratch school coming up through the Office of Innovation. It will be located at Brooks, near the University of Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine.
Some neighborhood schools will be redesigned to better meet the needs of the students they serve. So far the Office of Innovation has received 19 letters of intent from neighborhood schools exploring the possibility of a redesign.
Three of these redesigns were filed by network principals who, like McLerran, have experienced success at their home campus, and are looking to replicate that at the other school under their purview. While the YWLA downward expansion will be a from-scratch school, network principals from Lamar Elementary, Gates Elementary, and Carroll Early Childhood Center will lead neighborhood school redesigns at Bowden Elementary, Cameron Elementary, and Tynan Early Childhood Center, respectively.
Schools feeding into Burbank High School and Jefferson High School are in the process of deciding whether or not to pursue an International Baccalaureate program as well—a heavy lift and a massive commitment for elementary and middle schools that takes years to ultimately fulfill.
These cases underscore the need for campus buy-in and accountability, both of which have been ratcheted up under SAISD’s revamped authorization process. “For the longest of time, the district has had an approach to in-district charters and school authorizing,” Choudhury explained. “I would say it was not as rigorous as it should be.”
School leaders must now garner support from two-thirds of their parents and staff in order to become an in-district charter.
To have their application approved, they also have to have a good idea, Choudhury said, and some indication that they can pull it off successfully.
Sometimes, an ambitious principal with a proven track record just needs to be unchained, he explained. Other times, if the campus wants to pursue a more autonomous model, but the principal hasn’t been able to bring it up to the current standards, the district might play a stronger supportive role.
While the leadership develops, it might not be the right time for the in-district charter or school redesign. But the application process is designed to start them along that path—reflecting and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses as a campus so that, “even if you didn’t get [the charter], you’re better off,” Choudhury said.
Autonomy is the goal for every campus, Choudhury said. “You shouldn’t have to be an in-district charter to have autonomy.”
The third kind of application the Office of Innovation has asked for are renovations. Some schools, like Hawthorne Academy and Bonham Academy, have had charters for years. The application invites campus leadership, including parents, to look at the charter and ask if it is still the best fit for the school. If so, how can it be better executed? If not, do they want to change it or lose it altogether? “You can’t have your charter just sitting there,” Choudhury said. It’s infuriating to parents when charters are not as fully developed as intended. When the charters are fulfilled by add-on programs or schools-within-schools, it also tends to allow internal inequity.
This is where the state and the district have to do a better job with accountability, Choudhury said. Once a charter is approved it must be monitored for effectiveness and equity.
All in-district charters will be held to the performance standards of Democracy Prep and Relay Lab Schools, Choudhury said. Those turnaround programs have strict guidelines defining their success, and consequences if they don’t achieve their goals.
Charters designed by the district should have the same standards. Choudhury says, “No double standards.”
As far as equity goes, results have to show for every sub-population and every grade level. If it’s not working for the entire school, it’s not working.
Originally published as “What does it look like when educators design their own schools? SAISD is about to find out,” Hall Monitor, September 17, 2018
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