Lamar Elementary: a neighborhood school in a cultural corridor

Lamar Elementary: a neighborhood school in a cultural corridor | San Antonio Charter Moms

Last week, my daughter, G.N., and I attended a Spotlight Breakfast at Lamar Elementary, 201 Parland Place, San Antonio, TX 78209 (map), an elementary school in San Antonio ISD serving kindergarten through fifth grade and offering pre-K for three- and four-year-olds. The SAISD Foundation hosts Spotlight Breakfasts every month at different locations. I especially wanted to see Lamar Elementary, in the Mahncke Park neighborhood, because it is close to where I live and to many of my kids’ favorite parks and museums.

Mahncke Park, San Antonio, Texas | San Antonio Charter Moms

We parked alongside Mahncke Park (the park) and crossed the street to Lamar. We were greeted by a gaggle of eager fifth graders, wearing matching polo shirts and khaki pants, and coached by Analee Smith, a fifth grade teacher and a graduate student in the education leadership program at Trinity University, my alma mater.

We walked through the original building—historic, but refurbished—to a newer wing, in a library with a soaring ceiling and views of a shady playground. We had arrived early, so G.N. picked out a book, and I read to her about a homely fish who helps his friends. The library is decorated with plushies, including George and Martha, two hippopotami who photobombed my selfie with Marisa B. Perez, member of the State Board of Education for District 3.

Marisa B. Perez, State Board of Education, with Inga Cotton | San Antonio Charter Moms

Marisa B. Perez and Inga Cotton

In addition to the Lamar students, teachers, and parents, the breakfast guests included several community leaders who want Lamar to succeed: Judy Geelhoed, Executive Director of the SAISD FoundationSteve Lecholop, Trustee for SAISD’s district 1Durquia Guillén, Executive Director of Leadership SAISD (earlier post); and Sylvester Perez, in his last year as Superintendent of SAISD. In his remarks, Sylvester Perez mentioned the recent controversy over the closing of Austin Academy; its popular mariachi program will be moved to Hawthorne Academy, an in-district charter. “Will Austin Academy’s Fine Arts Program Survive?”, Mark Reagan, San Antonio Current, September 30, 2014.

Lamar has a current enrollment of about 200, but has capacity for about twice that many. How will it attract more students? There are three programs underway that my help: a training partnership with Trinity University; hands-on education that takes advantage of Lamar’s location in a cultural corridor; and a pre-K program that welcomes tuition-paying students, who may choose to stay for K-5.

Dr. Shari Albright explained that Lamar Elementary is Trinity University’s professional development school. Dr. Albright is Chair of the Department of Education at Trinity University and also leads Strategic Initiatives for the board of the SAISD Foundation. This year, Lamar is hosting five Trinity graduate students as teachers, including Smith, who aspires to be a school principal. In addition, eight undergraduates are visiting the campus this fall, offering extra support in writing. In the spring, ten undergraduates will offer an after-school math tutoring program, and a dozen students will participate in an early childhood practicum to promote literacy, according to Dr. Patricia Norman, Associate Professor of Education.

Trinity University teacher training at Lamar: Katherine Crain, Andrea Lucas, Lauren Turley | San Antonio Charter Moms

Katherine Crain, Andrea Lucas and Lauren Turley

Teacher-mentor Andrea Lucas (4th grade) said that she enjoys the opportunity to keep learning: “It’s a community of learning. It’s OK to ask for help, and everyone is trying to improve.” Lucas said that the downside for mentors is the extra time it takes to develop lesson plans alongside a new teacher, and time outside of work to attend professional development sessions.

Intern Lauren Turley (kindergarten) said that the training program starts slow, with responsibility for preparing just one content area. At first, interns take on one day a week in the classroom, which leaves more time for planning and reflection. The program builds, so that in the spring, interns have five weeks of lead teaching. Turley described the process as less scary and more supported than typical student teaching.

Principal Brian Sparks introduced a panel of 5th grade students who had made lists of their favorite things about Lamar Elementary. They mentioned lots of special events and activities on campus, as well as frequent field trips to nearby cultural institutions, including the San Antonio Botanical Garden, the Witte Museum, the San Antonio Zoo, and the San Antonio Museum of Art. All of these activities are free to the students; the cost to the school is minimal. For the field trips that are within walking distance, the transportation cost is zero. Lamar also has community partnerships with the nearby Inspire Fine Art Center and with the local group Slow Food South Texas. See also “Downtown Schools Hawthorne and Lamar Say ‘Yes’ to Community Involvement”, Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, April 8, 2013.

During our year of homeschooling (2013-14), my kids and I were frequent visitors to the museums and parks around Lamar Elementary. My son, F.T., enjoyed hands-on learning in science, history, art, music, and more. I can see how these field trips would be a great benefit for Lamar students.

dinosaur model in the library at Lamar Elementary | San Antonio Charter Moms

If you are a parent thinking about enrolling your children at Lamar Elementary, how do you decide? Let me share with you some of the pros and cons, as I see them, and give you tips on how to do more research on your own.

On the plus side, Lamar is located near many of San Antonio’s premier cultural institutions, and has a set of strong community partnerships. As Trinity University’s professional development school, Lamar has lots of “smart, reflective” people on campus (in the words of Principal Sparks). Lamar offers pre-K for three- and four-year-olds that is free for some students, fee-based for others, allowing children to stay at the same campus longer.

On the minus side, SAISD faces a long-term trend of declining enrollment and continues to close and realign campuses. Lamar seems to be one of the campuses that SAISD is investing in for the long run, but there is still uncertainty. In addition, Superintendent Perez plans to retire soon. “SAISD leader Perez plans to step down in April”, Maria Luisa Cesar, San Antonio Express-News, October 20, 2014. The previous superintendent candidate search was rocky; see, for example, this earlier post. Over the next few years, will the leadership culture of SAISD continue to support the innovations at Lamar Elementary?

Also, the transition to middle school is problematic. An awkward moment at the spotlight breakfast occurred when the fifth graders were asked where they were planning to go to middle school. Two girls said they were planning to go to Young Women’s Leadership Academy, a high-performing magnet school. “All-Girl College Prep Turning Heads in San Antonio, Producing Tomorrow’s Leaders”, Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, March 25, 2013. Two boys and a girl said they were applying to Hawthorne and to KIPP San Antonio, a high-performing public charter school. Some of the adults at the breakfast looked a little uncomfortable when the kids mentioned KIPP. Counselor Kimberly Aston mentioned that one boy is also applying to middle school magnet programs; SAISD offers three, at Rhodes (technology and media), Tafolla (foreign languages), and Poe. SAISD is accepting magnet school applications through December 12, 2014.

We couldn’t stay for the school tour—I needed to take G.N. to her dentist appointment—but I would recommend that parents of prospective students request a tour by contacting Migel Rivera, a staff member who serves as Lamar’s parent and community liaison. Families who live outside the Lamar boundaries would need to contact data clerk Michelle Munoz for information about applying to the pre-K and K-5 programs. A group of Lamar parents attended the Spotlight Breakfast, and they seemed eager to share Lamar’s story with new families.

Lamar Elementary has promise. If your family’s values include a preference for enrolling your children at a neighborhood school in a traditional public school district, rather than an open-enrollment public charter school like KIPP San Antonio, IDEA Public Schools, or Great Hearts Academies, then I recommend giving Lamar a closer look. Given the uncertainties of charter school lotteries and waiting lists, it might make sense to include Lamar in your set of applications; Families Empowered recommends submitting applications to your top three schools. Find more tips for having a school choice discussion: “School choice guide: 8 tips to help you choose the right school for your child”, Inga Cotton, Alamo City Moms Blog, December 16, 2013. I wish you the best in your search.

UPDATE: Here are the dates and locations for the next two Spotlight Breakfasts.

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