SAISD’s Big Picture: Superintendent Pedro Martinez and the System of Great Schools Model


In 2011, my family moved out of San Antonio ISD in search of the right schools for our children; this 2012 post at the Rivard Report captured our situation at the time. In 2018, the landscape is different. Families now have enough choices within the district that they don’t have to move to enroll their children in a high quality school. However, not all families know about their options in SAISD, and even the ones who do may be concerned about controversies at the district. At a luncheon meeting of business and community leaders on Wednesday, May 23 in the library at Fox Tech High School, Superintendent Pedro Martinez presented his vision of San Antonio ISD as a System of Great Schools. I took notes at the meeting and wanted to share my thoughts so that more parents have a sense of the big picture.

Three Years of Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s Leadership at SAISD

When my family left San Antonio ISD, that was two superintendents ago. A series of district leaders had not been able to stop the flow of students away from the district or make meaningful improvements in schools. Martinez joined San Antonio ISD on June 1, 2015, so he has just passed the three-year mark of his tenure. At the luncheon, Martinez offered reflections about how his approach has changed since his first year as superintendent.

Superintendent Pedro Martinez at SAISD luncheon to explain System of Great Schools model | San Antonio Charter Moms

Martinez’s first task was to learn where things stood: Were things actually going well but there was a public relations problem, or were things really bad?

Martinez deeply identifies with the students in his district. “It’s personal because these kids are like me,” he said. His family emigrated from Mexico when he was five years old, and he grew up in poverty in inner city Chicago, as described in this interview for 74 Million. Martinez was the first in his family to graduate from high school and go to college, and college graduation is the goal he wants for the students in his district. However, in 2015, things were not going well: less than two percent of San Antonio ISD graduates enrolled at a top tier university, and less than 50 percent of students went to college, and most of those went to community college. Martinez quickly announced a set of goals and a plan for how to get there, as summarized in this earlier post.

During the 2015–16 school year, Martinez visited the district’s two most successful schools, Travis Early College High School and Young Women’s Leadership Academy. He encouraged those students to take SAT and AP exams and to apply to Tier One universities. At the luncheon, Martinez reported that, on measures of college readiness, San Antonio ISD is closing the gap with state averages, and in 2018 may exceed the averages for Bexar County.

This past school year, Martinez has taken the trustees to meet the top ten students graduating from each high school. He said it’s important to get the top students in to good colleges because they are role models for the younger students on their campuses. The emphasis is on top tier, four-year universities because they have the highest completion rates.

Martinez described his third year, 2017–18, as “tough.” He added, “The power bases are out there. At first, you don’t know where they are, but the pitchforks are coming,” as seen in the conflicts with the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel over the partnership with Democracy Prep and the reduction in force. To realize the vision of a System of Great Schools, Martinez will need the support of San Antonio’s business community and of parents.

Questions at SAISD luncheon to explain System of Great Schools model | San Antonio Charter Moms

Business Community Supports San Antonio ISD’s Vision of a System of Great Schools

Martinez’s luncheon talk was geared towards leaders of San Antonio’s business community, and I felt privileged to listen in as a parent-advocate. I follow the news about San Antonio ISD, and I have seen parts of the plan in action, but this presentation was the first time I had heard district leadership explain the big picture and make the case for the System of Great Schools model.

Here is the super-short version: San Antonio ISD is hiring and training teachers and school leaders to staff new model schools, which are designed to be diverse, and pursuing partnerships with charter schools and other innovative models, and creating a pipeline of top teaching talent to staff schools around the district, with a goal of getting its students graduated from college.

Let’s look at the pieces of that plan.

  • The Master Teacher initiative is a plan to recruit and retain the most effective teachers with higher pay and incentives. Martinez reported that the program has 100 teachers in it now, and the goal is to grow it to 1,000 teachers.
  • Lab schools bring teachers-in-training into schools to provide extra attention to students and to prepare future teachers. For example, Trinity University has partnerships with San Antonio ISD at Lamar Elementary and the Advanced Learning Academy.
  • Residency programs, like Relay Graduate School of Education at Ogden Elementary, provide training by bringing new teachers into classrooms and giving them gradually increasing responsibilities for groups of students. The residency model trains teachers in practical ways, and uses techniques developed in the charter school sphere.
  • Parents want schools that are the right fit for their children, so the System of Great Schools model offers models like dual language, Montessori, International Baccalaureate, and more.
  • To ensure equity, the schools of choice are diverse by design. Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury has studied poverty in SAISD at the level of census blocks, and in more detail than just whether students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Every campus has seats set aside for students from the poorest blocks. Wealthier families appreciate having diversity in the classroom.
  • Efforts to form partnerships with charter school operators are beginning to bear fruit: Braination at Brewer Academy, Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary, Texans Can at Highlands High School, and more in the pipeline.
  • The goal is to get San Antonio ISD students enrolled in college and then graduated from college. Through a partnership with KIPP San Antonio, college counselors are located on San Antonio ISD high school campuses to help students with college advising and to check on students once they are attending college.

These elements are helping San Antonio ISD evolve into a System of Great Schools. At the luncheon, David Osborne, author of Reinventing America’s Schools (profiled in this earlier post), emphasized the importance of giving autonomy to school leaders, while holding them accountable for success. Osborne also stressed the value of having multiple school models and operators so that the oversight body—in this case, the San Antonio ISD board of trustees—can step in and close schools that are not working.

SAISD luncheon with business community to explain System of Great Schools model | San Antonio Charter Moms

Is the San Antonio business community receptive to San Antonio ISD’s System of Great Schools model? At the district’s May 21 board meeting, during public comment, a speaker claiming to speak for the business community said no. However, at the May 23 luncheon, Mike Burke and Ed Kelley stood up to speak. Burke said, “The business community is extremely pleased with Superintendent Pedro Martinez, Board Chair Patti Radle, the entire board, and the work that they are doing.” Martinez asked the business leaders at the meeting to speak up in the community about their support for San Antonio ISD’s leadership and goals. Alongside business leaders, parents are important stakeholders.

Telling San Antonio ISD’s Story to Parents

“Parents are making choices with their feet,” Martinez said. Even the families that are led by single parents, the poor families, the parents who are not well educated, “they all want a fair shot for their child.” The fact that district leadership understands and respects parents’ choices is so remarkable. In order for parents to reap the benefits of the System of Great Schools model, the district will need to do more to communicate to parents what their choices are and how they will benefit from them.

Principal Jackie Navar at SAISD luncheon to explain System of Great Schools model | San Antonio Charter Moms

The district has hired additional staff to strengthen parent engagement, but at the luncheon, the best storyteller was a school leader: Jackie Navar, assistant principal at Ogden Elementary, and future principal at Storm Elementary. Navar shared her personal story about her upbringing and career in San Antonio ISD, and also how changes at Ogden are lifting family engagement. “The kids talk about the school so much that the parents come to see it,” said Navar.

Navar grew up in San Antonio ISD and expressed gratitude to her teachers and support network, especially her mom, a teacher at Irving Middle School. Sadly, Navar’s mom “watched the school decline.” Navar did not go to a Tier One university; she acknowledges that was not prepared, and needed remedial math at college.

She observed the poverty in San Antonio ISD, and how the depth of poverty varied. Will Rogers Elementary, in 78212 on the border with North East ISD, has over 90 percent of students qualifying for free or reduce price lunch, but is still a world away from schools in the 78207 zip code, which has the highest crime, the most domestic violence, and the most child molestation. Nevertheless, “all scholars deserve the same education,” said Navar.

Navar admitted that she “flopped” as a first year teacher. She called on her network, her mom’s teacher friends, to coach her. Soon, she realized she wanted to go into administration to “make a bigger difference.” In 2015, she became an assistant principal at Ogden. However, she could not wear heels to work because so many kids were running out of the classrooms.

In 2017–18, Relay took over Ogden. It was a risk, and Navar was not sure it would work, but now she is convinced. Practices like daily data meetings and real time feedback on teaching strategies are paying off. Preliminary results show that the fifth grade students at Ogden have made significant growth on the STAAR test. Beyond the test scores, Ogden is a success as a neighborhood school that most students walk to every day. Navar participated in Relay’s National Principals Academy and is looking forward to bringing the residency lab school model to Storm Elementary in 2018–19. Her advice for embracing change is to “be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”

Ogden Elementary is an example of successful family engagement. It’s a neighborhood school that is experiencing dramatic change, and curious families are coming to the school to get a closer look. How will the district’s leadership build on that success to inform more parents about the benefits of a System of Great Schools?

Martinez acknowledged that “we have been so busy diagnosing” that the district has not done enough to communicate what they are doing. “We are ready to open our doors more to the community,” he added. “We need to be more intentional about sharing.”

Martinez asked the business community for help. “Resistance will continue to grow,” he said. “I underestimated it. People fight to keep their power bases.” He promised to keep sharing data and asked, “Please judge me by my actions.”

Board chair Patti Radle at SAISD luncheon to explain System of Great Schools model | San Antonio Charter Moms

Radle, the board chair, also addressed the problem of resistance to change: “This change is happening. Who wants to come along?” Radle said she wants to get to a place where district leadership can work with the Alliance again, but added, “We will not be deterred by people who are not ready for our change.” It’s important how we frame the conflict: “We are fighting low expectations and mediocrity,” said Radle. “It’s a battle to get to the best possible place for our students.”

My family moved out of San Antonio ISD years ago, but now the long-awaited turnaround is finally underway. In the past several years, I have watched parents in the San Antonio Charter Moms discussion group buzz with excitement about new model schools in San Antonio ISD. Superintendent Martinez deeply identifies with the students in his district, and has high expectations: that as many of them as possible should graduate from top universities. Martinez and the board of trustees are bringing San Antonio ISD into a System of Great Schools model, in spite of resistance from power bases. Martinez and his team are doing more to communicate their vision to the business community and to parents. Martinez’s request is that we help him spread the word about good changes happening in San Antonio ISD.

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Inga Cotton

Parent activist and founder of San Antonio Charter Moms. Raising two children to be independent adults who do good in the world.