“URGENT ACTION ALERT,” the headline said. “CHARTER INVASION OF SAISD.”
On the contrary, it’s not a charter invasion—it’s a charter rescue mission, and it’s a great opportunity for students. San Antonio ISD wants to partner with Democracy Prep Public Schools, a high-performing charter school network based in New York, to operate P.F. Stewart Elementary School, a campus which has earned low accountability ratings for years and is at risk of a state-ordered shutdown.
On Friday afternoon, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel posted a call to action for union members to rally and attend the Monday, January 22, 2018 meeting of the San Antonio ISD Board of Trustees. On the agenda is Item 4.B, “Approval of In-District Charter Applications for Irving Dual Language Academy, Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary School, and Storm Residency Lab School.” In the meeting packet, the Board Agenda Summary Form states that Mohammed Choudhury, Chief Innovation Officer, will present the requests. Also in the packet is the Application for an Internal Charter School: Democracy Prep at Stewart ES, a detailed, 20-page document explaining how the campus will operate. I’ve read the application closely and—tl;dr—it’s legit.
Why does SAISD want Democracy Prep to operate a K–8 school at Stewart Elementary? For the past four years, Stewart Elementary has earned ratings of “Improvement Required” (IR) from the Texas Education Agency (TEA). The school report cards from 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 show consistently low scores, and this trend is likely to continue in 2018.
Stewart Elementary is one of many SAISD campuses that were rated IR in 2017. In addition to Stewart Elementary, five other SAISD campuses have been rated IR for four or more years in a row: Miller, Ogden, and Rodriguez elementary schools and Irving and Tafolla middle schools. When that happens, TEA can order the campuses shut down or can take over the entire district by appointing a board of managers to replace the school board.
SAISD has already tried a turnaround plan for Stewart Elementary. Those efforts were well documented by the Rivard Report in 2016. Test scores remained low, and Principal Traci Smith was removed in June 2017. New legislation, SB 1882 (co-sponsored by Senator José Menendez), passed in 2017 and allows districts to partner with specialized charter schools to take over their IR campuses. Once the partnership with Democracy Prep takes effect, Stewart Elementary will have two more years to bring up its rating. However, SAISD needs to act quickly to create the partnership: turnaround plans are due at the TEA by March.
Why has SAISD selected Democracy Prep as a charter school partner? Democracy Prep has a track record of success in accelerating learning and significantly improving student achievement. The first Democracy Prep campus opened in 2006, and by 2009 it became the highest-performing school in Central Harlem and was the top-ranked public middle school in New York City. Growing beyond New York, Democracy Prep now has campuses in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Baton Rouge, and Las Vegas.
Democracy Prep’s motto is “Work hard. Go to college. Change the world!” Last month, a viral video about a Democracy Prep student’s Harvard acceptance opened a window onto a family success story about three sisters from an immigrant family who all made it to the Ivy League. Democracy Prep schools have made a big impact in historically underserved communities, especially among students with learning disabilities and limited English proficiency
How would the transition work? If the board approves the partnership, Democracy Prep would open as a K-8 school in the Stewart Elementary campus in August 2018. The neighborhood children would still attend the school, but they would experience the program of a Democracy Prep school. SAISD would maintain oversight.
What would be different at Stewart Elementary as a Democracy Prep school? There would be a longer school year, a longer school day, and more after-school programs. The curriculum has a strong focus on literacy and math, as well as daily classes in the fine arts. Citizenship education ensures that students possess civic knowledge and learn to advocate for themselves and their communities. The application goes into more detail about the school model; taken as a whole, it makes a convincing case that Stewart Elementary as a Democracy Prep school would offer greater learning opportunities for a traditionally underserved neighborhood.
What are the risks if SAISD partners with Democracy Prep? Pages 17–18 of the application outline the employment plan: employment at will. That policy, widespread at charter schools, allows school leaders to put their most effective teachers in front of students, and to let go of ineffective teachers. The Alliance asks, “Democracy Prep would not have to abide by SAISD Board Policies or with SAISD Administrative Procedures. Is this an attempt to use charters to erode employee safeguards?” The Alliance is trying to protect adults’ jobs in the short run at the expense of children who are not getting the education they deserve—year after year.
The Alliance warns of a slippery slope: “Once the fox is in the hen house, all IR campuses will be at risk.” If SAISD opens the door to Democracy Prep, then other charter school partnerships will not be far behind. Wouldn’t that be a good thing for students? SAISD is moving towards a portfolio schools strategy, with a variety of high-performing school models to meet the needs of the community.
“ACTION ALERT,” indeed. The Alliance wants its members to show up in force to deter the SAISD board from partnering with Democracy Prep. On the contrary, parents should turn out to the SAISD board meeting to show support for Superintendent Martinez and the board for the bold step of inviting Democracy Prep to Stewart Elementary. It’s the best option for helping the students to reach their highest potential.
The San Antonio ISD Board of Trustees meets at the Burnet Center, 406 Barrera St., San Antonio, TX 78210. (map) The board meeting starts at 5:30 p.m.; members of the public can sign up beforehand to speak for a short time, usually 1–3 minutes. For more information, join the San Antonio Charter Moms Discussion Group on Facebook.
- “SAISD takes another step deeper into charter school waters,” Bekah McNeel, Folo Media, January 20, 2018
- “Improvement Plans to Aid Failing Schools in Harlandale and East Central ISDs,” Emily Donaldson, Rivard Report, January 19, 2018
- “Why are Texas school districts partnering with their sworn enemy: charters?,” Eva-Marie Ayala, Dallas Morning News, October 6, 2017
- “Dozens of Texas Districts Must Improve Failing Schools – Or Outside Managers Could Take Over,” Laura Isensee, Houston Public Media, August 7, 2017
- “SAISD expands internship programs at struggling schools,” Alia Malik, San Antonio Express-News, July 17, 2017
- “Parents, Teachers, ‘Brave’ Student Speak Out Against Removal of SAISD Principal,” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, June 23, 2017
- “Stewart Elementary: No Longer a ‘Special Population,'” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, June 9, 2016
- “Stewart Elementary: Abolishing ‘Too Cool for School,'” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, June 7, 2016
- “Stewart Elementary: For the Love of Reading,” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, April 18, 2016
- “Stewart Elementary: The Ticking Clock of Literacy,” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, April 15, 2016
- “Stewart Elementary: The Hidden Talents of Low-Income Students,” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, March 7, 2016
- “Stewart Elementary and The Gifted and Talented Dilemma,” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, March 6, 2016
- “Stewart Elementary: A Case Study for Change,” Bekah McNeel, Rivard Report, February 9, 2016