Inga Cotton speaks in support of charter operator Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary at an SAISD board meeting in March. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Put yourself in the shoes of San Antonio Independent School District leaders earlier this year: faced with a perpetually failing campus, they chose to enlist the help of charter operator Democracy Prep to transform Stewart Elementary into a school that offers high-quality education and a brighter future for its students.

Now put yourself in the shoes of a Stewart parent: the forthcoming district-charter partnership is almost certain to have brought on both change and uncertainty.

A recent commentary on the topic mentioned my blog, San Antonio Charter Moms, but did not accurately describe its mission. It is not an “advocacy group for charter expansion;” rather, it aims to give parents tools and information to make informed decisions and raise the overall quality of education in our city.

The blog started in 2012 with a small group of moms curious about some of the new charter schools that were coming to San Antonio. While the “charter moms” name has stuck, the purpose has expanded to include all types of schools.

School models tend to be secondary to parents as governance systems usually work in the background. That is, unless there is a breakdown and a school is faced with closure or new management. At the end of the day, parents want a school where their child is happy, feels safe, and makes progress in learning.

Charter partnerships, such as the forthcoming one at Stewart Elementary in SAISD, can strengthen the public school system by raising the quality of education and, thus, creating benefits for San Antonio’s children. But from a parent’s standpoint, both opportunities and risks lie in bringing partnerships into our neighborhood public schools.

Looking to charter schools for expertise makes sense. The Texas charter school sector as a whole is successful. According to Charter School Performance in Texas , a study published by CREDO at Stanford University in August 2017,

” … on average, charter students in Texas experience stronger annual growth in reading and similar growth in math compared to the educational gains of their matched peers who enroll in the traditional public schools … The impact on reading gains is statistically significant. Thinking of a 180-day school year as ‘one year of learning,’ an average Texas charter student exhibits growth equivalent to completing 17 additional days of learning in reading each year.”

Those are averages – meaning, some schools do better than others. Public school districts must select successful charters with expertise in serving certain types of students, such as low-income students or those who have too few credits for their age. When those charter schools bring proven expertise to help a district school succeed, students benefit.

Charter schools can learn from district schools, too. Neighborhood schools experienced in supporting groups like English-language learners and special education students must pass that knowledge on to charter operators. Democracy Prep is tasked with accommodating all students assigned to Stewart Elementary.

Not all charter schools are doing a good job. Like failing district schools, failing charters should be closed, too. Resources and students should go to the successful schools, but ensuring that happens requires thorough analysis on behalf of leaders and parents.

This raises the broader issue about school quality and parental choice that applies to all public schools: Parents need support to make good decisions. They need objective information about school quality, like the TEA’s school report cards, and forthcoming letter grades for districts and campuses.

There should also be limits on choice: Parents should not be allowed to choose a failing school, either district or charter. Why would parents want their children enrolled in a failing school? A child’s lag in academic progress often does not become apparent until there is a serious problem.

But parents may like intangible things about their kids’ school – friendly people on campus, a feeling of safety and belonging, a sense of tradition, a location within walking distance from their home – and we must have compassion for families who make the best decisions they can with the information and resources available to them. Many parents have told me that transportation, application processes, deadlines, and wait lists are all major limiting factors in choosing a different school.

That’s why every neighborhood needs a high-quality public school. In neighborhoods where public schools have been failing, the tendency to cover up the problem has eroded parents’ trust. SAISD is working to fix the problem of failing schools through innovative partnerships, but the district must now also work to rebuild trust with its constituents. While there is a lot of uncertainty among Stewart Elementary parents, experiences at other campuses gives reason for hope.

Ogden Elementary, for example, has been a residency lab school of the Relay Graduate School of Education for one year now, and both teachers and school leaders there have said parent engagement has increased because children are talking about the changes in their school.

Part of rebuilding trust is reassuring parents that, in the new world of district-charter partnerships, the community’s most vulnerable students will be taken care of. The system needs safeguards to ensure it is fair and improves – not worsens – inequality in our city.

To ease the discomfort of change and uncertainty, SAISD must communicate clearly and compassionately with affected families and ensure its most vulnerable students still get the attention they deserve.

These are difficult times, but there is the potential for SAISD to emerge as a stronger district and a true leader in the region and the nation.

Inga Cotton

Inga Cotton is a parent activist and blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms about school choice and local educational activities for families. She has two children. Read her blog at www.sachartermoms.com.

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