San Antonio Independent School District officials announced on Tuesday the district’s first advanced learning academy, a major step forward in efforts to better serve both high achieving and high aspiring students.
The Advanced and Creative Learning Schools will open for the 2016-17 school year at Austin Academy and Fox Tech High School in partnership with Trinity University. Trinity's master of arts in education has been recognized as one of seven premier teacher preparation programs in the nation.
Trinity President Danny Anderson and SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez announced the partnership and plans at an event at Fox Tech High School. Mayor Ivy Taylor, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX), and state Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) joined to voice their enthusiasm for the academy.
"We have the potential to view SAISD as an asset that attracts people to this community, instead of a liability," Doggett said. "I'm pleased to partner with (the district) and look for every federal dollar we can find to back it up."
The school will eventually serve Pre-K through 12th grade students on two campuses, Austin Academy and Fox Tech. For the 2016-17 school year, Austin will house kindergarten through fourth grade and Fox Tech will house grades 5-10. Upward and downward expansion will follow in subsequent school years. Fox Tech will keep its student population, Health Science magnet, and Law magnet as well. The high school is large enough to allow grades 5-12 of the advanced academy to coexist in a designated wing.
"What we want is to provide opportunities for all of our kids to participate in advanced academics if they choose to," said SAISD board member Steve Lecholop (D1). "This is the first time in the modern history of SAISD that we've had any concerted effort to serve advanced students."
Superintendent Martinez anticipates enrolling 1,600 students across both campuses once the school is operating at capacity. At a parent meeting at Austin Academy Monday night, Martinez said that he anticipates the school to retain the Fox Tech name.
The advanced learning academy will create a pipeline of teaching talent into the district. In addition to the students served on campus, the new academy will serve as a laboratory school for Trinity, where graduate students fulfill their internships working alongside teachers at the new school, and then go on to teach in SAISD.
“These students have a passion for urban schools,” said Shari Albright, chair of Trinity's department of education.
Martinez said he expects 7-10 of these “resident teachers” to spend their first year at the advanced learning academy, and then flow out into the district as master teachers to enhance gifted and talented services across the district. Four apprenticeships will be available for aspiring principals as well, so they can better understand how to lead SAISD schools into a new era of achievement.
“This is our way to show tangible solutions,” Martinez said.
A partnership with local non-profit City Education Partners (CEP) has made it possible to fund not only substantial scholarships for the Trinity students, but additional stipends for teachers at the advanced learning academy. These teachers will be asked to go above and beyond ordinary teaching duties to develop curriculum and customize instruction.
Trinity students who receive the scholarships will agree to serve at least three years beyond their internships in SAISD schools.
"We are committed to enhancing creative opportunities for people who want to become teachers, who want to become leaders and principals," Anderson said.
One of the primary hurdles in recruiting and training talent has been funding. The partnership of CEP allows the district to make necessary investments of $1.2 million per year for three years with the potential to expand an additional two years if the school performs as expected. With Trinity lending its substantial intellectual capital to their expanding family of professional development schools, a strong web of partnerships has formed around professional development in SAISD.
“When we rolled out our goals last summer, we got a lot of support,” Martinez said.
Martinez was approached by engaged philanthropists who asked how they could help. When Martinez explained his ideas for academies like this one and the talent development he hoped to incorporate, donors responded with excitement.
“What drove (the investment) was our goals and our needs,” he said.
Joel Harris, Executive Director of CEP, said that the group had been looking for ways to partner with independent school districts, listening to their goals, and hoping to find an existing vision they could get behind. The philanthropic group didn't want to come in with a plan and sell it to a district. They wanted to support visionary school leadership. Up until they heard Martinez's vision, some of the members had been investing in high performing charter networks that increased options for students.
"We had a desire to support aspirational school models," Harris said.
CEP also wants to see more teachers flowing into underserved areas. SAISD is among the many inner city districts that struggles to fill it's staffing needs. SAISD's advanced learning academy and the partnership with Trinity inspired the group to lend their support, though Harris says that they now intend to step back and let Martinez, Albright and their teams do what they do best.
"We're going to be cheering from the sidelines," he said.
From the time Martinez was hired as superintendent of SAISD, he has been talking about bringing academies like this one to SAISD. He observed that SAISD had grown adept at interventions and program to help students catch up once they had fallen behind, but that once a student performed on grade level, very little could be done to help them maximize their potential.
"This is a comprehensive approach to education that we've been lacking," Sen. Menéndez said. "The state could be doing such a better job, and I hope the state can look to this as a model."
Originally conceived as “gifted and talented academies” the new school fulfills that goal, and uses the term “advanced and creative learning” to differentiate it from “selected enrollment” academies where students are required to test in. The enrollment process for the advanced learning academy will include an interview process to make sure the students understand the work required, and an application showing that they are at grade level so that they start on fair footing. From there, the school’s instruction will highlight the value of hard work as well as natural ability.
Having students of varying natural abilities accelerating at various speeds is a great way to train teachers and principals in the flexibility needed to help students perform their best.
“There’s no program like this in the country that I’ve seen,” Martinez said. "You almost have to take the things you know about education and put them aside for a moment."
Students can apply for enrollment beginning March 24, and teachers can apply beginning March 23.
*Top image: Audience members hold up their signs of dreams they wish for students of the new advanced and creative learning school. Photo by Scott Ball.