Edgewood ISD Superintendent Eduardo Hernández speaks on the Innovation Plans & Census Information packet distributed at the Gus Garcia Middle School Community Plática. Credit: Stephanie Marquez / Rivard Report

Edgewood Independent School District, a 10,000-student school system on San Antonio’s West Side, is rich in historic moments.

In 1968, Edgewood High School students famously left their classrooms and walked off campus to protest what they saw as systemic discrimination against Latinos that perpetuated poor school conditions. Changes were made.

In 1984, the district was the original plaintiff in a notable court case that resulted in overhaul of the State’s public school funding scheme.

Superintendent Eduardo Hernández hopes 2018 – the start of the district’s new five-year strategic plan – will signify another milestone in Edgewood ISD’s more than 100-year history, a turning point that will result in notable change. The plan is aimed at introducing new education models into a school system that has remained relatively unchanged in the last several decades.

If Hernández and his team are successful, Edgewood’s 20 campuses will be home to career-focused high schools, two single-gender kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campuses, and new programs focused on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) curriculum, performing arts, leadership, early childhood, and public service, all by the end of the 2022-23 school year.

“The idea is to teach our parents how to shop the school district almost like you’re walking in the store,” Hernández said.

It’s a relatively new concept for many living in Edgewood ISD and elsewhere in San Antonio. From the 1990s to the early 2000s, the only way for families to enroll students in schools outside their attendance boundaries was to gain acceptance into a magnet program or charter school with open enrollment. More recently, San Antonio ISD and other districts have created in-district charters, or schools that offer innovative learning programs and open enrollment to families living outside district boundaries.

This fall, Edgewood ISD became an open-enrollment district, meaning students living anywhere could choose to attend any Edgewood campus. The hope is to draw more students to the district at a time when enrollment has declined due in part to the rapid growth of area charter schools and funding is based on the number of students in class.

The poor academic performance of several Edgewood ISD campuses hasn’t helped enrollment. In 2019, the district improved its rating in the State’s accountability system from a D to a C, but 10 campuses were rated an F and three were rated a D.

At a recent plática, or community meeting, with families from Gus Garcia Middle School, Hernández introduced the idea of finding the best school “fit” to parents and their students. He told the 50 or so community members present that they needed to change their mentality from just “go[ing] to the school down the street.”

The goal is to allow families to pick the school that will engage their student best.

Cynthia Reyes, whose daughter attends Gus Garcia Middle School and son attends Loma Park Elementary, asked how the process would work. Could she just take her child to whatever school seemed most appealing and enroll?

That would be the idea once each school has introduced a new school model and a proper enrollment system has been set up, Hernández said.

Reyes admitted she could see the value in it. While her daughter loves school, her son doesn’t enjoy going to class.

“Maybe if he picks his school, it will actually entertain him and keep him interested,” Reyes said.

Broad brushstrokes and ‘nitty gritty’ details

Hernández first publicly unveiled his vision for the district at his 2019 State of the District speech last spring, held on the stage of the district’s Theatre of the Performing Arts. He showed the crowd a rough blueprint for the future of the district and hinted at potential new models, including an all-girls school that is likely to open at Las Palmas Elementary in fall 2020.

This fall, one new school model opened at Gardendale Elementary, where a prekindergarten through second grade program was introduced through a partnership with Pre-K 4 SA, the City’s taxpayer-funded prekindergarten program. At Brentwood Middle School, the first cohort of sixth graders started STEAM-centered instruction.

Gardendale will fall into what Hernández calls the district’s early childhood innovation zone, a grouping of schools with similar models, and Brentwood fits into the zone focused on STEAM. There are still nine remaining elementaries, two middle schools, and two comprehensive high schools that have yet to change their educational model.

As part of Edgewood’s process for innovation, the district is giving principals a year away from their campuses to design new curriculums, instruction models, and operational details. They also visit successful school models around the country to learn best practices, Edgewood Chief Innovation Officer Christopher Nester said.

For example, the principal at Las Palmas Elementary who will turn the school into an all-girls model visited often-imitated all-girls schools throughout the United States. There are few public models to study in San Antonio other than San Antonio ISD’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy.

The principals of the new models at Perales Elementary and Las Palmas Elementary have been working in their year away from campus with San Antonio nonprofit City Education Partners through a fellowship program to plot out the future of their campuses.

Community input is a key part of Edgewood’s transformation strategy, both Nester and Hernández emphasized. District administrators regularly schedule pláticas with each campus community to loop them in on the process. The superintendent spoke before Gus Garcia families in early December and had another meeting planned on the subject for the following spring. Campus leaders are following suit.

“[The principals] are having pláticas in the neighborhoods and asking parents, ‘What would you like to see? What would you like to be included?’ because we know this is going to come to pass, but we need [community] input,” Hernández said.

Gilbert, a Gus Garcia Middle School student, addressed Superintendent Eduardo Hernandez about the lack of functioning desks at his school.

While the district chief has broad ideas of what he wants Edgewood to look like in the coming five years, not all campuses have concrete plans.

For example, Hernández has determined both Memorial and Kennedy high schools likely will be the future sites of a P-TECH school, or career-focused high school where students can earn certifications and associate degrees. However, he hasn’t publicly announced details such as the focus of either P-TECH program.

This can be advantageous, the superintendent said. Should a new industry emerge in San Antonio in the next three years, the district has enough flexibility to adapt its offerings to satisfy the demand for labor.

Nester, a new addition to Edgewood ISD, spends most of his days on what he calls the “nitty gritty” points of the plan, filling in the details of the proposed instructional models and how to make the system work district-wide.

He believes the stakes are high for Edgewood, both academically and for the future of the district.

“We have to adapt and accommodate to our customers, which is our parents and our students,” Nester said. “Our job is either innovate, if you will, or perish, because everyone else around us is doing it.”

A crucial element

The success of Edgewood’s plan rests on the ability of each school’s leadership to effectively implement sweeping changes and train the campus’ teachers in the new instructional model. Hernández only selects a school to change its model once he has enough confidence in its principal.

“If we have those people here great, but if you’re not here for that, we can just respectfully separate,” Hernández told parents and families at the Gus Garcia plática in December. “We need more people who know that this is not a 9-to-5 job.”

At a Nov. 19 school board meeting, the Edgewood board broached what might be a consequence of the plan. Legal counsel talked to the board in closed session about what a reduction in force could look like if it was needed, according to the meeting’s agenda.

The district’s layoff, or reduction in force, policy would allow the district to not renew the contracts of teachers who work in programs that are no longer needed. For instance, if an elementary school becomes a middle school, the district could reduce the numbers of elementary teachers at that campus.

District spokeswoman Keyhla Calderon-Lugo told the Rivard Report that there are no layoff plans at this time and that the discussion was about giving the board options as the innovation plan moves forward.

Susan Salinas, a Texas State Teacher’s Association official who works with the Edgewood chapter, said that no one with the district has indicated any layoff plans.

Salinas did emphasize, however, the need for campuses to seek teacher input in their innovation plans. Sweeping changes can only be successful if teachers buy in and ensure everything is carried out properly, she added.

The one person who will likely be around to make sure that happens is Hernández. Hired a little over a year and a half ago, Hernández received a contract extension this spring through June 2023, a measure of trustees’ confidence in the superintendent and his plan.

Board President Roy Soto said he backed the plan and remarked on how much it will transform what he experienced as a student in the 1970s.

“I think when you look in the district, as economically disadvantaged as it is, what is very important is that children have access,” Soto said. “If they have access to things beyond what has always been, we’re being more competitive. [Our students] will feel that they can do what any young person can do in any other school.

“I think this is going to be a great way for us to move our children and our young scholars forward, even if there is inequity.”

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the Rivard Report.