Driven to Improve Failing Schools, SAISD Superintendent Presses Ahead with Agenda

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez

The classrooms at Rodriguez Elementary are deserted and the walls remain bare more than a month into the school year. After the campus failed state standards five years in a row, San Antonio Independent School District shuttered Rodriguez at the end of May, dispersing the neighborhood’s kids to other campuses.

On a humid Tuesday in September, educators and families returned to the empty halls, filing into Rodriguez’s cafeteria to hear what Superintendent Pedro Martinez would say about the school’s future. 

In typical Martinez fashion – his colleagues describe him as a persuasive salesman and big-picture visionary – the superintendent presented Rodriguez’s closure as an opportunity, not a setback.

He pitched a number of ideas to 50 or so community members, painting a picture of the school’s next life: The reopened campus could host a dual language program like the one at Mark Twain Dual Language Academy or operate a Montessori program, similar to the offerings at Steele Montessori Academy. 

Both programs are new offerings developed under Martinez’s leadership. Since his hiring in 2015, the district has launched more than 10 new school models.

Students can choose to enroll at their neighborhood school or attend “choice schools” like CAST Med, a high school for kids interested in the medical profession, or Young Women’s Leadership Academy: Primary, the city’s only public single-gender elementary.

When SAISD’s board hired Martinez, trustees knew he wasn’t the typical superintendent candidate. He lacked classroom teaching experience but sold himself as an innovator with a penchant for strategic planning who could disrupt the district’s history of low student achievement.

Entering his fifth school year in SAISD, Martinez has implemented a host of new initiatives and programs as SAISD has enrolled more out-of-district students while increasing access to advanced academic offerings district-wide.

He’s also led the district through the loss of about 5,000 students, overseen layoffs of more than 160 employees, and drawn criticism from teachers and parents who prefer a more traditional neighborhood school model. In particular, members of the district’s teachers union feel Martinez has made sweeping changes without adequate input from community members and teachers.

But Martinez’s initiatives have shown results: SAISD’s latest district-wide accountability score rose to a B, the same grade as the wealthier Northside and North East ISDs – causing parents, school board members, and even Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to applaud the superintendent’s efforts to try new approaches. Trustees recently rewarded Martinez with a raise and contract extension through 2024.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(center)Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath arrives at San Antonio ISD’s Schenck Elementary School, which received an A from the State’s accountability system as (left) Superintendent Pedro Martinez walks alongside.

After almost two decades of steady enrollment declines, San Antonio ISD’s student enrollment now appears to be flattening out. District officials announced current enrollment would be close to the previous year’s number, after two straight years of declines. Some families who had left the district have returned.

“My zoned SAISD elementary would not have been a fit at all for my children, not even in the realm of things I would consider,” said Milly Elliott, whose three kids previously attended private school but returned to SAISD. “But when Pedro Martinez came in and he supported innovative learning and project-based learning and gifted education for all at Advanced Learning Academy, he gave me a choice that would work for me.”

However, Stephanie Torres, a former Rodriguez parent who attended the September meeting, feels Martinez has emphasized new school models at the expense of neighborhood schools.

“It was so chaotic when Rodriguez closed,” Torres said. “Everyone wasn’t on the same page and it didn’t really feel like [the district] had been focusing on our students at all, and then we found out [Rodriguez] had to close.”

While Martinez has proven to be a polarizing figure, both his supporters and detractors recognize him as a key player in SAISD’s transformation.

“He’s not afraid to try new ideas, to make big bold changes and he’s surrounded himself with talented people,” SAISD trustee Ed Garza said. “Some of his hires have not been a home run and he’s identified his mistakes. He wants to push the district at a high pace, bring talent, but sometimes it doesn’t always work out.”

‘Absolute Low Performance’

Martinez inherited a district with entrenched poverty, a history of low performing schools, and a downward-trending student enrollment.

Districtwide scores on standardized exams were at least 10 points below both state and regional averages in most subjects and grades. About 82 percent of students graduated from high school in four years, and less than a third of the class of 2014 completed one year of higher education without remediation.

“I learned in my first few months the absolute low performance of the district,” Martinez said. “I knew that we had challenges, but not to the extent [that I saw when] I got out to schools and was observing classrooms.

“I saw the lack of systems that we had in the district, the lack of resources.”

Viewing the district like a patient in need of triage, Martinez began applying spot solutions while crafting longer term goals.

The end product was SAISD Blueprint for Excellence: Target 2020, a list of 10 five-year goals designed to focus efforts on improving college readiness, boosting student outcomes, and growing the number of campuses rated highly by the State.

“In his first year, he came in and I think he saw us as a district of not very high expectations that was not very innovative,” SAISD Board President Patti Radle said. “In setting those five-year goals, he was saying, ‘We are not afraid to have this high of an expectancy for our students or our teachers.'”

(left to right) SAISD Board President Patti Radle, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, and SAISD Trustee Debra Guerrero.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(left to right) SAISD Board President Patti Radle, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, and SAISD Trustee Debra Guerrero.

There has been some progress – 84 percent of students from the class of 2018 graduated in four years, the number of failing schools has decreased, and 100 percent of students now take the ACT or SAT.

But with one year left in Martinez’s five-year timeline, 40 SAISD campuses still received Ds or Fs from the Texas Education Agency and one campus is in peril of closure unless it improves.

As 2020 approaches, Martinez now believes the goals were too ambitious to complete on a five-year timeline. They are geared more for a 10-year plan, he said.

The Challenge of Getting Buy-In

For Shelley Potter, president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, there wasn’t enough collaboration on Martinez’s goals when they were being drafted. He may have presented the goals to the community, Potter said, but he didn’t listen to community members’ input in shaping them.

A frequent critic of the superintendent, Potter felt the start of the relationship between the Alliance and Martinez was positive. She and Martinez even authored a joint letter to teachers when questions arose about changes to instruction in 2016.

The following year, the relationship soured because of what Potter describes as a lack of collaboration on high-profile decisions.

When Martinez moved to turn over operations at Stewart Elementary to New York-based charter operator Democracy Prep in 2018, teachers said they felt blindsided. The Alliance filed a lawsuit, alleging Martinez didn’t do enough to collect input from campus staff, but the suit was dismissed.

A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

A member of the San Antonio Alliance for of Teachers and Support Personnel holds up a sign in protest of Democracy Prep taking over Stewart Elementary School in 2018.

In March, Martinez again took steps to give control of 18 campuses to outside entities, drawing criticism from members of the Alliance. Martinez maintained that the partnerships with charter operators and other groups allow the campuses more autonomy to make their own day-to-day decisions and innovate.

“This was really an effort that came both from us and the schools together,” Martinez said at the time. “Really, what the partnerships are here for is to sustain the vision and the mission of the schools.”

Some educators disagree that the partnerships will allow for more innovation.

“I understand that potentially the need for change was there [when Martinez came to SAISD] but the change should have been in the direction of authentically engaging the communities, educators, parents and students in a collective vision making for the district as a whole,” former Stewart teacher Alejandra Lopez said. Lopez now teaches at Hillcrest Elementary and serves as executive vice president of the Alliance.

These disputes loom large in the central conflict of Martinez’s superintendency. He struggles to balance an urgent need for change with sustainability and community buy-in, several SAISD community members said.

“With all change comes pushback because you are always going to have things that folks don’t want to change,” SAISD Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury said. “The question is are you doing things where the vast majority of folks are ultimately going to benefit and grow and move things forward? Are you really going to bring the community along or do it in a way where you end up trampling the community and implementation is disastrous and you just made things worse? For him, it comes back to this need for balance.”

The rapid pace of change has been positive to witness for longtime district observers like Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose son attends one of SAISD’s choice schools although he lives outside the district’s boundaries.

“Pedro has been an incredible leader and he and his board have led one of the most dramatic turnarounds in public education our City has ever seen,” Nirenberg said. “He’s done so with great vision, with innovation and taking of risks, and he’s done so with a lot of intentional fortitude.”

A Corporate Approach to Classrooms

Longtime SAISD residents observe that their school district looks very different than it did five years ago. Martinez has made contentious decisions former superintendents might have avoided, including the elimination of continuing contracts for teachers.

This willingness to upend the status quo might could stem from Martinez’s unconventional background as an innovator, rather than an educator.

The oldest of 12 siblings, Martinez was born in Mexico before immigrating with his family to Chicago. He attended Chicago Public Schools and was an A-plus student, striving to get a better understanding of his surroundings, Martinez’s wife Berenice Alejo, said.

“I think he’s very thoughtful,” Alejo said. “Like, when we’re playing Scrabble he’d always tell me that I know more words, but he would always win because he was playing super strategic.”

After graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Martinez began his career as an accountant with a penchant for strategic planning. He applied this skillset to a job with the Archdiocese of Chicago before being recruited by future U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, then the head of Chicago’s public schools, to join a team dedicated to turning around one of the nation’s largest school systems.

While he had no experience in the classroom, Martinez excelled at overseeing district finances, eventually being promoted to chief financial officer to manage a $5 billion budget. Duncan encouraged him to further his career and become a superintendent.

“My view was ‘I’m really happy in Chicago, I’m happy with Chicago Public Schools, and I might stay here my whole life, there’s no reason for me to move,'” Martinez said. “It wasn’t until Secretary Duncan put that notion in my mind that I applied to the [Broad Academy.]”

The Broad Academy, based in Los Angeles, trains small classes of executives from business, nonprofit, military, government, and education backgrounds to lead urban public school systems.

Notable alumni include former South San Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra, IDEA Public Schools founder and CEO Tom Torkelson, and former Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg. The program also has attracted critics who question the disruptive tactics and corporate management style Broad promotes.

Martinez’s Broad training launched his career as a superintendent, preparing him to lead school districts in Nevada before he applied for the top job in San Antonio ISD. Even with 12 years experience in public school systems, SAISD trustees and community members didn’t initially view Martinez as the natural choice for superintendent.

“I was skeptical, to say the least,” former trustee James Howard said. “He was not a traditional educator, and you know that’s not always the thing that makes you the best superintendent, but I felt he needed to have some sort of foundation to understand what the problems are and how to handle the problems.”

Howard taught at SAISD’s Japhet Elementary for more than a decade and sensed some of the consternation other district educators felt at the possibility of having someone who didn’t teach in a classroom lead a district that employed 3,300 teachers.

Radle recognized how Martinez’s background varied from the typical applicant, but she was glad to see him address the issue directly during his interview.

“We asked him what he thought about public schools and charter schools, and I’ve repeated his answer in public many times because I think it is such an important mindset,” Radle said. “He said, ‘I think we have to celebrate anyone who’s doing well for our students.’ That said to us that it’s about the students for him and less about the conflicts of how somebody is doing it.”

Martinez acknowledged that he probably wouldn’t be able to stand in as a substitute teacher, but could help teachers get whatever they needed to improve student outcomes.

“I see the superintendent as a person who has to be able to create an environment where you are fostering talent,” Martinez said. “My favorite thing to do is to actually be in schools because I get to talk to the school leaders and really for me I want to understand you know, what’s helping them either be successful or what are the obstacles that they’re still facing that we could try to find ways to reduce.”

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez sits on the steps inside CAST Tech High School.

Seth Rau, SAISD’s former director of legislative and strategic partnerships and one of the people Martinez recruited from Nevada to work in SAISD, said his former boss has started to accomplish what he always wanted to do in the district: set higher expectations for students and the community.

“He’s got a relentless focus on accountability and a strong focus on finance,” Rau said. “He’s a very good business leader, but he’s never going to be an instructional leader of a school district. … His job is to really lead an organization rather than be the educator-in-chief.”

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