It has been a big year for inner city education in San Antonio. You might say that if you fell asleep in 2013 and woke up today, you wouldn’t recognize the landscape.
Perhaps the most passionate discussion of 2014 was the growth of the charter movement. Charter schools have continued to proliferate in accordance with heavy demand. In fact, they can’t seem to multiply fast enough.
Victoria Branton Rico, chair and trustee of the George W. Brackenridge Foundation, continues to lead the charge in recruiting high performing charters. When philanthropists want to see a lot of bang for their buck, she has found, charter schools are at the top of the list. That drives growth.
“The real kicker for philanthropists is that the risk of creating more mediocre education is very low. Charter operators who have created really high-performing schools have done so with remarkable consistency, and schools that are high performing in year one are almost certain to be high performing in year five," Rico said. "In my opinion, some of the best schools to watch (and fund) are IDEA, Great Hearts, KIPP, BASIS, and Carpe Diem.”
The highest profile opening in 2014 was Great Hearts Monte Vista, which opened with 1,887 applicants for the 572 spots in grades K-9. The primary school meets at Temple Beth-El, and the secondary school meets at Trinity Baptist Church.
The reception of the Arizona based chain has been warm, and it plans to open a Northern Oaks campus in 2015, part of a larger strategy to open multiple campuses in San Antonio.
BASIS, another Arizona-based chain, opened its second campus in 2014, this time within the boundaries of Alamo Heights ISD. While academically successful, the school in the Medical Center, BASIS San Antonio, has been subject to scrutiny for insensitivity and lack of transparency. BASIS San Antonio North, located on Ramsey near North Star Mall, has managed to avoid these socially divisive issues.
Criticism notwithstanding, the schools performance is impressive. With just nine high schools in Arizona and Texas, in 2014 BASIS students accounted for an astonishing 53 of the 116 total National AP Scholars across the country who were in 10th grade. The appeal has brought parents from as far as Hong Kong seeking a BASIS education for their children.
IDEA Public Schools, the highly prolific Texas-based charter chain, also is in expansion mode. Two new campuses, each housing two schools (an elementary school and college preparatory school) have opened, IDEA Walzem and IDEA Monterrey Park.
The anticipated IDEA Eastside is scheduled to open in 2015, which will join IDEA Carver and IDEA South Flores to give the chain 10 schools in San Antonio.
KIPP also continued to answer the demand for educational options in underserved areas. In addition to opening KIPP: Esperanza, which started with kindergarten and will continue to grow with the inaugural class up to 4th grade in 2018. Meanwhile, in a huge move of both educational and physical restoration, KIPP Un Mundo Language Academy (elementary), Camino Academy (middle), and University Prep (high school) moved into a former Kmart on Commerce Street.
“For modest donations of $1,000-$2,500 per seat, we can build these glorious new public schools that rival the best private schools," Rico said. "However, because they are in every sense public schools, charter schools are sustained after start-up by state and federal funding. This means they provide class after class of public school students transformative education at no additional philanthropic cost."
Some would maintain that the popularity of the well-funded and high performing charters has put needed pressure on SAISD and other districts to embrace reform and change and bring new breadth and depth to their programs.
Improvements in public schools also were made more visible by the Go Public! campaign launched at the end of 2013, and the 2014 completion or near completion of many of the 2010 bond projects within the SAISD boundaries and its 90 campuses.
Other improvements focused on the broad range of needs within the district, where students fall along the spectrum of performance, support, and ambition.
The success of Travis Early College High School has given momentum to additional programs like it. St. Philips Early College High School, on the Eastside college campus, is focusing on certifications and licensure. SAISD is currently awaiting Texas Education Agency approval for a “school within a school” at Brackenridge High School, which would be the early college model they hope to implement across the district, giving students the chance to do regular high school activities alongside their college courses.
Exceptionally bright younger students in SAISD will have new resources as well. Making its debut for K-8 campuses this fall is the “Aim to Grow Your Brain” program, based upon the book by local educator Joanne Billingsley.
The district also has beefed up its outreach, nearly tripling the number of Parent and Family Liaisons employed. Officials have taken particular aim at engaging the fathers of inner city students. The inaugural Fathers In Action summit took place on Sept. 24, and the next one will be on Jan. 15. This effort to build involvement and investment extends to all male role models in students’ lives, a presence sorely missing for many.
Within the footprint of the widely visible Eastside Promise Neighborhood and Choice Neighborhood, branded as Eastpoint, SAISD’s Wheatley Middle School is being transformed into a community school, where healthcare, social, and financial services will be available on campus during the school day and in the evening.
“We continue to, in my opinion, be the leaders within the Eastside Promise Neighborhood,” said SAISD Superintendent Dr. Sylvester Perez.
The district's education efforts extend beyond traditional students as well. They have fought to retain adult education centers that were slated for closure, and hosted their second Professional Learning Conference. The conference focused on professional development topics chosen by teachers to help them better serve their particular students.
At the top of the minds of many in SAISD are the school closures at W.W. White Elementary School, Brewer Elementary School, Nelson Elementary School, and Steele Elementary School at the end of the 2014-15 school year and Austin Academy at the end of the 2015-16 school year.
W.W. White is set to become the Young Men's Leadership Academy, the first and only all male public school, serving grades 4-6 and growing up to 8th grade over the following two years.
The district is still considering the most responsible options for of the other facilities, possibly including college prep and early childhood programs.
district officials do feel confident that the 10 campuses that have received bond-funded improvements have made good use of them and are ready to meet their new pupils with a more robust curriculum, state of the art facilities, and 22:1 student-teacher ratio.
“The monies we will be saving will follow the children,” said Perez.
In addition to the major changes within the district, Dr. Perez will be leaving his post after three years. While it seems short, he was originally hired as an interim superintendent. In the end, his tenure was on par with the average length of stay for urban superintendents.
Perez’s stated goal as superintendent was to bring sustainable changes to the areas most in need of improvement in the district. He is pleased with what has been accomplished.
“This is the best job I’ve ever had. I am definitely going to miss the staff, students, stimulus, and frankly, the fun,” said Perez.
Local higher education saw some major changing of the guards as well. Trinity University’s Dennis A. Ahlberg’s time as president ends on Jan. 1. Earlier in the month, Danny J. Anderson was named as his replacement, starting in May.
Texas A&M San Antonio’s president Maria Hernandez Ferrier also transitioned to a new role as director of development and Mexico relations. She will be replaced by Cynthia Teniente-Matson, interim president and the sole finalist for president.
A&M-SA received accreditation this month, retroactive to the beginning of 2014, as a stand-alone university, able to grant baccalaureate and master's degrees. It was formerly accredited as part of its parent campus, Texas A&M Kingsville.
Not all change stemmed from the top. An organized community of students and interest groups successfully petitioned Alamo Colleges to delay their plan to eliminate majors from their programming.
San Antonio’s largest university, University of Texas at San Antonio, continued its quest for Tier One status, as it celebrated a 45th anniversary. In September, UTSA announced the GoldStar Initiative, which will invest $40 million to recruit 60 top researchers to the university over the next four years. Meanwhile the university's cybersecurity program, a field growing in importance and prestige, was ranked number one in the nation. A visit from Michelle Obama to the fourth annual college signing day and sustainability research and development pact with Microsoft, kept UTSA playing on the national stage throughout the year.
And finally, the city’s tiniest learners, the pre-K four-year-olds, were served by the opening of the West and East Pre-K 4 SA learning centers. From top to bottom, education in San Antonio is rapidly evolving, with no sign of slowing down in the coming year.
*Featured/top image: Students eagerly await the first lady Michelle Obama, who came to UTSA to talk about her college enrollment initiative during College Week. Photo by Scott Ball.