Emerging From Dysfunction, South San Looks to the Future

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The South San Independent School District Board of Trustees along with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra and District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña (middle).

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

South San Independent School District Board Trustees (from left) Angelina Osteguin, Louis Ybarra, and Elda Flores (right) along with Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra and District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña (middle).

Change is coming to South San Antonio ISD. The small, high-poverty district has made strides to overcome years of school board infighting and micromanagement, winning one of only eight initial slots in the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) System of Great Schools network.

The System of Great Schools offers technical assistance to school districts seeking to improve their students’ college-readiness rates. That readiness, said TEA Deputy Director of Governance A.J. Crabill, is demonstrated by graduation from college, not graduation from high school.

The support will focus on taking feedback from families and the community to create innovative programs inside the district, which serves around 9,000 students. After surveying the community over the summer, South San will offer in-district school choice with three magnet programs on middle school campuses. A STEM magnet at Dwight Middle School, a health science magnet at Zamora Middle School, and a fine arts magnet at Shepherd Middle School will all have open enrollment and grow over time, South San Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said.

“The intent is to take in any child that has an interest in these areas,” he said.

An early-college program at the district’s lone high school also will help students get a jump start on acquiring college credits. Some will earn an associate degree or professional licensure.

This kind of progress would not have been possible 10 months ago, before last November’s school board elections, South San Board President Angelina Osteguin said. Key changes on the board made it possible.

Osteguin has been on the South San board for three years. She acknowledges not only that the board was dysfunctional, but that she and Saavedra had not gotten along for most of his three-year tenure as of last December. When three new reform-minded board members were installed, and she was elected president, Osteguin sat down with Saavedra to recommit to working together.

Two of the three new trustees come from the grassroots advocacy group South San Kids First, led by San Antonio City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and other concerned alumni and parents. Louis Ybarra and Elda Flores were both elected with the support of South San Kids First, and they now sit on the board’s governance committee with Osteguin.

The governance committee underwent intensive training through the Lone Star Governance program administered by the TEA. The rest of the board joined them for much of the training.

This, Ybarra and Flores said, was when the tide really turned for the board.

Everyone will say, “We want what’s best for kids,” Ybarra said. “But there’s a certain way to accomplish that.”

It can be easy for a school board to claim it wants “what’s best for kids” but then go on to focus obsessively on the minutiae of the school district, Crabill said. There is no evidence that heavy board involvement in the details of curriculum, equipment, and other campus operations relates to student success, he added.

The training helped the board understand its role and that of the superintendent’s administration. While the administration must oversee the district’s day-to-day function, details, and decision-making, the board should have a singular focus: student outcomes. 

To increase transparency and efficiency, for instance, board members will receive the agenda and relevant information ahead of time and submit their questions to the superintendent. The questions and answers will be posted online before board meetings so that every board member is prepared to vote and the community is informed.

“It’s very easy to cross over and try to micromanage,” Flores said. The board has to stay actively committed to its mission.

Academic performance at South San has been steady, in spite of the district’s past governance woes. When Saldaña wrote to the TEA requesting an investigation into South San’s board in 2014, he found that academic performance was not poor enough to include as a reason for state oversight.

South San is one of only four districts in Bexar County to have all campuses meet state testing standards for the last three years. The others are Northside ISD, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City ISD, and Alamo Heights ISD. Among those districts, South San has the highest poverty rate.

Adequate test scores did not convince Saldaña that the status quo should persist. School board infighting and turnover in the superintendent’s office stood between “adequate” student outcomes and “excellent” ones. The TEA agreed and sent conservator Judy Castleberry to oversee the district in February 2016.

TEA Deputy Director of Governance A.J. Crabill.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

TEA Deputy Director of Governance A.J. Crabill.

“It’s not enough to be good if your students are capable of greatness,” Crabill said.

While Castleberry remains at her post overseeing the district, she has issued far fewer points of correction for the current board. In 2015-16 Castleberry made 14 corrections to board conduct. In 2016-17 that number dropped to two.

The board hopes to unleash whatever progress had been stalled by the dysfunction, one of the reasons the district was accepted to the System of Great Schools, Crabill said. The TEA saw the board’s willingness to stop micromanaging in the interest of a “maniacal focus on student outcomes.”

To mark its progress, the district will develop its own system of student evaluation that goes deeper than the standardized test scores used by the State to rank schools, Saavedra said. South San’s internal rankings will focus on areas in which the board knows the district needs to improve and will allow a more granular look at what students are learning and achieving.

As South San pursues its goals Saldaña, among others, will continue to both support and hold the district accountable. Past initiatives and efforts have often been stymied by board overreach and micromanagement.

“You can’t move the academic agenda with a dysfunctional board,” Saavedra said.

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