The University of Texas at San Antonio and San Antonio Independent School District are taking a major step in their two-year partnership to enrich the education and leadership in San Antonio’s largest urban school district.  

On Thursday, media and district partners got a glimpse inside the “Roadrunner Room,” where UTSA faculty and students are working with teachers and students at Crockett Elementary School to strengthen their math, science, and language skills.

The Roadrunner Room is one manifestation of a two-year partnership with SAISD to create the UTSA-SAISD Community.

Last fall, the UTSA College of Education and Human Development, through its Academy for Teacher Excellence, established a presence at Douglass Elementary and Crockett Elementary through a $1.8 million Texas Title I Priority Schools Grant to SAISD. The program is based on successful models like Texas A&M- Corpus Christi’s Early Childhood Development Center, and the University of Chicago’s Laboratory Schools, where John Dewey established the first “experimental school” in 1896.

While many of these schools have effectively become private schools located on university campuses, the UTSA-SAISD partnership has taken steps to ensure direct focus on public education. Rather than establishing an elementary campus at UTSA, the university will bear the travel burden. Faculty and graduate students will work within the public elementary school campuses, subject to their schedules and needs.

Betty Merchant, dean of the UTSA College of Education and Human Development, said that universities need to make these kinds of efforts to benefit their communities. Unfortunately, Merchant said, the majority of cases don’t see any that effort.

“Universities are not responsive to communities,” she said.

A Crockett ES student gives Dr. Betty Merchant a lab demonstration in the Roadrunner Room.  Photo by Bekah McNeel
A Crockett Elementary School student gives Dr. Betty Merchant a lab demonstration in the Roadrunner Room. Photo by Bekah McNeel

UTSA is different, said Merchant, who has worked for years to create programs that enrich education in SAISD. The university’s Urban School Leaders Collaborative won the first ever University Council of Education Administration Annual Exemplary Educational Leadership Program Award in 2013. The Leaders Collaborative equips emerging leaders in SAISD with further education, certification, and social justice advocacy training. Of the 96 (55%) students in the first six USLC cohorts, 52 have been promoted to leadership positions. Six are principals, 26 vice-principals, five instructional coaches, and the others serve as program coordinators and administrative assistants.

The community laboratory model is a logical next step for the partnership. The program is designed as a win-win benefitting SAISD students through interaction with graduate students and university faculty. At the same time, UTSA graduate students gain real-world experience and faculty resist the temptation to disappear into academia.

“It’s the perfect learning situation,” Merchant said.

The dean places a heavy emphasis on practical knowledge, and the importance of application.

“If your ideas are really good … it should make a difference in the classroom,” she said.

Teacher and students work on math and logic in the Roadrunner Room. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Teacher and students work on math and logic in the Roadrunner Room. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

While this is the latest step, both UTSA and SAISD are determined that it will not be the last step in the growing relationship.

“We will commit resources. We will commit people. We will commit time,” said UTSA President Ricardo Romo.

Merchant is the embodiment of that commitment.

“It’s about respect, commitment, and dedication to something much bigger than ourselves,” she said.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez wants to see more community laboratory programs on more campuses, exposing more students and teachers to the collaboration with the university.

“There’s nothing that can replace good Tier 1 instruction,” Martinez said.

Martinez and others caught a glimpse of that instruction in the Roadrunner Room, where students were working on Lego robotics projects and Mayan math exercises. One student showed Martinez how to use a Nepohualtzintzin, an ancient Mayan math tool. The Nepohualtzintzin Ethnomathematics Project is one of three informal after-school learning clubs that UTSA has brought to Crockett Elementary and Douglass Elementary as part of the community laboratory. Students can also participate in a robotics club and a bilingual education program. 

SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez gets a Mayan math demonstration in the Roadrunner Room. Photo by Bekah McNeel
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez gets a Mayan math demonstration in the Roadrunner Room. Photo by Bekah McNeel

The opportunities for increased teacher-student interaction and programs that require extra lab equipment are hard to come by in the inner city. With the UTSA partnership, students will have access to both, without an additional tax on teachers.

Students in the Roadrunner Room were clearly having a good time. Between the racing machines, puzzles, and Legos, it resembled a high-tech playroom. The robotics station in particular looked like all fun and games, until the elementary age students managing the projects explained the programming components and objectives of their mini-industrial machines, leaving little question that there was substantial content involved.

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As important as the skills are, the fact that the students were emotionally engaged—laughing, challenging one another, and discussing solutions with teachers—spoke volumes for the hands-on approach of the community laboratory.

*Top image: A Crockett Elementary student works on her robotics project in the Roadrunner Room. Photo by Bekah McNeel

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Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.