When a school starts turning heads in SAISD, it's usually because of a special program or a charter. So when I heard buzz about J.T. Brackenridge Elementary School, my question was, "What's their thing?" Are they getting a charter for a fine arts program? Are they partnering with non-profits to revolutionize their attendance record?
Nope. "JT," as the school is called in the community, is a traditional public school in the Westside with a population of 750. They don't have a charter or a large auxiliary staff. From a resource standpoint, JT is just like everybody else.
So then, how do they have attendance records above 97 percent, even with a full pre-kinder population? How do they have high-test scores and good parent attendance at extracurricular events?
When I ask Principal Melanie Zepeda these questions, she gestures to the school motto up on a bulletin board. "JT has heart."
"We're scrappy," she says.
When she came to JT, Zepeda found the same lack of resources and burdensome testing regimen that she'd experienced in her administrative roles at other SAISD campuses. The school didn't have the full slate of specialists and enrichment programs. It didn't have surplus funds for attendance incentives and programming.
"We just had to roll up our sleeves and get systems in place," said Zepeda.
That's exactly what happened. The halls of JT are cheerful and welcoming. When I walk in to begin a campus visit, the front office is efficiently and pleasantly managing several students who were late due to rain. A transfer family walks in. They are greeted, escorted to an office for a welcome chat, and two students appear to escort their new classmate up to the classroom. There is a lot going on. Nonetheless, everyone I came to see is ready and waiting. Systems are definitely in place.
But it's more than just administrative efficiency. Gloria Martinez, the school's Parent and Family Liaison, meets students at the door every morning. She watches for signs of distress, whether it's a torn uniform, missing backpack or just a sad face. If a student looks like they aren't ready to learn, Martinez is there to address the need. She talks with them about their concerns and quickly assesses what systems are in place to provide real aid to those who need it.
"It's not about enrolling students. It's about servicing families," Zepeda said.
Thanks to the ongoing All Healthy Children Campaign (formerly the 100% Campaign) to make sure that all children have medical insurance, Martinez can help many families pursue medical treatment for sick children. JT also has a spare uniform closet for students who need it. They make home visits to the families of chronically absent children.
In all of this, the goal of JT administration is never to shame or chastise parents, but to draw them into the community of learning. They ask good questions and provide assistance and education instead of rules and regulations for parents. The staff at JT tries to create parent engagement opportunities that are more than just PTA meetings or orientation seminars.
Parents are invited to participate in the fun and interesting activities brought to campus by community partners – an astronomy party, field day, intramural soccer and other academic events. Award ceremonies have to be stretched out across an entire week because so many parents and family members attend. Parents are honored at the ceremonies as well. When a child has perfect attendance, Zepeda and her staff recognize that it was just as much a dutiful parent who made that possible.
Like many inner city schools, JT faces high student mobility rates that make it hard to reinforce cultural values like education and family participation in student life. But they also have a strength in the generational loyalty of near-Westside residents. Flor Guerra is an alumna of JT, as was her mother. Now her daughter, Heaven Lee, is in 4th grade and thriving at the school.
Parents like Guerra are the ones who create and maintain the culture of parent participation at JT.
"The main reason I (attend events) is for my child. My parents showed up ... it makes you feel good. I want my kid to have that," said Guerra.
When they spoke at the SAISD Foundation Spotlight Breakfast, both Guerra and her daughter expressed their confidence in the quality education that has led to three generations of success in their family.
"On her first day of school I knew she was in great hands, so it was easy to let her go," said Guerra.
"JT is a great school, and I am proud to be following in my parents' footsteps, being a Soaring Eagle," said Heaven Lee.
Heaven Lee is indeed set to soar. Articulate and insightful, she tells me that she loves JT because her teachers encourage her to accomplish her goals. At the moment that includes having no marks on her behavior folder, passing her tests and becoming a detective.
Heaven Lee also benefits from JT's longstanding community partnerships. Thanks to the efforts of Zepeda, Martinez, and others, JT has maintained strong relationships with businesses, even as they have moved away from the inner city – a trend that has left many public school without these valuable partners.
The USAA Pen Pal program is an example of the long-term commitment to this partnership. Heaven Lee listed it as one of her favorite programs – and her mom remembers loving it as well when she was a student. USAA has had their pen pal program in place at JT for two generations. That's the kind of consistency that creates a culture.
Heaven Lee might have summed it up the best when I asked her how it made her feel to know that her mom had once had the same experiences she was now having. The fourth-grader giggled shyly as she searched for the right word. Finally she had it:
Connection is point of all the systems that Zepeda and Martinez have in place. They go the extra mile to find what it is that will connect parents to the school and their children's education. They connect teachers to their profession by investing in them. Community partners and inspiring teachers connect students to their future and their history.
JT Brackenridge Elementary School is really an example to all in education. Inspired leadership and dedicated teachers are overcoming resource shortages through innovation and tenacity. They have a "no excuses" atmosphere similar to the charter schools aimed at closing the achievement-gap. They are poster children for the importance of high performing teachers and staff.
JT also serves as an example of the way we could and should be funneling (and increasing) education resources. JT students have not succeeded because of rigorous testing and standardized curriculum. They succeed thanks to a ferocious and full-time commitment to systems of family, community, and education, and bringing those into alignment to support what's happening in the classroom. If we increase resources to those ends, we may be able to address poverty and education reform more effectively than we ever thought.
So whatever you believe about what works in education, taking a close look at JT Brackenridge Elementary School is likely to give you something new to consider.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.