P.F. Stewart Elementary Principal Traci Smith (left) talks with second grade teacher Annabel Hernandez during her classrooms ITF (individual tracking form). The form measures individual student success from a teachers perspective. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

High hopes rested on the shoulders of Traci Smith when she took the helm at P.F. Stewart Elementary School in the fall of 2015. Stewart was going into its third year of “improvement required,” or IR, status by state standards.

But less than two years later, Smith was informed Monday that she would be removed as principal. Test scores had not improved, or at least not enough to bring Stewart out of IR status. San Antonio Independent School District officials claim that the decision to remove a principal from a school rests on more than test scores, but would not specify what other criteria contributed to Smith’s removal.

“It’s important to know that decisions on personnel are made with a great deal of consideration and based on a number of factors,” SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said.  

Teachers from Stewart said that Smith had been notified of her removal Monday morning. Smith declined to comment on the situation at this time. She will be reassigned to another school unless the administration heeds the requests of the teachers, parents, and a third-grade student named Joshua Ybarra who attended the SAISD board meeting on Monday. The group spoke during the citizens to be heard portion of the board meeting and requested that Smith be allowed to stay at Stewart despite poor test scores.

“We are heartbroken to hear that our principal Dr. Traci Smith will not be returning,” said Vanessa Ybarra, a master kindergarten teacher and parent at Stewart. She acknowledged that the scores at Stewart have been declining since 2007. In a series of in-depth stories published during the spring of 2016, the Rivard Report observed Smith as she dove into Stewart’s challenges. 

“We feel that we have been given [very] little resources since then,” Ybarra said. One of the few resources she could point to was the placement of Smith, whose leadership inspired Ybarra to stay on and be part of what she hoped would be a positive change.

“To hear that she is leaving, I feel that [SAISD is] taking away from our students and our community their future. She has such passion with our students, and I don’t see how we can get out of the position we are in without her leadership,” Ybarra said.

When Smith came to Stewart to start the 2015-2016 school year, only 36% of third-graders were reading at grade level. Based on that same measure, a Stewart employee estimated that that number had increased to approximately 60% by the end of 2016-17. The district, however, only uses STAAR reading scores to measure grade-level reading, and that number hovers around 39%, SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price told the Rivard Report.

The progress was not enough to keep Smith in her position.

The fact that Stewart was entering its fifth year of IR status had merited a closer look at the campus and what could be done to help, Price said. “We look at more than test scores.” 

When a campus fails to meet state standards two years in a row, it is required to produce a campus turnaround plan. The district must demonstrate specific measures to the Texas Education Agency to show that weaknesses are being addressed. Removal of the principal used to be mandatory, but is now no longer required, TEA spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson said.

“Under the current rules of campus turnaround plans, there’s no staffing requirements,” Culbertson said. “There’s nothing in the state rules that say that the principal must be reviewed or replaced.”

Turnaround plans are also required to include community input. If a school remains in IR status long enough, the State can take over the school, putting in place a board of managers or simply closing the doors. Stewart has until August 2019 to improve its scores, Culbertson said. 

Stewart has been working on a campus turnaround program through the University of Virginia.

Meanwhile, said second-grade teacher Alejandra Lopez, “[Smith] embodies all of the best practices that we as teachers are encouraged to implement in our classrooms.”

While poor test scores quickly trigger intervention, school and district leaders do not get a lot of time to prove that their methods are working. Shifting students’ attitudes, changing culture, and strengthening community relationships takes more time to produce the desired bump in test scores than the State is willing to give. Martinez built that time into his own five-year contract when he was hired in June 2015, knowing that the ambitious changes he had in mind would take several years to fully blossom.

A second-grader sits underneath the table in Alejandra Lopez’s classroom at Stewart Elementary. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

While Martinez has successfully opened “choice” schools within the district, such as the Advanced Learning Academy, he has also gained a new appreciation for the weight that entrenched poverty has placed on  traditional neighborhood schools. Twenty SAISD schools received IR status at the end of the 2015-16 school year.

Progress in those schools will require more effort. Last year Martinez had expressed high hopes that Smith, and principals like her, would be able to turn the tide at schools like Stewart.

That tide is turning, said the teachers who spoke to the SAISD board on Monday, but it takes time.

“It takes a lot less effort to tear something down than to build it back up,” said Nguyen Tran, another Stewart teacher. Removing Smith, Tran added, would be breaking down the foundation she had built, instead of giving her more time to build on it.

“I know that the frequent change in admin[istration] has a lot to do with getting Stewart to where it is,” Tran said.

The teachers who spoke to the board referenced Smith’s passion for the students, and that she learned each of their names.

“Dr. Smith has confidence in each one of us,” third-grader Joshua Ybarra said. “She has confidence that the second-graders will make it to third grade.”

Stewart Elementary third-grader Joshua Ybarra addresses the SAISD Board of Trustees regarding Principal Traci Smith. Credit: Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

The young boy was clearly nervous speaking to the room of adults, and SAISD Board President Patti Radle applauded his “brave” decision to speak to the board. “Once you got going you were very clear,” Radle said.

In addition to the instability for the students, Tran said that teachers feel the anxiety as well.

Of the 32 classroom teachers and six support teachers at Stewart when Smith arrived, 10 were brand-new to teaching, seven were second-year teachers, and four were new to SAISD. Teachers were discouraged, and students and parents were disengaged.

“As can be the case in a low-performing school, I arrived to find that morale was very low,” Smith told the Rivard Report in 2016.

Morale is higher now, Tran and others said. Teachers want to work for her. One teacher claimed that a new recruit had withdrawn her application upon hearing that Smith would be removed.

Serving 96.8% economically-disadvantaged students in a somewhat under-the-radar corner of the district, the school historically had very little to lean on in terms of community support. The mobility rate alone, 22.9%, meant that building trust would take extraordinary effort.

In Smith’s first year, the Rivard Report followed Smith through the process of building a relationship with the community. From spaghetti dinners for families whose students had perfect attendance, to a strong network of parent volunteers, Smith’s No. 1 goal was a culture shift. Instead of a source of shame and obligation — which is how many parents living in poverty view schools — Smith wanted to create stability and resources for parents.

Stewart parent Ray Arreola spoke to the SAISD board, recounting the many ways Smith had found to get kids to school to fight chronic absenteeism. She paid for a taxi ride for one family, and on more than one occasion enlisted Arreola, a mechanic, to help families fix their car so they could drive their children to school.

That level of attention and caring went a long way with the community, according to Alejandra Lopez, a second-grade teacher at Stewart who also spoke at the Monday night board meeting. By removing Smith, Lopez said, “The district is eroding the trust that we here with Dr. Smith worked so hard to build.”

While board members do not reply from the dais to citizens during board meetings, Martinez told the Rivard Report that the Stewart community had been heard.

“We appreciate the care they have for their school and their community and their taking time to express their thoughts and concerns with us. We share the common goal of wanting the best for our students and schools,” Martinez said.

For kids in poverty, “the best” must include consistency, Lopez said. “Starting at around April, our students will begin asking if we’ll be there next year.”

Lopez acknowledged that what is a given at many schools is a luxury at Stewart. Adults rotate in and out of their lives. During the 2016 series on Stewart, the Rivard Report spoke to one second-grade student who frequently bounced from home to home until she moved in with her aunt in first grade. None of the students we interviewed were living with both of their parents.

“By moving Dr. Smith you are showing them that, once again, an adult can walk away from them,” Lopez said.

Stewart Elementary Principal Traci Smith greets every child as they enter the school every morning without fail, often using her trusty radio to multi-task operational issues such as staff call-outs and no-shows. It’s her mission to memorize every name of every student attending Stewart, for the children names she can’t remember she asks them to quiz her the following day on their way in to school. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Bekah McNeel

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

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