A sold-out crowd of more than 400 business, civic and education leaders gathered at the Regional Public PK-12 Education Forum on Thursday to listen as district and public charter leaders shared a commitment to collaborate to achieve elevated public education outcomes in San Antonio. The wide-ranging discussion touched on the many challenges at play, but also focused on the success of in-district charters and magnet programs and throughout the growing network of public charters schools.

The energy and determination of the attendees defined the event, co-hosted by the San Antonio Area Foundation and the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, held at the Pearl Stable.

“The challenges that are before us are daunting,” said Mayor Ivy Taylor in her opening address. “It’s up to each of us to step in and do our part.”

The event atmosphere was celebratory, despite the serious subject matter. The event provided an opportunity for various independent school districts, charter schools, and other learning institutions to show off their innovative curriculum and poised student ambassadors.

Attendees were greeted by the sounds of the Coronado Village Elementary School in Judson ISD marimba band. Students from Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Young Men’s Leadership Academy, both San Antonio ISD (SAISD) schools, served as event greeters.

An education expo, orchestrated by DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd, lined the outer room of the Pearl Stable with information on charters schools, museums, public entities, and higher education providers.

Some of San Antonio’s most celebrated teachers were in the audience. Laura Servin, eighth grade algebra teacher at Whittier Middle School (SAISD) and recipient of the prestigious Milken Educator Award was among them, as well as the Region 20 teachers of the year, Teresita Villa of Kuentz Elementary School in Northside ISD, and Lynn Bodet of Frank Tejeda Middle School in North East ISD (NEISD). All 19 finalists for the Trinity University Excellence in Teaching Award were invited to attend as well.

The audience delivered enthusiastic applause as the teachers were individually lauded. Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard, who served as emcee and panel moderator, said Trinity University will announce its two annual winners next Friday.

Former San Antonio Spur and education advocate David Robinson tapped into the intense sense of mission shared by many in the room when speaking of the spiritual significance of education in helping students find their calling.

David Robinson, a former Spurs player and founder of the Carver Academy, speaks on the state of pubic education at the Pearl Stable. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

“I don’t think you can take (the spiritual component) out of the education process,” said Robinson.

Building to a fervor that would be matched again and again by the panelists as they spoke on their areas of passion, Robinson quoted a Bible verse from Psalm 127 that refers to children as arrows in the hands of a warrior.

“I want them to hit a target when they go out in that world. I don’t want them to drift aimlessly,” said Robinson.

Those arrows, he said, should be represented by every student in every district.

The audience reacted with such enthusiasm to Robinson’s evangelical call to action that after he left the stage to return to his table, Rivard jokingly asked, “David, would you like to come back up and just keep going?”

The panel, made up of Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, SAISD superintendent Pedro Martinez, KIPP San Antonio Founder and CEO Mark Larson, Pre-K 4 SA Board Chair Elaine Mendoza, Northside ISD trustee Bobby Blount, and IDEA Public School CEO and Founder Tom Torkelson, represented both sides of the equation: district campuses and public charters. If tensions still exist between the two competing approaches to public education, it was barely evident Thursday as both sides struck a tone of cooperation and expressed mutual respect for the reforms each side is aiming to implement.

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Each side values very different ideas and approaches to improve educational outcomes for all students, but they shared a commitment to the ultimate goal and a determination to see it happen.

“They’re not going to accept failure as an option,” said Rivard.

Nor will they accept limited success. Martinez continually pointed out that while the community can celebrate pockets of success, it must simultaneously address those areas that are lagging. Less than a year into his position, Martinez said that his appreciation for the work ahead grows every day. His ambitious goals for “every child” face pernicious obstacles.

“I’m still very hopeful. I’m still optimistic. But I see the challenges,” said Martinez.

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez speaks as KIPP San Antonio CEO Mark Larsen (left) and Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath (right) look on. Photo by Michael Cirlos. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the Rivard Report

This issue of scale is by far the most perplexing component of the challenge. Rivard directly asked the panel how they would scale the successes they have experienced.

“There’s no easy solution,” said Morath, “There’s no one thing.”

How Morath has chosen to address some of these issues, particularly governance, has been controversial so far. In addition to the school finance lawsuit now before the Texas Supreme Court that he inherited with the office, Morath has faced two subsequent lawsuits by statewide teacher organizations over teacher evaluation strategies.

“You are going to upset some people in this process. But our kids require us to have that discipline,” said Morath.

The superintendent, a voice of realism throughout the discussion, reiterated the complexity of the problem. Beyond simply hiring of good teachers, persistent poverty has to be factored into the equation. Good teachers must be hired into a functional system they can contribute to. All agreed that teachers in high poverty areas face particular challenges.

“It’s really hard for us to deliver a top quality education to a kid who is hungry, who is sick, or who didn’t sleep the night before,” said Morath.

Two of the poorest zip codes in the city are on the Westside inside SAISD boundaries. They have held this distinction for several census cycles, despite well-intentioned but one-dimensional efforts.

“If you think there’s a simple solution, we will have another 10 to 20 years of the same thing,” said Martinez.

The panel agreed that the complexity of the challenge required collaboration, in spite of their differences. Larson and Martinez and their administrative staffs are actively working together, and have held discussions on sharing vacant school buildings. Larson pointed out the financial savings that could be realized by expanding public charters if they could occupy vacant district schools rather than dedicate scarce funds to new construction.

The other inefficiency, according to Larson, is the flow of good ideas. Too often, he said, departments and offices dampen progress by insisting on feudal control over their corner of the system. He applauded Martinez for opening up SAISD to more innovation through increased collaboration.

The City of San Antonio’s Pre-K 4 SA program is, perhaps, the most broadly collaborative public education initiative in San Antonio. Mendoza highlighted the program’s professional development and grant process that has warded more than $4 million to efforts beyond its own four centers.

“We are leveraging every dollar that we possibly can through that sales tax,” said Mendoza.

Pre-K 4 SA Board Chair Elaine Mendoza speaks on the state of public education in San Antonio, Texas. Photo by Michael Cirlos. Credit: Michael Cirlos for the Rivard Report

During the design of the Pre-K 4 SA initiative it was decided that training and grants would maximize the reach of best practices developed at the centers.

Blount pointed to the Go Public campaign, a broad collaboration involving multiple Bexar County ISDs to promote district schools.

Torkelson was optimistic that this multi-faceted approach, and the growth of school choice would be the secret to Texas’s ultimate success. 

“We are the test case for how to get it right in public education,” said Torkelson.

Looking back at how far education has come since the SA2020 goals were set, Larson expects to see major strides in the second half of the decade.

“There’s so much more momentum in this space,” said Larson.

He noted the dearth of education choices or reform initiatives 15 years ago in San Antonio versus the momentum building now, the new flow of philanthropic donations to public charters and the heightened focus on improving public education in the urban core as an essential element in making San Antonio a more attractive and competitive city.

“I think in the next five to 10 years we can be Texas’s number one city for public education,” Torkelson said.

*Top Image:Students of Young Men’s Leadership Academy gather in front of the Pearl Stable for the San Antonio Regional Pubic Education Forum. Photo by Michael Cirlos.

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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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