Scott Ball / Rivard Report
Amid the debate over charter schools and their potential effects on public schools, San Antonio ISD is not digging its heels in. In fact, the district’s nimble response to growing charter presence within its borders has allowed SAISD to leverage those services. Some of the city’s most vulnerable learners will soon benefit from an innovative partnership between the John H. Wood Charter District and SAISD.
The SAISD board approved the partnership at its May 15 board meeting.
Seven of John H. Wood Charter District’s eight campuses throughout the state are dedicated to the education of students with social and emotional disorders that affect their learning. In San Antonio the district runs Afton Oaks, located in the Hector Garza Residential Treatment Facility. In other cities, the schools are located within juvenile detention centers.
The charter district has become one of the leading providers of this specialized service, said SAISD Interim Senior Executive Director of Special Education Beth Jones. “This is what they do, most of the time.”
John H. Wood Charter District also runs the Anne Frank Inspire Academy, which serves a mainstream student body.
The partnership will enlist the charter district's services in operating on the campus that formerly housed Brewer Elementary School, which closed at the end of the 2014-15 school year. The school will replace the current Pickett Academy, and serve 6th-12th grade students whose disabilities are considered too severe to be dealt with in an on-campus service model. All SAISD campuses currently have “intensive classrooms” set aside for students with social and emotional disabilities to receive occupational therapy, individual attention, and other services. This model usually works best in the elementary years.
“When they get to about middle school age they typically have a harder time,” Jones said. “We just haven’t found that [intensive classroom models] were effective [for that age group].”
In middle school, social interaction changes. Students begin to transition into adolescence at different speeds, and those years are notoriously socially tumultuous. For students who already struggle in these areas – regardless of whether it's due to chemical imbalances or past trauma – this transition can become an insurmountable distraction.
“Their behavioral challenges really affect their ability to access educational opportunities,” Jones said.
Not only does the social environment intensify, but the structure of the school day in middle school and high school is another hurdle. Changing classrooms and hallway chatter are detrimental to those with serious social and emotional disabilities. They need consistency and focus.
The Brewer campus will provide that, in the same way that Pickett does currently, but with room to grow. Whereas Pickett can serve between 35-45 students, Brewer will be able to seat up to 60. SAISD will continue to provide the therapies offered throughout the district, which guarantees special education services, and John H. Wood Charter District will provide instruction. Unlike the charter district's seven residential schools, Brewer will be a day school, like Pickett.
Students will be moved on and off of Brewer’s campus at the discretion of their Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee. The goal for average student stay is 6-10 months, according to the agreement approved by the SAISD board. The goal is to get students back to their home campuses once they have been equipped with the tools they need to learn, Jones said.
Braination Inc., the nonprofit charter management company for John H. Wood Charter District, will be responsible for hiring the team that will provide services at Brewer. Background checks, certifications, and other legal requirements must meet SAISD standards. In addition to the salaries and benefits for the Braination employees, SAISD will pay 15% of that total as a fee to Braination for its services. The exact value will depend on the salaries, which have yet to be determined. They will follow the SAISD payscale, district spokesperson Leslie Price said. The total contract is not to exceed $2.5 million.
It is a considerable cost increase, but one that Jones says is necessary to adequately serve these students.
“While it is expensive, this is one of our most vulnerable learning populations,” she explained. “You can’t pick and choose which services you are going to provide.”
While the Texas Legislature and the Texas Education Agency have recently been criticized for underserving students in need of special education services, both are encouraging district/charter cooperation.
“We’re excited to be at the forefront of this movement,” John H. Wood Charter District Superintendent Bruce Rockstroh said.
Every year the charter district fields requests to place a school at a new detention center or similar institution, Rockstroh said. Usually he and his board pass.
However, SAISD understands the charter school model, Rockstroh said, primarily because they are running charters within the district already. “They have a superintendent committed to innovation and partnership. They have a desire to really help special populations within their district.”
Both Jones and Rockstroh see the partnership as a fulfillment of the role charters were designed to play as incubators for innovation that could scale across a district. John H. Wood Charter District has used its finely controlled mission to hone its skills educating students who struggle in traditional classrooms. SAISD has the facilities and reach to expand those best practices to more students.
SAISD also announced a partnership with the Culinary Institute of America’s San Antonio campus to boost the culinary arts programs at district high schools. The partnership is spurred by a grand from the Goldsbury Foundation.
Such partnerships are becoming a distinguishing feature of the district as the administration aims to bring more choices to district students and parents. In April, during the San Antonio Regional PK-12 Public Education Forum, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez indicated that the facilities owned by the district would allow innovation that could increase opportunities for students.
“When you have a high density of poverty," Martinez said at the forum, "you have to do things differently.”