South San Kids First, a new education advocacy group on the city’s Southside, hosted its first town hall meeting Tuesday night to take steps toward needed changes in South San Independent School District.

Turnout exceeded expectations, and Palo Alto Community College’s Legacy Room was standing room only, with over 120 parents, teachers, administrators, business leaders, and elected officials in attendance including state Rep. Rick Galindo (R-117), who has been active in district reforms. San Antonio Chamber of Commerce president/ CEO Richard Perez and South SA Chamber President and CEO Al Arreola represented the business communities stake in education outcomes.

“Public education is the cornerstone to economic development,” Arreola said.

A standing-room only crowd at the South San Kids First town hall. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4), a South San alumnus and member of South San Kids First, was quick to remind people not to be intimidated by the leaders in the room, or to look to them for what to say, think, and feel at this grassroots event.

“It’s not about the people who are in power. It’s about the power of the people,” said Saldaña.

For many years, teachers and families in South San ISD have felt stranded at the mercy of their school board. Many felt that the board was an impediment to real progress in the district, but were too afraid of reprisal to speak up or organize.

Teachers and principals were afraid to lose their jobs.

Parents were afraid of repercussions for students or family members employed by the district.

“The school district is our largest employer,” said Saldaña.

Councilman Rey Saldana (D4) lays a map of the South San School District on his conference table. Photo by Scott Ball.

With so many jobs and contracts connected to the district, it occupies a powerful place in the political economy of the city’s Southside. Saldaña compares the 10,000-student district to a small town ISD. In that setting, the school board’s substantial power has allowed dysfunction to fester, with no one empowered to intervene.

With the district now under the supervision of a Texas Education Agency (TEA) conservator, South San Kids First hopes to seize the opportunity to reform the district from its roots.

TEA has been reluctant to step in until now, because South San was actually hitting benchmarks and performing relatively well on standardized tests.

“But our students have the potential to do greater,” said Saldaña.

In February, TEA appointed conservator Judy Castleberry to remedy the district’s dysfunction. Her appointment comes after a multi-year investigation into the district’s financial management and governance, and struggle between the South San school board and superintendent Abelardo Saavedra.

Castleberry assured those gathered at the town hall meeting that the district was cooperating and making progress in the two areas she was charged to reform: the district’s failure to maintain control over its financial management and governance, and the board inability to work with executive administration.These charges came directly from a Feb. 6 letter from TEA commissioner Mike Morath to South San board and superintendent.

South San senior Araceli Garcia (l) and TEA conservator Judy Castleberry. Photo by Bekah McNeel

She later explained that when she arrived, the district had little or no internal control over various club accounts, and it was far too easy to move money in and out without proper oversight. While she saw no evidence of corruption, there were no systems in place to stop either corruption or financial mismanagement.

Internal systems have been put in place, and Castleberry said she has even seen the board make strides in allowing Saavedra to do his job without micromanagement. She feels optimistic that the district will come into compliance with state and federal law.

Senior Araceli Garcia represents the potential of a functioning South San ISD. Garcia, the probable valedictorian at South San High School, has been accepted to the University of Southern California, and awarded the $25,000 President’s Scholarship.

Saldaña asked Garcia to serve as a bright spot, represent the best things coming from South San, and speak at the town hall meeting. Garcia told Saldaña she would rather just speak her mind, which is exactly what she did when she took the podium.

“I have hit many walls on the way to where I am now. They are walls that, as a student, I shouldn’t be running into in any district,” she said.

The high school senior went on to speak about classrooms without text books, middle school faculty unable to inspire students, high school teachers who would not do the extra work to nominate students for scholarships, and parents and community members who do not advocate for students. It really boils down to the expectations of what is acceptable and possible, Garcia said.

“It’s not that we don’t have the potential,” she said.

Garcia recalled an incident when a South San teacher overheard her say that she was considering USC. He discouraged her, telling her that it would be too much money for her parents, and that student loans were not worth it. He told her she needed to be realistic and look at in-state schools. For her, this exemplified an attitude far too prevalent in South San.

“There is no reason we should not have the same number of students going to Ivy League as Alamo Heights,” Garcia said.

Garcia said that she was tired of South San being known for its negatives, and not realizing its potential. She expressed frustration with the school’s constant administrative turnover and the negative image that South San has generated for itself.

Throughout the night, parents and community members pointed to Garcia’s remarks in agreement.

“The students are not getting the right attention in the right places,” said South San parent Louis Ybarra.

Ybarra has students in elementary, middle, and high school. He joined South San Kids First as a parent who is experiencing the school’s inefficiencies and dysfunction as his kids wrestle with the broken system Garcia described.

“It shouldn’t be this hard to get an education for your kids,” said Ybarra.

Board members Leticia Guerra (far left), Stacey Estrada, and Connie Prado join a table discussion at the South San Kids First town hall meeting. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Saldaña graduated from South San in 2005. He and fellow alumni realized that the district was looking to them to speak up. Watching their classmate step into the public eye and advocate for change, a group of alumni and parents began meeting to discuss the issues. That group became South San Kids First.

The meetings began with a lot of ranting, according to alumnus Gilbert Morales. Pent up frustrations needed some air. Soon, however, the small group soon moved toward action. They realized that to make the lasting changes, they needed an organized group of engaged citizens with longevity in the community.

The March 29 town hall served two purposes. In the short term, the group is encouraging citizens to vote. In November, four of the seven board positions will be in play, and South San Kids First wants to see parents and teachers vote for board members who will accurately represent student and community interests. At the event, attendees were seated according to their school board voting district to help draw out specific concerns in each area of representation.

The second goal is to identify individuals who may want to join South San Kids First, currently 10-15 informal members, to form an advocacy organization like Leadership SAISD (LSAISD), said Saldaña.

Getting voters to turn out in November may be the most moderate of the group’s goals. With voter registration available at the event and an active voter education campaign, attendance at the polls should be strong in a presidential election year.

Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4). Photo by Scott Ball.

A larger challenge could be finding candidates to run against the incumbents. Saldaña called the South San school board race a “blood sport”

“The toughest thing about transforming that board is the fear in the community,” he said.

That fear was evident in the planning of the event. South San Kids First hired an outside moderating agency to help encourage maximum participation and efficiency. Still, many expressed concerns that the presence of board members, which the group knew ahead of time would be likely, would prevent people from speaking freely.

In the end, school board president Connie Prado, and trustees Leticia Guerra and Stacey Estrada were in attendance.

The moderators deliberately kept board members and elected officials sequestered at their own table during the group discussions, leaving neutral table moderators to guide attendees through three questions:

What makes a great school?

What do you want for your family and kids from South San ISD?

How can we work together as a community to address those wants/needs?

Community members generated robust discussion, and themes began to emerge, many along the lines of Garcia’s remarks. They also want to see less administrative turnover, follow-through on proposed programs and services, and teachers who inspire students think about college instead of standing in their way.

Saldaña and his team were pleased with the level of engagement, and hope that it translates into robust action on the topics discussed at each table. They have scheduled a followup meeting to discuss strategies on May 17.

*Top Image:A moderator leads a discussion at the South San Kids First town hall. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Related Stories:

Stewart Elementary: The Hidden Talents of Low-Income Students

Stewart Elementary and The Gifted and Talented Dilemma

Stewart Elementary: A Case Study for Change

Martinez Offers Glimpse of SAISD’s Changing Academic Strategies

YWLA Senior Nadia Balderas Headed to Yale

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.

Read more