How Texas Is ‘Shifting the Power’ to Give Some Schools Greater Autonomy, Leadership & Innovation

By Bekah McNeel | October 7, 2018

By Bekah McNeelOctober 7, 2018

Why three San Antonio school districts are embracing Texas’s “System of Great Schools” initiative, which encourages autonomous schools and powerful principals


San Antonio, Texas

In Texas, it’s safe to say that all eyes are on San Antonio ISD. The high-poverty district has made the most of a united board, a change-friendly superintendent, and a team of ambitious leaders to improve schools one by one in some of the city’s poorest zip codes. Along the way they’ve inflamed their union, what Superintendent Pedro Martinez sees as the inevitable consequence of a “shift in the power base.”

But San Antonio ISD isn’t the only Texas district realigning its own stars. It’s part of a statewide initiative the Texas Education Agency began two years ago to help districts transition away from a traditional model — a school system operated by its central administration and board of trustees. The System of Great Schools model, instead, wants to see autonomous schools operated by whoever can deliver results, be it districts, charter networks, nonprofits, or universities.

“These districts will be positioned to take bold actions to improve schools and provide parents with the schools and programs they desire,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a press release when the program launched. “The goal is to ensure every child has access to a high-quality learning environment.”

Texas wants to “to build the capacity of districts to create the type of high-quality, best-fit schools that their community wants and deserves,” Joe Siedlecki, the state’s associate commissioner of school improvement, innovation, and charters, told The 74.

Siedlecki’s department looks for district superintendents and school boards who are already interested in bringing more options to parents but don’t have the tools they need to do so effectively.

“Most have joined [the program] because they know their parents want more options,” Siedlecki said. “Once they do, the agency will provide support and technical assistance.”

School boards, meanwhile, would have one job — to authorize and close schools based on their performance. Most central administrations would likely need to restructure in order to meet the needs of autonomous schools.

So far, two groups of eight districts throughout the state have gone through the yearlong System of Great Schools training. Three are in San Antonio, where a rapidly expanding charter sector and northward sprawl have left urban districts struggling to compete. San Antonio ISD and South San Antonio ISD were part of the first group, and Edgewood ISD has joined the second.

The System of Great Schools method is a combination of four “levers” or strategies. Ultimately the goal is campus autonomy, but there’s more than one way to get there.

San Antonio and South San Antonio ISD have fully embraced the model, though each is rolling it out in a different way. San Antonio ISD, with its 50,000 students in the urban core of the city, is pulling all levers at once. South San Antonio, which serves just under 10,000 students in a more sparsely populated quadrant of the city, is systematically moving from one lever to the next. Edgewood, which is currently under state sanction and on its fourth superintendent in three years, is in the early stages of the System of Great Schools training. Administrators there hope it could help revive the tiny district, which has a long history of struggle against generational poverty.

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All three San Antonio districts have been losing students to charter schools and surrounding suburban districts, which leaves their budgets in crisis. Superintendents see the options created by the System of Great Schools approach as the best hope for bringing students back.

WATCH — Competitors to Collaborators: What a Texas Superintendent Learned in Welcoming Top Charters to Town:

Chapter 1: Lever One: Set expectations

The first strategic step encourages districts to create a performance framework for schools as they gain autonomy. This works best if every school eventually becomes accountable to the same standard, whether it’s a neighborhood school, a specialized or magnet campus, or a charter network operating within the System of Great Schools.

So far, San Antonio ISD is the only San Antonio district to open its doors to charter networks. Democracy Prep Public Schools and Relay Graduate School of Education are already operating turnaround campuses in the district. Other charter networks have come in to assist with credit recovery programs and special education.

Democracy Prep and Relay have two years to show significant gains, or else lose their charter. If they succeed, they will likely be given the opportunity to expand. It may not need to be said, but this is where things got hairy for San Antonio ISD and its union. Charter operators often demand to hold the contracts for school employees. While Relay’s staff at the long-struggling Ogden Elementary School remained district employees, the staff at the school Democracy Prep took over are not unionized district workers.

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San Antonio ISD also has other “in-district charter schools,” designed and operated by its own staff. Those should be subject to the same rigorous standards, the district’s chief innovation officer, Mohammed Choudhury, argued.

The performance agreement, which is still in development, can’t create a “double standard” for some partnerships just because they were more controversial, he said.

In South San Antonio, where the rollout of the System of Great Schools has been much quieter, the district will likely start with a performance agreement, to be adopted in 2019. It will apply to all campuses, and principals will know that if they fail to meet the standards, the board can decide to redesign the school, bring in new leadership, or even bring in a new operator.

Chapter 2: Lever Two: Expand what works, close what doesn’t, try new things

To implement the System of Great Schools model as the state intends, boards have to be swift to pull the second lever: replicating what works and closing schools that don’t.

“Closing” schools is likely an inaccurate way to describe the process.

More often, a new operator or charter will be put in place, and the school building will keep its doors open. That’s how it happened at P.F. Stewart Elementary in San Antonio ISD, which opened in August 2018 as Democracy Prep at Stewart Elementary. New uniforms, new principal, new expectations, but the same building serving the same students.

“Same students” was a sticking point for his district, Superintendent Martinez said.

The System of Great Schools model allows districts to decide which, if any, operations will stay with the central administration or school board. In San Antonio ISD, Martinez showed that he’s willing to trade hiring and firing power and other personnel oversight, which Democracy Prep wanted to control, for enrollment, which Choudhury’s office determines.

Too often, Martinez said, kids who left to attend local charter schools didn’t “fit the mold” and ended up back in the district, discouraged. San Antonio ISD schools will not get to create a profile for the kind of students they will serve.

“I would never allow people to treat our children that way,” Martinez said. If Democracy Prep, Relay, and other charter partners are the difference-makers they are purported to be, he says, they can do it with kids from the neighborhood.

WATCH – One on One with Superintendent Pedro Martinez:

Critics still say that changing operators will destabilize the school, but Martinez and Choudhury point out that consistency isn’t helpful if it’s consistently failing.

While campuses like Stewart and Ogden will remain neighborhood schools, other campuses within San Antonio ISD are based entirely on open enrollment. Specialized schools like the Advanced Learning Academy (which offers a gifted and talented program that doesn’t screen students), Steele Montessori, and a growing number of dual language academies rely solely on families applying to an enrollment lottery. This has allowed the district to attract middle-class families back into the district, while still reserving seats for student from the highest-poverty neighborhoods in the district. Each of these “diverse by design” schools has a waiting list.

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San Antonio ISD’s neighborhood schools can also apply to become autonomous “in-district charters” with special curriculum and calendars. With support from two-thirds of campus teachers and parents, principals can totally redesign their school to make it work for their students.

These do not necessarily become open enrollment schools, Choudhury explained, just great neighborhood options.

In South San Antonio ISD, the district has magnetized its three middle schools, creating academies for the arts, health careers, and STEM education. It also opened an early college high school. Already, chief academic officer Delinda Castro said, families are responding. Of the 728 rising sixth-graders in the district, 370 are participating in magnet programs.

“We were very surprised at how many kids and parents chose our academies,” Castro said.

Chapter 3: Lever Three: Connect with families

Lever three of the System of Great Schools model charges districts with ensuring families have the information and access they need to take advantage of school choice within the district.

Here, Choudhury said, districts using the System of Great Schools model have to be proactive if they want all students to benefit.

“If you want equity and access, you have to design for equity and access,” Choudhury has said on numerous occasions.

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A single enrollment process can allow parents to apply to multiple open-enrollment schools with one — hopefully simple — online or app-based form. But it has to go further, Choudhury said.

Enrollment offices like his have to commit to door-to-door, bilingual parent engagement and a persistent follow-up campaign to make sure that students are not sorted between those whose parents have time to follow up and those who are working around the clock to provide for their families.

Transportation is another non-negotiable, Choudhury said. San Antonio does not have an efficient public transit system, so the district, which encompasses 90 schools, has to modify bus routes to allow students to cross the district if necessary.

Chapter 4: Lever Four: Make it stick

Once the groundwork for school autonomy is laid, districts can pull the fourth lever. Continued school autonomy will require the central administration and board to provide support and funding accordingly.

The model works best when funding follows the student, according to guidance documents from the Texas Education Agency.

In the System of Great Schools model, a district’s central administration would be one of many options for principals and school leaders to choose from when selecting support services, curriculum, and professional development. At South San Antonio ISD, that means competing on the open market, said Castro.

“It’s a reframing of central office,” Castro said. “We’re here to serve schools, not the other way around.”

When Superintendent Martinez referred to a “shift in power,” he was talking about his teachers union. San Antonio ISD teachers have the most protective contracts in the state, and those are in jeopardy at each autonomous school.

In South San Antonio, where teachers have never had protective contracts, the challenge will be shifting power away from the elected school board, which has a history of micromanagement.

So where does all that power go? In the System of Great Schools model, it goes to the principals.

Because few districts are going to start hiring from scratch, most will need to consider how to get their existing fleet of principals ready to take on more responsibility.

The system won’t work, Choudhury said, if the district just turns everyone loose and leaves them to do whatever they want with their campus. Autonomy is the goal, but it may be a gradual process for some.

It’s still early, with no conclusive evidence that the System of Great Schools model is going to be a panacea for districts like San Antonio, South San Antonio, and Edgewood ISD. It does, however, free them to try new things until they find what works. That, school leaders say, is a welcome change.

Read other installments of this series, as well as other recent coverage of school segregation and district integration efforts, at The74Million.org/Integration.