The Ambitious School Overhaul that Propelled Pedro Martinez, Chicago’s Next Superintendent, to National Prominence

San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez greets a student. (Courtesy of San Antonio Independent School District)

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In 2016, I had an informal phone interview with the new superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, Pedro Martinez. The conversation was short but, because of the contrast between Martinez’s soft-spoken demeanor and the audacity of the vision he was describing, it made an indelible impression.

He was using census data, he explained, to determine the extent of the need at each of the district’s 90-plus schools, some of which have families with incomes as low as $8,000 a year.

“I made a map,” he said. “You should come see it.”

When Martinez introduced himself a few weeks later in a tiny conference room at district headquarters, he was carrying a rolled-up paper map. On it were lines, drawn in marker, that identified each block — and, by extension, its neighborhood school — by poverty level. With this tool, he intended to engineer an ambitious overhaul of his district’s schools, breaking up concentrations of the lowest levels of poverty via a novel socioeconomic integration plan that offered students in destitute neighborhoods access to new and sought-after schools. In addition to making enrollment more equitable, he believed, the plan would stanch an exodus of families from district schools and attract wealthy students from neighboring communities.

Education reporters are used to watching K-12 administrators use grand PowerPoint presentations that communicate very little. Who the heck was this guy, carting a homemade map around to Rotary Club meetings and coffee klatches and hoping to get buy-in on resolving some of education’s most intractable problems?

I tried to answer that question in a 74 Interview with the superintendent, part of a wide-ranging 2018 series, 78207: America’s Most Radical School Integration Experiment. After those stories appeared, the district was declared the fastest-improving in Texas, moving from a C to a B on state report cards in a single year, and drawing national attention to Martinez’s work.

Now, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot has named Martinez the next superintendent of the third-largest school system in the nation. It represents a homecoming of sorts for Martinez, who came to the United States from Mexico at age 5, graduated from Chicago Public Schools and became the first in his family to earn a college degree, which he eventually parlayed into a stint as the district’s chief financial officer, followed by local and state leadership positions in Nevada and finally a move to Texas.

You can read more about Martinez and his San Antonio experiment here. Click below to watch our full interview:

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