Video Tour: Meet the Educators & Parents Leading San Antonio’s Push for Integrated Schools

By The 74 | October 9, 2018

Watch our tour through the 78207: 10 educators, parents, and students offer an inside view of America’s most radical school integration effort


By virtually any statistical measure, San Antonio is the most economically segregated city in the United States. Its poorest neighborhood, zip code 78207, is located a scant few miles from the epicenter of the third-fastest-growing economy in the country. But as the city as a whole thrives, the residents on the West Side are all but locked out of the boom. Into this divided landscape three years ago came a new schools chief, Pedro Martinez, with a mandate to break down the centuries-old economic isolation that has its heart in the 78207. In response, Martinez launched one of America’s most innovative and data-informed school integration experiments.

To achieve the kind of integration he was looking for, he would first have to better understand the gradations of poverty in each and every one of his schools, what kinds of supports those student populations require, and then find a way to woo affluent families from other parts of the city into San Antonio ISD schools to disrupt these concentrations of unmet need. Martinez’s strategy: Open new “schools of choice” with sought-after curricular models, like Montessori and dual language, and set aside a share of seats for students from neighboring, more prosperous school districts, who would then sit next to a mix of students from San Antonio ISD, where 93 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been publishing Beth Hawkins’s immersive deep-dive into the SAISD integration initiative and the many different kinds of classrooms that have opened in the district as a result. You can read her full launch feature here, and watch her detailed explainer video of the effort right here.

Today we’re also rounding up the many video tours and first-person profiles we filmed over the course of reporting this story. Below, 10 snapshots of the people guiding San Antonio ISD’s remarkable integration effort:

Diverse By Design — Meet the Architect: As Mohammed Choudhury tells it, Superintendent Pedro Martinez was never going to convince him to leave Dallas Public Schools for the San Antonio Independent School District without making clear his commitment to creating schools that would have inclusion and diversity as part of their DNA. It is not enough, Choudhury argues, to create wonderful innovative new schools that succeed in attracting more well-off families to your struggling school district if the district’s own most disadvantaged students are shut out of those schools.

Choudhury, whose title is chief innovation officer, created an enrollment system that ensures that students from all of San Antonio ISD’s so-called income blocks, from those whose families are on the edges of the middle class to those living in extreme poverty, are guaranteed a percentage of the seats in these sought-after schools. In this one-on-one interview, Choudhury explains the key factors needed to create diverse-by-design schools and how, once the schools are opened and the equity enrollment practices are in place, San Antonio ISD officials hit the pavement to make sure their impoverished families know to apply. (Watch the full video)

‘They Had to Shake Things Up’ for Our Poorest Kids — One Mom’s Take: Cristina Noriega’s father grew up in one of the poorest zip codes in the United States, where the local high school didn’t expect all of its students to graduate and where going on to college was almost unheard of. Lionel Sosa started out as a sign painter, but then a twist of fate propelled him to a career as a marketing genius who made a fortune and a national name advising Fortune 500 companies and presidential candidates. He was able to send his daughter, Noriega, to Yale University. Now, both father and daughter are eager for a radical and ambitious plan to dramatically increase the number of impoverished Latino students the San Antonio Independent School District gets to and through college to succeed.

For them, the value of creating diverse-by-design schools — with the kinds of cutting-edge academic models that usually come with private school tuition — is intensely personal. Noriega has dreams for her own daughters — and for children growing up in the 78207, where the lack of opportunity her father struggled to overcome persists. “Of course it’s the poorest children and the lowest-performing that have to wait the longest,” she says, trying and failing to hold back tears. “I mean, you don’t know if it’s going to work. You hope.” Noriega is grateful that San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez and his leadership team have moved as quickly as possible to end the wait for the city’s most isolated and fragile children. “They did what they had to do,” she says in this moving video. “They had to shake things up big-time.” (Watch the full video)

The Visionary — One-on-One With Pedro Martinez: When Pedro Martinez took the top job overseeing the San Antonio Independent School District, he knew he had to confront the pervasive poverty affecting 93 percent of his student body. So he launched an intricate plan to go block by block in his district, measuring household income and developing trauma supports. He then launched one of America’s most radical school integration experiments, balancing students from different rungs of poverty with more affluent kids that he wooed back into the district via innovative school designs. As his classrooms have become more socioeconomically diverse, student achievement has rebounded. Here, he tells The 74 more about his unique approach to lifting all boats:

The First New School — Inside Advanced Learning Academy, Where Gifted & Talented Is Open for All: Advanced Learning Academy had a waiting list even before the first day it opened in August 2016. It was the first school of choice created in the San Antonio Independent School District by Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who saw offering a gifted and talented program that did not used screened admissions as a way to draw more affluent families from outside the district while providing the kind of “higher order” learning shown to be invaluable in raising academic achievement.

Such approaches are typically not available to students of color because they are rarely screened for gifted and talented programs. (Watch the full video)

Integrating Schools While Celebrating Heritage — Inside Mark Twain Dual Language Academy: Growing up, Cristina Noriega heard the stories about how her father was punished for speaking Spanish at school. Sometimes Lionel Sosa’s teacher would strike his knuckles with a ruler. One time, he couldn’t find the right English words to ask permission to use the bathroom and wet his pants in class. By the time Sosa was raising his own children, the family spoke mostly English. When the San Antonio Independent School District announced it was opening a dual language academy where children would be taught using the “cognitive magic” of bilingual education, Noriega leaped to enroll her daughters, Luz and Paloma. Part of an ambitious and unprecedented effort to integrate the district’s schools using household income, Mark Twain Dual Language Academy quickly filled up with Mexican-American families eager to see their children become not just bilingual but bicultural.

“What a gift to my kids,” says Noriega, now president of the school’s parent-teacher organization and a vocal supporter of San Antonio ISD’s plan to create dynamic new schools and ensure the city’s most impoverished children are fairly represented in them. “Not only to speak Spanish from an early age but to be valued. What a cool thing.” Take a tour of Mark Twain Dual Language Academy with Noriega and Principal David Garcia. (Watch the full video)

How Our Public Montessori Program Made Us Rethink Integration & Special Ed — One Family’s Perspective: When Lexa Rijos and Jamie Roadman bought a picture-perfect bungalow in San Antonio’s historic Highland Park neighborhood, they didn’t have kids and so didn’t think to investigate the local schools. Four years ago, when Santiago was born, that changed. The San Antonio Independent School District didn’t have a great reputation, so Rijos and Roadman imagined they would have to move away from their funky urban haunts or somehow find the money for private school tuition. Rijos was investigating preschools for Santiago when she noticed a Facebook post announcing a new San Antonio ISD public Montessori school. When she clicked on the link, she was amazed to learn that Steele Montessori Academy was opening just down the street and enrolling children as young as 3. Now the couple walk their son to school every morning and go back often at night for school-wide family activities.

One of the things the family appreciates is the fact that Steele intentionally recruits and enrolls students whose families come from a range of income levels, as well as children with disabilities. Montessori’s methods were originally created to help develop self-regulation skills in children with intellectual or developmental delays. In Santiago’s mixed-age classroom it’s impossible for visitors to tell which students receive special education services. Steele is one of 31 dynamic and diverse-by-design schools that anchor San Antonio ISD’s plan to use a carefully calibrated combination of socioeconomic integration and school choice to break up concentrations of poverty in the district’s schools and ensure when students graduate they are ready to go to college and stay until they earn a degree. As they’ve watched Santiago become more confident and independent — taking charge of getting himself ready for school, for example — Rijos and Roadman have become Montessori ambassadors. (Watch the full video)

Video Tour — San Antonio’s Steele Montessori: When San Antonio Independent School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez asked Principal Laura Christenberry to open a public Montessori school — a sure-fire enrollment draw for families from outside the district — she had a condition. Montessori education was originally created to teach children with disabilities, and Christenberry wanted special education students to be well represented at Steele Montessori Academy. And she wanted to extend the philosophy of inclusion — which says everybody is a full participant, no matter what — to all of the families with kids at Steele. Which meant creating a school community where all families are welcomed and involved, and middle-class parents don’t dominate.

Martinez’s invitation to open the school was part of a radical school integration effort, in which families from some of the most isolated and impoverished neighborhoods in the country are guaranteed fair access to a portfolio of innovative and high-performing schools. Based on census data laying out household incomes for every block in the district, San Antonio ISD has pioneered an unprecedented system for enrolling its new diverse-by-design schools. Student achievement is rising, and Christenberry is seeing her dream realized. Meet Christenberry and watch some of Steele’s littlest scholars engage in Montessori activities — watch the full video.

The Next Wave — In San Antonio’s Poorest Neighborhood a New School Rises, Built Around Global Studies & New Horizons: Ambika Dani, who came to San Antonio by way of Lagos, Nigeria, and Bangalore, India, made up her mind pretty quickly after arriving that what she wanted to do was open a school. After going through an intensive, Boston-based fellowship for charter school leaders, Dani came back to San Antonio and decided her school would be located in the 78207, the city’s poorest zip code.

Four of the nine elementary schools located in the 78207 were on the state’s failing list, and almost half of residents 25 and older did not graduate high school. Dani’s school would have a focus on global studies. Why? “This zip code is their world. I believe that if our children in this community never get to see the world outside of their community, they never get to see what it is that they can become,” she explains. Dani’s Promesa Academy (promesa means “promise” in Spanish) was one of 21 charter schools proposed in the winter of 2017 and one of only four approved by the state. Hers was the only one to get the green light in San Antonio, a city where nearly 40,000 families applied for seats in schools run by its three biggest charter networks in 2017-18. (Watch the full video)

A New State of Mind — Lionel Sosa Talks About Why Latinos’ Family-First Instincts Must Balance With Growing Beyond Zip Code: Lionel Sosa remembers many things about growing up in San Antonio’s most impoverished neighborhood, the 78207. Being humiliated as a very young child when he was not permitted to use his Spanish in school and could not figure out how to ask to go the bathroom in English fast enough to avoid an accident. Going to Lanier High School at a time when “the courses they offered to high school students were paint and body shop, carpentry, printing, body and fender, upholstery. They were preparing the Mexican kids to do the work that Mexican kids should do.” Three people from this 180-member graduating class went on to college. He was not one of them. Nonetheless, Sosa had a remarkable career, writing the definitive book on marketing to Latinos, advising presidents and the heads of Fortune 500 companies, and becoming a nationally recognized portrait artist. At 79, he has 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, many of whom live in the 78207. These days, Sosa runs a nonprofit intent on making sure that the city’s Latino students and their families pursue every opportunity to excel academically, enroll in and graduate from college, and break the cycle of poverty that has persisted here since before he was a boy.

As he explains in this candid conversation, the instinct to put family first has to be balanced with the need to go beyond the neighborhood. “But many folks take the wrong turn in how to help their family. They drop out of school early, they go get a job, and then remain in a low-paying job all their lives, creating yet another generation that’s living in poverty, or close to poverty. That’s got to change.”

Watch The 74 Documentary — Sights & Sounds From Our Time in The 78207: San Antonio is the nation’s seventh-largest city in population, has its third-fastest-growing economy, but ranks 35th in wealth. It’s a vibrant, culturally and historically rich boomtown that also happens to be the most economically segregated city in America. Nowhere are these stark disparities more evident than in the 78207, the Mexican-American community that has been systematically and geographically isolated from the larger city’s prosperity for decades. The 78207 is also the heart of the San Antonio Independent School District, whose 50,000 students and 90 schools Superintendent Pedro Martinez took charge of three years ago. A Mexican-American immigrant himself who grew up in Chicago, Martinez thought he knew poverty, both personally and professionally as an educator committed to eradicating it, but what he found in the 78207 was shocking. The poverty here was so pervasive, so dense, and so depriving of opportunities for kids and families that Martinez knew he had to do something different. Here is the story of what he did and how it transformed San Antonio ISD: from creating one-of-a-kind maps that broke down the data behind each of his school’s poverty levels, to opening specialized schools of choice that attracted affluent families from outside the district for the first time, to designing a sophisticated enrollment system that made sure the district’s neediest students got their share of the seats.

First and foremost, Martinez fought to change the conversation around academic achievement and college graduation for the 78207 and all his students. Since then, the district had its highest high school graduation rate ever in 2017, more than 55 percent of those students attend college, the percentage attending top-tier colleges has doubled, and the percentage of students who scored college-ready on the SAT has soared by 150 percent. “Our first goal,” Martinez said, “was to redefine excellence.” Watch the full video — and then read our full longread.

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

Video Credits: Produced by Heather Martino, Edited and Directed by James Fields | Disclosure: The George W. Brackenridge Foundation provided financial support for this project to The 74.

Help fund stories like this. Donate now!

Republish This Article

We want our stories to be shared as widely as possible — for free.

Please view The 74's republishing terms.

On The 74 Today