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Charter designation is second chance for troubled schools

San Antonio Express-News
November 15, 2014

By Maria Luisa Cesar

Just a few years ago, the attendance rate at Davis Middle School was among the worst in the San Antonio Independent School District. Students were falling behind on course work and being held back a grade, saddling teachers with a population tougher to educate and more likely to lose hope that they could regain their academic footing.

But in 2011, the campus received a $3.7 million federal grant to turn things around. It began to use “project-based learning,” a method meant to teach students at a deeper level by letting them solve real-world problems, and it started placing a greater focus on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

With a new principal leading the charge, staff doubled down on efforts to increase parent engagement and boost attendance rates. Students who were absent no longer could just bring in an excuse note — they had to bring in their parents, too. Teachers started to make home visits. PTA meetings became family affairs, with food and conversation.

Despite the focus and the funding and some hard-won gains, the school last year failed by two points to meet state standards — for the third year in a row.
“It’s heartbreaking for me,” said Mona Lopez, the SAISD assistant superintendent for secondary schools who is overseeing the work at Davis.

But the district is about to accelerate the changes at Davis and at Connell Middle School, which also has received an “improvement required” rating from the state for the second year in a row and an “unacceptable” rating for the year before that.

The SAISD board last week approved a plan to convert them to in-district charter schools, opening the way for faster and more flexible changes.

The biggest change? Both schools next year will put boys and girls in separate classrooms.

They will have longer school hours and a longer school year so teachers can plan lessons collaboratively and get more training during the day. Struggling students will get accelerated instruction. Project-based learning will happen across core subjects.

Davis will continue its STEM focus. Connell will focus on computer coding.

“In order to build success, you have to be able to provide for greater time and for greater professional development,” said Matt Weber, deputy superintendent for instruction at SAISD. “I believe that those are pieces that weren’t in place before that are going to make a difference.”

But years of failed reform efforts, a tougher state test and a recent rebuke by some teachers over new campus policies they believed would erode their autonomy could still impact the changes.

Struggling schools

The great majority of students at Connell and Davis — close to 95 percent — come from families considered economically disadvantaged. At both schools, about two-thirds of the students are also considered “at risk” for factors that include being held back a grade, learning English as a second language and disciplinary actions.

Teaching students who are grappling with these issues is tougher, not just for teachers but for the children themselves. Advocates for testing and accountability reform have argued that state exams disproportionally hurt these students. Although state lawmakers changed how Texas tests students and rates schools after a backlash against the tougher State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness or STAAR test that debuted in 2011, the metrics still are heavily tied to the standardized exam.

Connell failed to meet state standards this year on three of the four indexes the Texas Education Agency uses to rate public schools.

Davis, after missing the mark on one index last year, failed to meet another this year. Lopez said eighth grade science STAAR scores have seen a 14 percentage point jump since 2012, though the latest passing rate for that test still hovered around 60 percent.

Still, Lopez noted, if the school had met standards, it would have received a distinction in math because of its Algebra I passage rates, which in SAISD were second only to that of the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, another in-district charter that’s considered one of the best in the state.

“We have tried a number of different approaches that have not moved us to the level that we have needed,” Weber said. “We’ve needed to be a little more dramatic.”

The new model

Although some SAISD schools have experimented in the past with separate classes for boys and girls — only as an option that parents could choose — the campuswide model at Connell and Davis will be a first for the district. No other traditional public school district in San Antonio currently offers single-gender classrooms.

District officials stressed that students who live in the schools’ attendance zones will remain there, but the charter status will allow the district to attract other students.

Connell’s new focus on computer coding will align with the computer science emphasis at Highlands High School, to which it feeds. Davis’ focus on STEM aligns it with the program at its feeder high school, Sam Houston.

Plans for Davis and Connell were created with the help of the principal and other administrators, Weber said. Educators there will have an opportunity to decide whether they want to stay or move to another campus, he said.

“We want teachers to be there who want to be there,” Weber said. “If they don’t have buy-in, they’ll have an opportunity to transfer to another campus, so that’s a positive feature.”

But tension ran high as the SAISD board met to approve the changes. The superintendent gave a rallying endorsement of the plans as a sea of teachers, dressed in blue union shirts, looked on skeptically. San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel president Shelley Potter said negotiations had turned into a kind of standoff between educators and district officials.

While teachers were allowed to keep their continuing contracts, which the district had wanted to replace with term contracts, Potter expressed concerns about the checks and balances surrounding after-school meetings and the creation of lesson plans.

A common refrain that emerged among teachers discussing the changes, she told the board, is that they felt blamed for the schools’ shortcomings.

“I don’t think for a minute that the superintendent or the board intends to blame teachers, but it’s the way teachers feel,” Potter said after the meeting. “Somehow it all seems to come crashing down on them.”

The district should be lauded for taking a new approach, even if it was partly a response to state mandates that require an action plan when schools repeatedly fail, said Bob Sanborn, CEO of Children at Risk, a nonprofit that annually rates Texas public schools.

Only anecdotal evidence exists to suggest single-gender classrooms will help boys, he said in an interview, noting that studies tend to focus on all-female classrooms — but have found value in them.

Struggling campuses that have increased instruction time have seen gains, but quality teachers are just as important, he stressed.

“If you don’t have the teachers with the missionary zeal, it’s not going to work,” Sanborn said.