Graciela Chavarria has one student at Stewart. She’s nine years old, and struggles with reading. What would become of the student support services her daughter needs, Chavarria asked Martinez at the meeting. Would the campus lose its Communities in Schools site coordinator? She’s worried that students who can’t keep up with the rigor will simply be left behind.
Martinez assured her that Democracy Prep specializes in bringing students up, not leaving them behind. He could not promise her that the support would look the same as it does now. He doesn’t know yet how all of the support services will fit into the new model.
The new model will require some adjustments, he said. Longer school days, summer programming, and increased rigor will require parental support. However, the payoff that’s being promised is more fine arts, and other opportunities. Democracy Prep has flourished in Harlem, Baton Rouge, and Washington, D.C. “In neighborhoods that are even more challenging than this one,” Martinez said.
After the meeting, Chavarria told Folo Media that she’ll continue to worry until she sees it with her own eyes. Still, she said, she trusts Martinez.
“I’ll give it a try,” she said.
Her faith isn’t blind, she explains. Her younger child goes to nearby Steele Montessori, which is one of the specialized schools designed and operated by SAISD. She was skeptical when she first sent her five-year-old boy, who, in preschool, barely spoke and required speech therapy. Now, she said, he’s blossomed.
The changes the district wants to make are doing what’s best for the kids, Chavarria said.
The stars have aligned for such collaborations in Texas. Since taking office in January 2016, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath has brought his reform-minded, charter-friendly philosophy to bear across the state.
Morath is a former Dallas ISD school board member who made plenty of enemies, but earned just as many admirers by pushing three controversial reforms for Dallas schools. Each of these concepts — school choice, merit pay for teachers, and home rule — were pulled from the same education reform playbook.
» School choice removes mandatory attendance zones from schools, opening them up to pretty much any student within driving distance. This is most obvious tool to respond to the common education reform refrain that a “zip code shouldn’t determine destiny.”
» Merit pay allows a district to tie a teacher’s pay to his or her performance instead of a set pay scale.
» Home rule, the one of Morath’s three reforms that was not carried out, removes the elected school board and puts the district under control of the city. The mayor appoints the school board, and there is some debate over what happens to employee contracts. Home rule has never been tried in Texas, despite heavy support from conservative groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation. One barrier is that the law allowing home rule requires that the issue must be passed in an election with at least 25 percent voter turnout. In Texas, that’s all but unheard of for a local election, and it’s barely reliable in a national midterm election.
That’s a look into what Morath tried on the local level. As commissioner, he’s been just as active, creating incentives for districts to consider reforms that are outside the box of a traditional district.
Morath appointed two charter school veterans to high posts within the Texas Education Agency. He created the Transformation Zone Program, which allows districts to group low-performing schools together and give them whatever autonomy and redesign tools they need to turn the schools around. One option: partnering with charter school operators.
”I’d send my kid there.” — Kathleen St. Clair, Stewart Elementary principal
Meanwhile, one of the few bills to become law during the 2017 Legislative session was Senate Bill 1882, which allows districts to partner with charter operators.
Shortly after SB 1882 passed, SAISD entered an agreement with the John H. Wood charter district, which specializes in social and emotional special needs. The charter operator now runs Brewer Academy for SAISD’s highest need students.
A provision in the law allows charter operators to run a school that has failed to meet state accountability standards. For schools receiving a state rating of D or F (or, under the previous accountability system, “improvement required”) a school district can contract with a charter operator to take over the school, and in doing so, suspend punitive action from TEA (which can include closure) for one to two years.
Stewart is a prime candidate for this provision, and it happens to be in SAISD where more stars have been aligning within the education reform constellation.