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Budget Cuts, Low State Ratings Shadow First Day Of South San’s Choice Academies

 Aug.  20, 2018
File Photo | Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
Joel Luna teaches his sixth-graders a magic trick using math during the first day of school at Dwight Middle School's STEM Academy.

For the South San Antonio Independent School District, Monday was the first day back to school and the first day ever for three new academies embedded inside South San’s middle schools: one with a focus on fine arts, one with a focus on health, and one with a focus on science and technology.


District officials are hoping the academies will help lift the schools out of their worst state academic ratings in years and attract students to the district who may have left for charter schools.

At Dwight Middle School’s STEM Academy, sixth-grade science teacher Ashley Barrera jumped right into teaching her class how to conduct experiments, asking them to predict what would happen if they put a bar of Ivory soap in the microwave.

Aug. 20, 2018
Credit Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Dwight STEM Academy science teacher Ashley Barrera shows her sixth-graders what Ivory soap looks like after she microwaved it.

“It’s foaming,” the students shouted after the experiment started.

“It can’t be — you all said it was going to melt,” said Barrera, later explaining that the air pockets in Ivory soap cause it to foam.

Next door, Joel Luna taught his class a magic trick using the rules of math.

“If you did the math right, every single person should have got four,” said Luna as one of the students pulled the number out of an envelope.

After her students leave for lunch, Barrera said she wanted to be part of the academy to instill a love for science in her students while they’re young.

“I really want them to enjoy science,” Barrera said. “I mean, honestly, being a middle school teacher for five years, you see the enthusiasm go down over the years.”

Students had to apply to get into South San’s new academies, but there were no grade requirements and everyone who applied got in. Around 370 students started out in sixth grade in the three academies, with plans to add seventh grade next year and eighth grade the year after that.

District officials are hoping the new academies help boost student success and reduce dropouts.

RELATEDVoters Reject Property Tax Increase For South San ISD

Two of South San’s elementary schools and all three of South San’s middle schools received failing grades on the state’s annual academic ratings, released last Wednesday. The district received a D.

“We provide a lot of support to our schools so they can succeed, and it’s worked for three years in a row, and this year with the new accountability it was a punch in the face to see that we had a D,” said Delinda Castro, South San’s chief academic officer. “It’s not acceptable to me, it’s not acceptable to parents, and it’s not acceptable to anyone. But we’re making adjustments.”

Brenda Rodriguez, who has a son at South San High School and a daughter at Dwight, said the ratings are worrying, but she thinks her children will be successful at the district.

“That kind of scares me a little, but my other two kids graduated from South San. I’m an involved parent. … They’ll be fine,” Rodriguez said.

South San sixth graders in the STEM Academy conduct a science experiment on Aug. 20, the first day of the 2018-2019 school year..
Credit Camille Phillips / Texas Public Radio
South San sixth-graders touch the foamy melted soap after it's taken out of a microwave on the first day of STEM Academy at Dwight Middle School.

Castro said Shepard, Dwight and Zamora middle schools each earned 64 points on the state ratings, which would have been enough to gain a passing grade if the education commissioner hadn’t added a new rule in July requiring schools to fail if they fail in three areas.

South San replaced the principals of the elementary schools that failed and plans to appeal the rating at Shepard, Dwight and Zamora.

Castro said she’s also working to increase student learning by focusing on high-quality instruction, but that will likely soon have to be accomplished with less staff.

The school board will consider job cuts at a special board meeting Wednesday in order to fill a $3 million budget shortfall. South San was hoping to make up the difference by raising taxes, but voters rejected the measure last Tuesday.

Rodriguez said she wishes the tax increase had passed, but she knows a lot of parents that voted against it because they don’t trust the school board to use the money well.

“You can’t expect better standards, better education, better equipment in the schools if the money’s not there,” Rodriguez said.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille