The Charter Effect: San Antonio ISD Embraces School Choice To Attract Families
School districts across San Antonio have lost students to charter schools in recent years. But the enrollment declines started earlier and cut deeper in the city’s urban core.
The San Antonio Independent School District has lost the most: nearly 6,000 students since 2009, according to a TPR analysis of enrollment changes over the past 10 years. The Edgewood school district west of SAISD lost an equally high percentage of its students.
The recent exponential growth of charter schools has exacerbated a decades-long trend of people moving out of the city’s urban core. Edgewood and SAISD have both the city’s highest concentration of poverty and the highest concentration of students enrolled in charter schools.
A few years ago, SAISD began adding charter-like schools with specialized programming in an effort to compete. The specialty schools give families the option of choosing a district school other than their assigned neighborhood campus. They’ve attracted a growing number of students in recent years, helping the district lose fewer students.
Beacon Hill Academy on San Antonio’s near northwest side is one of the district’s success stories. The neighborhood school enrolled almost a hundred more students than projected for the 2018-2019 school year.
To keep that momentum up, Beacon Hill Principal Laryn Nelson uses every opportunity to help parents register for the next school year.
On preschool graduation day in May, Nelson pointed out a registration table set up outside the ceremony.
“I catch them when I can to come in and register,” Nelson said on the way to the preschool dual language class.
Sitting cross-legged on a carpet after story time, the preschool students asked each other in Spanish how they help their family members, just like the octopus in the book they just read.
“Yo le ayudo a mi mamá,” said Luis Robledo. “I help my mom.”
“Y cόmo le ayudas a tu mamá?” coached his teacher, Joann Chambers.
“Yo le ayudo con los juguetes,” Luis replied. “I help her with the toys.”
Half of the preschoolers are native Spanish speakers. The other half of the class speaks English at home. In the younger grades of SAISD’s dual language program, most of the teaching is in Spanish.
A year ago Beacon Hill was in danger of losing its brand new dual language program because of low enrollment. Then Nelson rallied her staff to action.
“We took it to the streets. It was one of those: ‘Let’s go block walk. Let’s knock on doors, let’s make a pamphlet. Let’s do what those charter schools kind of do,’” Nelson said.
They held community meetings where parents like Mercedes Galmiche praised the dual language program for helping keep her family’s language and heritage alive.
“Como mamá espana, para mi es importante que mis hijos no pierdan su español,” Galmiche said in the parent room at the school where she volunteers.
“As a Hispanic mother, it’s important to me that my children don’t lose their ability to speak Spanish.”
Beacon Hill also called parents on waiting lists at the district’s more well-known dual language academies and invited them to come take a tour.
Angelica Bruno was originally looking for a spot for her preschooler, but she said touring Beacon Hill convinced her to also pull her daughter out of elementary school in Southwest ISD.
“It’s quite a distance. We have quite a commute to come over here every day. But they like it. It’s a small, family-feel here,” Bruno said.
Unique school models like dual language and single gender are part of San Antonio ISD’s strategy to keep existing families and attract new ones.
Dozens of neighborhood schools have been given the option of adding different school models, and the district has opened several new specialty schools that have no assigned students.
Like charter schools, families don’t have to live in SAISD to apply to the specialty schools, and enrollment is selected through a lottery. Each one has a different school model, like dual language, advanced learning and Montessori.
Superintendent Pedro Martinez said his goal since he came to the district in 2015 has been to give families more of what they want.
“Families want choices, and four years ago, if you’d asked families in our community they would say that besides their neighborhood schools there weren’t a lot of other choices,” Martinez said.
Both neighborhood schools like Beacon Hill and the district’s specialty schools were opened up to transfers, allowing families to opt out of low-performing schools and choose other schools based on the location or the type of school.
According to Nelson, 20% of Beacon Hill’s students in the 2018-2019 school year were transfers from other SAISD schools or from outside the district.
“For the first time, we are seeing families that live outside the district that want to go to our schools. That’s not our primary strategy, though,” Martinez said. “If we’re going to have families start to not move out of our district, I want to make sure that not having quality choices… is not the obstacle.”
Historically San Antonio ISD, like many urban school districts, has performed poorly on standardized tests. The superintendent said SAISD had to improve its academics before it could compete.
His charter-like specialty schools open to everyone in Bexar County are enabling him to do just that. They tend to have higher academic performance and bring in a new mix of kids from across the income spectrum.
State data obtained through public information requests show the number of students attending SAISD even though they live outside the district has doubled over the past five years, from 1,100 to 2,300 students. That’s more than any other district in the San Antonio metro area.
But that statistic pales in comparison to the nearly 11,000 students state records show live in SAISD but attend a charter school or another district.
According to SAISD’s research department, that data is overestimated. By the district’s count, 9,241 students living within the boundaries of SAISD attended another district or charter school in 2018-2019.
“We are now starting to outperform these charter operators, so for the first time we can go head to head with our choice seats,” Martinez said. “The only charter operator (in SAISD’s footprint) that has a very high performance that’s pretty consistent is IDEA, and most of those schools are B’s. None of my (open-enrollment) choice schools are lower than a B.”
Some of the district’s neighborhood schools also outperformed nearby charter schools on the state’s A through F accountability ratings last year.
Martinez said the growth of the district’s specialty schools, combined with the fact that no new charters are opening in the district in the fall, give him the confidence to base next year’s budget on a net gain of around a hundred students, even though the district’s enrollment dropped by nearly 2 thousand last year.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we can stabilize. And I think that if we can stabilize the district then we can build from there,” Martinez said.
But some of the district’s trustees are skeptical. Before approving the budget in June, they pushed the superintendent to create a grassroots level plan to promote SAISD’s schools over the summer.
There have been some new developments downtown, but Texas state demographer Lloyd Potter said so far it isn’t attracting many families.
“A lot of the apartment complexes being built in the Pearl and the housing that’s being developed are one or two bedroom apartments or condos, and the people that are moving into those places are not people with children,” Potter said.
Families with the financial means to move away from downtown San Antonio have been doing so for decades, partly because of the reputation of the schools in the area. But part of the reason the district has a negative reputation is because families chose to leave.
Families — white families in particular — began moving to suburbs across the country in the 1960s, reinforcing racial and economic segregation. The trend became something of a self-fulfilling educational prophecy that continues today, said UTSA education psychology professor Sharon Nichols.
“We know that the performance on test scores is correlated with socio-economic status, and so poorer schools tend to perform more poorly,” Nichols said. “That gets publicized, that affects property values, that affects who moves in. So you just magnify that over and over again.”
Enrollment data in the San Antonio metro area indicate that the long-running trend of families moving outwards towards new developments is continuing, this time to school districts outside Bexar County. That’s the focus of part three of TPR’s The Charter Effect.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille
This is the second story in TPR’s series The Charter Effect examining trends uncovered from an analysis of a decade of enrollment data.
Editor’s Note: Data used in this analysis is based on enrollment reported to the Texas Education Agency on a single day in October. In addition to enrollment reports, TPR obtained a decade of data listing the number of students attending a district or charter network other than their home district, as reported to the Texas Education Agency each fall.
TPR used statewide campus-level data cross-referenced with district enrollment reports and physical addresses to create an accurate list of charter schools and traditional public schools located in one of the eight counties in the San Antonio-New Braunfels Metropolitan Area. See the data.