After a year standing empty, Rodriguez Elementary on San Antonio’s West Side is reopening in the fall as a Montessori dual language school. Families looking for a good school welcomed the new addition, but for some families directly impacted by the closure, the reopening rings hollow.
In August 2018, the same day as meet-the-teacher night at Rodriguez Elementary, Marissa Alvarado got a letter in the mail from the San Antonio Independent School District with some unwelcome news: Her 8-year-old daughter Allisson’s school was being closed by the state at the end of the school year.
“It was just a big shocker. Everybody was confused,” Alvarado said recently during an interview with Texas Public Radio.
She knew Rodriguez faced sanctions if it failed the state’s academic standards a fifth time, but the district had poured resources into the school, and it was improving.
“We thought everything was going to be okay. That we were going to make it out,” Alvarado said. “And we didn't.”
The school’s academic accountability score had just come out. Rodriguez scored a 56. It needed a 60 to be in the clear.
State law gave Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath two options: Close the school or replace San Antonio ISD’s elected school board. He chose to close the school. Morath made the opposite choice a year later when Houston ISD faced sanctions.
Alvarado said news of the closure put a dark shadow over Rodriguez the entire school year.
“Word started going around that the school was closing because the kids weren't smart enough,” Alvarado said. “Children were thinking that it was their fault.”
Alvarado said she’s grateful to Allisson’s teacher for helping her convince her daughter that she wasn’t responsible, but students and teachers still had to go to Rodriguez Elementary every day knowing it was their last year.
To lessen the blow, SAISD started immediately looking into ways to reopen the school. State law allows districts to reopen low-performing schools if they have a different academic model — and the commissioner approves.
“When you close the school, you close the community,” said Mohammed Choudhury, SAISD’s chief innovation officer. “Closure is the hardest thing there is in any school district.”
Choudhury’s office held three community meetings and collected 100 survey responses to see what type of school families wanted. They eventually decided to turn Rodriguez into a Montessori school with a dual language pathway.
“(Our first Montessori school) is one of our most sought after schools, but Maria Montessori did not develop Montessori to be some elitist affluent school model. It was actually designed for folks and students who are more historically marginalized,” Choudhury said. “I think it's a very powerful thing that we're launching a public Montessori school in the most segregated part of town — in the (high-poverty) 78207 zip code.”
SAISD’s Steele Montessori has one of the longest wait lists in the district, and the new school seems to be generating interest. Around a dozen families attended an information night at Rodriguez early last month.
Steele Associate Principal Rebecca Gonzales told the parents that Montessori emphasizes independence and lets students learn at their own pace.
“We like to say that Montessori is a way of life where we welcome new friends,” Gonzales said before inviting families to step into a smaller room to get help applying for the school.
While parents talked one-on-one with staff, Valerie Morales kept an eye on her 3-year-old daughter EllaMae as she flitted between the Chips Ahoy on the table and the movie in the child care room.
“I want some more cookies,” EllaMae said.
“What do you say?” Morales prompted, encouraging her to say please.
Morales said she wants to get EllaMae into school early.
“I think there’s only a couple of schools that have the Pre-K 3 ... so it kind of narrows it down,” Morales said.
One of her teacher friends suggested she look into Montessori.
“The structure and the ideas behind it; the philosophy, is different, so we’re hoping she won’t be stifled and hopefully encourages her natural curiosity,” Morales said.
Former Rodriguez Elementary mom Marissa Alvarado also likes the education model, but she wishes the district had done it sooner.
“We kind of feel robbed,” Alvarado said. “Why didn't they bring something like this before Rodriguez closed?”
SAISD is giving families who live in the neighborhood first priority for the new Rodriguez, but most kids who used to walk to the school won’t be able to return. Although Rodriguez Montessori will eventually be Pre-K through 5th grade, they are only accepting applications for Pre-K through 1st grade for the 2020-2021 school year.
Alvarado’s daughter Allisson will be in 4th grade next year — too old to return to her old school. Even if her daughter were young enough, Alvarado said Allisson is doing well at her new school a mile away, and she wouldn’t want to put her through another change in schools.
“I need her (to have) stability,” Alvarado said. “We can only wish Rodriguez the best.”
Their new school, Carvajal, used to be an early childhood center, and Alvarado said the playground is too small for the older kids.
“We still feel underserved,” Alvarado said. “I would like the district and even the media not to forget about us.”
Choudhury said the district knows it will get pushback for the slow rollout, but the school needs to start small in order to be a success.
“There's definitely pressure to not get it wrong,” Choudhury said. “If we're starting with up to 1st grade… we have two years to build out before the first cohort takes the STAAR test (and the school’s academic performance is rated by the state).”