Every school year brings changes. New teachers. New classmates. But the school year, which began Monday, brought more changes than usual for the students at Stewart Elementary.
While their school continues to be a part of the San Antonio Independent School District, the south side elementary is now being managed by charter operator Democracy Prep.
Democracy Prep spent the late spring and summer putting those changes in place, including hiring a new team of 37 teachers and specialists.
A few days before students returned to the classroom, the team of teachers hired by Democracy Prep gathered in the sunny school library for a training session on the power of words.
“Our words stick with us,” new principal Virginia Silva said. “The words that we’re using with our students — the way we describe students to each other — these things have lasting consequences.”
Silva led her staff through an exercise, reading cards with negative phrases like “LEP kids” aloud and matching them with positive alternatives.
Bilingual reading teacher Miguel Rodriguez told the group that LEP, which stands for Limited English Proficiency, hits close to home for him.
“I remember that I was a LEP kid, growing up in California going to school. And there’s a Spanish word, lepra, for leprosy in English. So that’s what came to my mind when I was told I was a LEP kid. I was like, ‘Okay, so do I have lepra?’ ” Rodriguez said.
He’s new to the school, as are most of his coworkers. They’re employed by Democracy Prep, not SAISD. And they’re working without a contract, which means they have less protection from being fired.
Many Stewart teachers urged the school board not to partner with Democracy Prep for that reason. When the dust settled, only two decided to stay at Stewart: third grade teachers Morgan Brewer and Vianca Gutierrez.
“I think that not having that contract really holds me accountable to a higher standard,” said Brewer, who was a first-year teacher at Stewart last year.
Gutierrez is a bilingual teacher who started teaching at Stewart two years ago.
“It really came to: I want to stick with my kids,” Guiterrez said, “and knowing that I was going to have my kids that I taught in first grade.”
Originally, San Antonio ISD arranged for Democracy Prep to take over Stewart because partnering with a charter school gives the district a two year reprieve from stiff state sanctions going into effect this month.
But, according to the district’s preliminary calculations, Stewart made enough gains on standardized tests this year to meet state standards. That means Stewart wouldn’t have faced sanctions even if Democracy Prep hadn’t taken over.
Teacher union president Shelley Potter said that shows the charter takeover is unnecessary.
“It would have been better for the students, better for the community, if the teachers who had helped to do this work — to help get Stewart out of improvement required status — were still at the school,” Potter said.
However, SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said there are other reasons to partner with Democracy Prep.
“Even though Stewart made it out, they’re still below the district average on achievement. And the real goal now is not to maintain the results but actually significantly build on it, especially when it comes to achievement,” Martinez said.
But in order to make those gains, Democracy Prep first needs to fill classrooms. Last school year, the campus taught a hundred fewer students than the year before. This year, enrollment is expected to drop by another hundred amid confusion over the takeover.
Calming Parent Fears
About a mile down the road from Stewart, less than two weeks before the first day of school, staffers set up a table in the community room at Rosemont Apartments to answer parent questions and register students.
Their records show that 20 elementary kids live in the apartment complex located about a mile from Stewart, but less than half are enrolled at the school.
Family impact coordinator Michelle Herrera asked the children playing in the community room to tell their moms to come down. A little while later, LaToya Tabor walked in, cool and casual in a gray cotton dress and sandals.
“We just wanted to come you to guys,” Herrera told Tabor. “We got some families that came and registered, and they’d said that there was a lot of families who were not coming back, and we just wanted to come and be like why?”
Tabor said: “I actually heard good news, to be honest with you. Someone actually recommended that I go there. … Like, they were supposed to shut down, or something like that, but she said the school is good.”
Herrera handed Tabor a tablet, and helped her fill out the online registration form.
In the past two years, Stewart has lost about a third of its students. It’s unclear why, although the district points to the school’s low academic performance.
Jeremy Jones, the executive director of Democracy Prep San Antonio, said he and his staff have spent the summer calming parent fears and convincing them to send their children back to Stewart.
“Once we’ve made direct connection with them, our parents have been incredibly receptive,” Jones said. “It’s also been really great when our parents have been able to meet our teachers, because I think that dissipates a lot of that fear.”
Martinez said he and the school board wanted to partner with Democracy Prep to build innovative, high-performing options on the Southside — a part of the district with half a dozen low-performing campuses and comparatively few specialized schools.
If Democracy Prep delivers results for Stewart, SAISD has committed to a 10-year contract that lets the charter operator expand through middle and high school and serve up to 2,400 kids.
At current funding per student, the district could eventually pay Democracy Prep more than 25 million dollars a year.
Camille Phillips can be reached at Camille@tpr.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille