San Antonio Independent School District is contracting with a New York-based charter school organization to run one of its elementary schools next school year.
On Monday night, the district’s board of trustees approved the proposal for the charter organization Democracy Prep to run Stewart Elementary, one of the district’s lowest performing schools.
The move makes Stewart eligible for a two year reprieve from state interventions that are poised to take place in August.
Unless Stewart improves dramatically on standardized tests and other accountability measures this school year, state law would have required the Texas education commissioner to either close Stewart or take over the district before fall.
But because Democracy Prep will be running the school, it’s eligible for a two year reprieve from those sanctions.
Several people who commented on the charter operator’s application wanted the district to consider other ways of becoming eligible, such as partnering with a university or another type of nonprofit organization.
But SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez said it was difficult to find a group willing to take the school on.
“For somebody to come in and put their, frankly, their name as part of the school and put their reputation at risk, there’s just not many operators that are willing to do that,” Martinez said.
“The same children have to be in that school whether they’re special needs, English language learners, whatever their situation is, they have to be served there. And so to have somebody come in and say, hey you’re going to have the exact same children, you’re not starting from scratch, that’s not the way normally most organizations start schools,” he added.
Even though Stewart is becoming a charter school, children living in the neighborhood will continue to be assigned to the school unless they apply to go to one of the district’s open-enrollment specialty schools. No applications will be required.
More than a dozen people spoke against the move, many of them teachers at Stewart. They were concerned about Democracy Prep’s reputation for harsh discipline and the fact that they’ll have to become employees of the charter organization in order to stay at the school. If they are no longer district employees they’ll lose their contracts and union representation.
Stewart teacher and parent Vanessa Ibarra said the school has fallen through the cracks due to shifting leadership.
“I truly believe the students deserve teachers who provide rigorous instruction as well as stability in their life. But outsourcing Stewart to a charter company — yes I said company, not school — you are setting in motion yet another year of high turnover rates of well-qualified teachers at Stewart. …This is the main reason why our students struggle,” Ibarra said. “To put this in perspective: I’ve worked at Stewart for four years and it’s pretty sad to think I’m the second longest teacher that still works there.”
Martinez said he knew it would be controversial for Stewart teachers to become charter employees, but Democracy Prep required it. He also said the district will outline discipline expectations in a performance agreement with the operator, which will be voted on at a later board meeting.
District officials said teachers and other staff who don’t want to continue working at Stewart under its new management will be offered jobs at another school.
SAISD already has 20 in-district charter schools, but Stewart will be the first neighborhood school run by an outside charter operator.
Other schools at risk of sanctions
In addition to Stewart, SAISD has five other schools at risk of sanctions this August because they’ve failed to meet state academic standards for at least four years.
The final piece of the puzzle to protect one of those schools, Irving Middle, also fell into place last night. The board approved a plan to convert the middle school into a new, in-district dual language academy. Eventually, Washington Irving Dual Language Academy will serve K-8, but it’s starting out next year with classes for K-2.
Because the neighborhood middle school is being phased out after next year and being replaced with the new open-enrollment dual language school, it will no longer be around to face consequences, said SAISD spokeswoman Leslie Price.
District officials said they’re also looking at options to avoid state intervention because of the other low-performing schools: Tafolla Middle, Rodriguez Elementary, Dorie Miller Elementary and Ogden Elementary.
Camille Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @cmpcamille