Largest elementary school in San Antonio ISD may be next campus to partner with UTSA

The San Antonio Independent School District is seeking state approval to turn Graebner Elementary School into a charter campus in the district, a small echo of its pre-pandemic embrace of such partnerships in recent years.

If approved by the Texas Education Agency, Graebner will join 39 other SAISD schools that have formed partnerships with nonprofit educational organizations or institutions as varied as the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Center for Montessori in the Public Sector and the Centers for Applied Science and Technology known as CAST.

Thirty-one of SAISD’s charter schools in the district were created by Senate Bill 1882, a 2017 law that provides more state funding to schools that turn over part of their management to an outside partner . That’s about a third of the nearly 100 campuses in the district, a measure of how quickly and enthusiastically former superintendent Pedro Martinez embraced SB 1882 partnerships.

Graebner Elementary would be the latest if the TEA signs the agreement, working with UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development to expand its existing bilingual curriculum and cultural offerings and increase community engagement.

“What has always been sustained throughout our history is our community involvement, it’s our parent involvement, our academic excellence and our interest in cultural performances,” said its director, Rebecca De Leon, to the SAISD Board of Directors at its March 21 meeting.


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Graebner was built in 1932 and is currently the largest primary in the district, with 667 students and 40 teachers, De Leon noted. Through a voter-approved bond program in 2020, it plans to undergo a full campus renovation.

This provided a good opportunity to shape a new campus around the school’s needs and goals and to use UTSA’s expertise in bilingual education to give teachers and staff the tools to ” collaborating deeply with each other, collaborating with parents in the pedagogy of how we teach our students,” De Leon said.

“We want to re-engage the community, we want to be a community school,” she said.

The university has similar partnerships—known as UTSA Community Lab Schools—with other SAISD campuses, including Bonham Academy and the Irving and Twain Bilingual Academies.

The schools are part of SAISD but are run by both institutions, with UTSA supervising the principal, mentoring teachers, and providing support for academic staff and students. In turn, the university is responsible for the academic results of each partner campus.

“My job is to protect the great things that are already happening on these campuses, while bringing the collective experience of UTSA faculty and ISD San ​​Antonio leaders to ensure each campus is working toward excellence. academic strength, organizational strength and financial strength,” Juanita Santos, executive director of UTSA’s bilingual community lab schools, told SAISD administrators.

While academic and cultural growth will be central to the change, a significant pull factor is the additional state funding flowing into SB 1882 partnerships, about $300,000 a year in the case of Graebner Elementary, said John Norman, Executive Director of SAISD. Innovation Office.

The school would also be eligible to apply for a two-year federal start-up grant that could provide about $800,000 in additional assistance.

“Financial resources are a big reason why our schools and partners are interested in doing these (partnerships),” Norman said. “It’s not the only reason, but it’s important, especially for a school like Graebner.”

The district will submit its request to the TEA this week and expects to receive a response by May.

Pandemic slowdown

SAISD charter partnerships in the district are less than four years old, with the first approved in spring 2018.

Before the board voted unanimously to approve Graebner’s candidacy, directors raised questions about liability or, amid the pandemic, lack thereof.

Older partnerships that will be three years old in 2021 were to be evaluated by the board last fall, based on academic performance, financial status and feedback from teachers and parents. But the pandemic has made it nearly impossible for any campus, partnered or not, to develop comprehensive data sets to measure success.

The STAAR test was not administered in 2020, and this and other academic metrics shortages gave partnerships an extra year to be assessed.

Partnerships with UTSA started in 2021.

“As we make this decision, I would like us to think that if we expand the partnerships, we have data behind what we are doing,” administrator Sarah Sorensen said before voting yes on Graebner’s candidacy. “I certainly wouldn’t turn down a campus opportunity.”

A slowdown in the number of applications for these types of schools was very intentional, Norman said, partly because of the pandemic and partly to ensure that community engagement was still part of the development process.

“Like any strategy, you want to grow the right amount, but not to the point where you don’t have the systems in place and the structures to make sure they’re successful, make sure they’re supported,” Norman said. “It’s a new strategy for any district to partner with an outside organization, so it requires different ways of operating.”

In the fall, schools will undergo a formal review and their grade level will play an important role in deciding whether to continue a program as is or whether it is put on probation for a year.

It’s not far-fetched to think that some of the partnerships might need to be adjusted, Norman said, given how young these programs are. The plan would not be to close the schools, but to reassess the partnerships and possibly, if no change is seen for those on probation, to revoke the contracts.

“The idea behind the charter is, we think, bringing in this new partner, this new program, it’s going to be better for the students, it’s going to lead to better outcomes,” Norman said. “And if after three years we find that it hasn’t led to that…then the board can decide, ‘We don’t think this partner and this program is the right one for the school.'”

“So what happens at school and what changes will really depend on the circumstances,” he said.

Community perception

Graebner’s application and board approval seemed less rushed, and with more community engagement that was supposed to be part of the process for all partnerships, said Alejandra Lopez, president of the Teachers Alliance and San Antonio support staff.

But contracts must be carefully reviewed before approval, since outside partners have a say in the day-to-day working conditions of SAISD staff, she said.

“(The partner) has autonomy over things like the work day, different extra tasks, and that’s something we think is problematic,” Lopez said. “Public school districts are structured so that there is a very clear way to address these issues, but with 1882 partners, that adds a third into the mix and addressing concerns can be very difficult.”

With UTSA, the advantage is that it’s a local partner, Lopez added, and the community and staff might have better access to concerns or issues to speak up.

For some parents who have the time, knowledge and resources to research schools of choice, SAISD’s district charters have been a game-changer, said Inga Cotton, founder and executive director of SA Charter Moms, a nonprofit organization. non-profit focused on providing school choice resources for area parents.

The schools have the potential to appeal to both a small subset of parents who feel more comfortable knowing that these schools are run in part by an elected board of directors, she said, but also to the vast majority who don’t care who does what. decision as long as the school offers the programs that meet their needs.

“For the most part, parents don’t care as much about who is the industrial partner or who is the academic partner. They want to know what’s unique about this school,” Cotton said. “But I think there are still some who want good governance and good transparency.”

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