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Creating Equity in Education

Educators, policy makers and community leaders are always looking for answers to the problem of improving educational outcomes for students. Recently, more and more studies have continued to shed light on the inequity of opportunities and outcomes for children in the US. Many studies reveal the disparity based on ethnic lines and zip codes, but few school districts have made any meaningful effort to address integration of schools based on anything other than race.

Recent initiatives in San Antonio, based on a blend of factors such as household income and educational attainment level of parents, have yielded amazing results. This groundbreaking effort led by Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who has been in his position for 3 years, is an experiment that should be replicated on a larger scale.

San Antonio faces the challenges of many inner cities, 90% of students come from economically disadvantaged and minority homes. Additionally, as in a growing number of districts in the US, especially in the southwest, many students have very little or only just emerging English skills. Also, many students come to school without their basic needs met. One does not need to be versed in Maslow’s hierarchy to know that students who are not adequately fed or living in safe environments cannot come to school ready to learn. While the schools cannot heal all wounds, they can provide an important safety net and be a source of hope for all students. Martinez has worked to raise expectations and provide hope for change, and he has been a school leader that cities across the nation should take note of.

Martinez came to the district facing seemingly insurmountable odds when charged with school improvement; however, he has acted as a change agent, inspiring educators to set high expectations and implement risk-taking improvements. While educators know that their high expectations for students correlate with improved student outcomes, educators, sometimes feeling demoralized by the demands of the system and the difficult challenges faced when teaching disadvantaged students, can often overlook this fact and diminish their expectation level for students. Martinez is inspiring leaders and teachers alike to change their perspectives, and is creating choice in schools and new programs for students from within. Additionally, he is creating innovative opportunities for students outside the district with new magnet schools and in-district charter schools.

The results are beginning to be apparent as well. One high school increased their college acceptance rates from 26% to 53%. High school graduation rates rose to 85%. Families with higher incomes who had departed the failing district are now returning.

How did Martinez mange to bring about this change? He combined his educational talent and business acumen, creating competition with in-district charter schools and programs. He leveraged federal ESSA (Every Student Succeeds Act) funding by increasing charter schools within the district to bring in added funding. Additionally, he contracted with Relay Graduate School to provide teacher training and professional development. The district also relies upon 125 Teach for America corps members to provide educational leadership in their classrooms and schools. Martinez also brought in local industry leaders to provide philanthropic support. Texas based Valero and HEB Food Stores partnered with the district, as did others.

Change is not easy and Martinez is not without critics. The union leaders are unhappy with the growth of charter schools. Low performing teachers and administrators have been laid off, and despite school improvement, the district will still face a large budget deficit. The problem has not been solved. It is a complex and messy problem that most of the country is facing. However, change has begun. Every member of our society needs to recognize and be concerned with the outcome. Regardless of income or zip code, all children need to be educated with the necessary skills for future work force development and ultimately for the good of our society as a whole. Lack of schooling correlates to unemployment, high crime, and a multitude of social woes. The economic growth and wellbeing of the country, as well as the growth of the individual, depends on schools that educate all children for a brighter future.

The 74 recently published a long article about many aspects of what is happening in San Antonio schools. The article, This Zip Code is Their World contains an in-depth look at the complexity of the problem and possible solutions. The 74 is a nonprofit news site focusing on education issues in the US. It was founded by Campbell Brown, former CNN host and a leader in education reform. The name, The 74, refers to the 74 million children in the U.S. that are under 18 years of age.