The Texas Way

When the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) shifted greater control of key decisions, including those related to school improvement, from the federal government to the states, the TEA seized the opportunity. Rather than focus on incremental gains, the state set out to help districts with struggling schools achieve systemic change—by implementing a system that continuously evaluates school quality, seeks community input, and creates school options that are responsive to local needs.

The SGS strategy is designed to increase the number of students in high-performing schools, while reducing the number in low-performing schools. Texas leverages federal funds to help school districts in the SGS network reinvent themselves, moving from a traditional focus on operating schools—whether successfully or not—to a coordinated, dynamic cycle of continuous improvement that seeks to empower well-developed and coherent schools or networks of schools to deliver great outcomes for students. This approach is not unique, having been adopted in one form or another in cities such as Denver and Indianapolis, based on community input. Unlike in those cities, however, the SGS approach in Texas is supported by the state and funded in part through school improvement dollars that flow from the federal government under ESSA. Moreover, Texas has created a policy environment ripe for the successful implementation of the SGS strategy through the enactment of three state laws that promote transparency in school quality ratings, provide flexibility for local accountability systems and solutions, and incentivize partnerships between districts and charter operators, other nonprofit organizations, and colleges and universities.

House Bill 1842, passed by the 84th Texas Legislature in 2015, gives districts maximum flexibility to implement a local turnaround plan, which can incorporate the involvement of high-performing public charter networks and allows school systems to become “districts of innovation,” providing traditional public schools the autonomy and flexibility that has helped lead to the success of a number of public charter schools. The bill also states that if a district has a single campus that is failing for five consecutive years, the education commissioner is compelled to either order the closure of that campus or install a board of managers to take over the district. 

House Bill 22, passed by the 85th Texas Legislature in 2017, requires the commissioner to assign districts a rating of A, B, C, D, or F for overall performance as well as school achievement, school progress, and closing gaps in performance. The state previously had a pass-fail accountability system in which districts were assigned a grade of “met standard” or “improvement required.”  

Senate Bill 1882, passed by the 85th Texas Legislature in 2017, provides incentives for districts to partner with external organizations, such as charter operators, nonprofits, and colleges and universities. First, the bill provides for a possible increase in state funding for partnered campuses. Second, if a district enters into a partnership for a particular school, that school will still be rated by the state for accountability purposes, but there will be a two-year pause, during which the state cannot intervene by ordering closure or taking over the district. 

Together, these bills and the TEA’s implementation of the SGS strategy have set the stage for real and lasting change—and for greater educational opportunity for students who have for too long languished in chronically underperforming schools.

The System of Great Schools Model

A key to understanding the SGS model is the word “system”—defined as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” The SGS approach seeks to create, at the district level, a system of interdependent steps that work in an ever-evolving cycle and lead to the continuous improvement of school quality. The core components of the SGS approach, which all districts selected for participation commit to implementing, are:

  1. Manage school performance by conducting an annual evaluation of the schools in the district to determine how well they are doing and to identify community wants and needs.
  2. Expand great options by conducting an annual call for quality schools to select high-capacity educators and partner organizations that can incubate new schools, replicate successful schools, or restart struggling schools with a goal of creating autonomous campuses and networks.
  3. Improve access to options by outlining school choices for families and making it easier for students to attend those schools through a unified enrollment system and other supports.
  4. Create new organizational structures by establishing an office of innovation, new authorizing policies, a weighted student funding formula, and a menu of district services to execute the SGS strategy.

In addition, the TEA asks districts to evaluate their systems and determine the best path forward, whether that is by (i) improving traditional schools, (ii) redesigning existing schools where the staff and students remain at the campus but leaders implement a new model, or (iii) taking even more substantial actions, such as replacing staff or changing the governance structure, and creating a new school model. The state provides funding for all three approaches but devotes the highest level of funding to support those systems that undertake the most significant measures.

The first two SGS cohorts executed 49 school actions and have planned another 41 school actions to be implemented in the 2020-2021 or 2021-2022 school years.

Leadership Perspective

Pedro Martinez

San Antonio Independent School District

San Antonio Independent School District is a part of the System of Great Schools network. Superintendent Pedro Martinez, a member of Chiefs for Change, explains how the district is creating schools that are socioeconomically and academically diverse.

San Antonio Independent School District was one of the first districts in the state to join the SGS network and was “perhaps the boldest of the first cohort.” Superintendent Pedro Martinez, a member of Chiefs for Change, is pursuing the strategy as part of a larger effort to improve student achievement, stem the tide of declining enrollment, and attract more families to the district. Through the SGS theory of action, the district of approximately 49,000 students has partnered with eight nonprofit organizations to launch a number of in-district charters built around various learning models, including single-gender leadership academies, dual-language immersion campuses, Montessori schools, and career-tech high schools.

To ensure equity, the district created a single, unified enrollment process that allows students to easily apply to multiple open-enrollment schools and that provides information in a variety of languages to inform families about the process and school options. The district also revamped transportation and bus routes, giving students the chance to attend the school that best meets their individual needs. Currently, there are approximately 2,000 students on waiting lists to attend the district’s specialized schools.

Superintendent Martinez believes the SGS has helped San Antonio create some of the nation’s most socioeconomically and academically diverse campuses. “San Antonio is the most segregated city in the country when it comes to wealth,” Martinez said. “We’re trying to show a proof point that we can have high-performing schools, schools that have high demand. We reserve seats for families that have a median income of $20,000, that are single parent households, that don’t own a home, that the adults in the family don’t even have a high school diploma—and we have those children in classrooms with children who are the sons and daughters of college professors.”

In addition to collaborating with various organizations to support the creation of specialized schools, the district recruited partners to operate two of its lowest-performing neighborhood elementary schools as in-district charters: Democracy Prep oversees Stewart Elementary, and Relay Lab Schools, an affiliate of the Relay Graduate School of Education, oversees Ogden Elementary and Storm Elementary.

“Urban districts need to find a third way,” San Antonio Independent School District Chief Innovation Officer Mohammed Choudhury, a member of the Chiefs for Change Future Chiefs leadership development program, said. “We serve the majority of kids in this country. For the first wave of reformers, chartering was basically a way to get the hell out of the system and avoid bureaucracy so they could [get] the work that matters done. Then people realized that school districts weren’t going to go away. The fight between districts and charters is outdated and silly. We can reach more kids better, smarter and faster if we stop fighting.”

Bold Leadership

In September 2019, NBC News Chief Education Correspondent Rehema Ellis interviewed Chiefs for Change Director of Advocacy and Policy Ramin Taheri on an NBC News Learn program about improving the quality of education in Houston. Three districts in the Houston area are part of the System of Great Schools network. During the program, Ramin highlighted the work that Chiefs for Change member Pedro Martinez and his team are doing to boost student achievement in San Antonio.

Leadership Perspective

Orlando Riddick

Midland Independent School District

Midland Independent School District Superintendent Orlando Riddick, a member of Chiefs for Change, outlines the district’s partnership with IDEA Public Schools to expand the number of high-quality school options for families.

Midland Independent School District, which serves 26,400 students in the nation’s energy capital of West Texas, joined the SGS network in an effort to “empower schools and families, increas[e] support and autonomy for school leaders, and develo[p] a shared, local definition for student success” that the district can use to measure progress year over year.

At the start of the 2019-2020 school year, Midland empowered three of its campus leaders by supporting them in the process of converting to in-district charters. These campus designs include elementary schools that serve students who predominantly come from economically disadvantaged families (Bunche and Milam) and a campus for gifted and talented students (Carver Center). Bunche Elementary has partnered with Goddard Junior High to create a pre-kindergarten through 8 continuum of services, called the REACH Network, while Milam Elementary is implementing Midland’s first dual-language academy.

“We find it just as important to look internally as externally to cultivate strong partnerships and a diverse set of options to support our students, families, and staff in providing choice options in our community,” Midland Independent School District Superintendent Orlando Riddick, a member of Chiefs for Change, explained.

Beyond the schools that have converted to in-district charters, two other partnership models have resulted in new schools. Partnering with a best-in-class nonprofit, Young Women’s Preparatory Network, Midland opened a single-gender STEM opportunity, the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, to help address the underrepresentation of women in the regional economy. The district also partnered with Midland College to launch a pre-kindergarten academy, serving three- and four-year-olds.

In addition, Midland announced a partnership with IDEA Public Schools in which that charter network will open more than a dozen schools on seven sites in Midland and neighboring Odessa over the next five years. The first of those campuses, IDEA Travis Academy and College Prep, is scheduled to open in fall 2020.

“The announcement that IDEA Public Schools will open 14 schools in Midland-Odessa by the 2024-25 school year is the type of education transformation our community needs,” the editorial board of the Midland Reporter-Telegram wrote. “We salute those involved in adding IDEA Public Schools to the list of education options available. Midlanders have long supported school choice, and IDEA brings more high-quality educational seats—lots of them—up to 10,000 in Midland and Odessa by 2030. That is worth celebrating.”

We are enthusiastic about the educational opportunities Orlando Riddick has created in such a short period of time as superintendent. He embraces school choice and has been bold in transforming campuses. – Midland Reporter-Telegram Editorial Board