Pedro Martinez on Leading A Diverse District, Bridging to the Community, and 'Red or Green?'

by Seth Saavedra │Friday, June 15th, 2018


 
 

Pedro Martinez, superintendent of San Antonio ISD, came to Albuquerque this week by invitation of our Chamber of Commerce. As head of a school district that is 90 percent Hispanic, Pedro knows the many challenges and opportunities of a culturally rich and diverse city. Coming from a family that emigrated from Mexico when he was five years old, Pedro grew up in inner city Chicago. We talked about his journey to San Antonio, the path ahead, and whether he prefers Green or Red.


 
 

You’ve had experience at both the state and district levels. One of the issues in New Mexico is a long-standing friction between our state education agency and some districts, particularly larger ones like Albuquerque and Santa Fe. What are some of the things you’ve seen or done to encourage cooperative and productive relationships between these two levels?

The biggest advice I would say is you have to have collaborative leaders. You can't have egos get in the way. You can’t assume that somebody has all the answers. What I've learned doing this work for more than 20 years is that this work is too complicated.

I think the way to promote collaboration between states and districts is really having a conversation about what the ultimate goal is. One of the reasons the (Texas Education Agency) commissioner (Mike Morath) and I get along and collaborate so well is that we both see the bigger picture that while the state has seen improvements in graduation rates, our college readiness is still below the national average.

I want to prove that our children living in poverty can compete with other children across the country and get into some of these top colleges and succeed there. We both agree on that value. What I love is that he's watching what we're doing in this district, that is so densely poor, knowing that if our strategies work they can be replicated across the state.

One of the things that my board and I decided a long time ago was that we were going to learn from others and, as long as our values and ultimate goal were the same - which is graduating children and getting them to some post-secondary institution of their choice - that that's what we cared most about.

Everything else was going to be more about how we work with teachers and parents to motivate them. I have teachers who love Montessori schools and we created a Montessori school. That's where they should be. I have teachers who love dual language programs, that's where they should be. And that's for parents as well. For us it's finding those things that motivate teachers, parents, and children, with the same values and the same goals.

How do you close gaps with children, especially children that live in poverty? It is such complicated work. Our colleges of education don't train our teachers with the best strategies. There are so many things that we have to learn.


 
 

How has that looked where maybe you have a disagreement with the TEA (Texas Education Agency)? How have you worked through that?

We're very collaborative but where we’ve had disagreements sometimes is the details of our accountability system. What I love is that they're open to our constructive criticisms and, in some cases, they make decisions and we were okay with it even when we disagree. We respect it, but we have the ability to debate it.


 
 

On the diversity of San Antonio:

In San Antonio we're trying to prove the concept that we do have families that are open to integration. I'm asking some of my middle class families, “Why are you willing to try the Advanced Learning Academy where you know you're going to have children that might be homeless or in foster care?” They can afford to put their children in any private school. But, if they do that, their children will never see what our real society looks like and their children are growing up to be better adults because they’re more socially conscious of the world around them.

And what we are showing them is that we will not compromise on quality. There are expert teachers and all of the children, whether they're advanced or they're below grade level, are growing academically. We are not compromising and that's something I appreciate because you need that pressure from parents.


 
 

To those who are fearful of some of the needed changes to bring public education into the 21st century (“power bases” as you’ve called them), what do you say? How do you think of your work to assuage concerns of adults while remaining laser focused on the needs of students?

Number one, you have to have conversations about values and the end results with children. I have shown in our work that we're willing to try different models. All of our new models are homemade. We’ve partnered with universities and national experts. That was some of our earliest work.

I won’t always be successful, but our strategy is always to try and find ways to not be divisive because I think one of the mistakes that has happened in K12 is we have become two extreme sides. There're individuals who feel that choice is the answer for everything, including vouchers and charter schools. And then the other side thinks choice is the enemy and that traditional schools are the only answer.

When I talk to families, what they care about is whether their child is going to have a shot. “Is my child below reading level?” Or, if they're a special needs child: “What are you going to do for them? Are they going to have a chance to have opportunities?”

They may not know what a tier one university is because some of them didn’t graduate from high school. But they know when their child is engaged in school. They know when their child is excited to go to school. When their child is learning and growing academically. And one of the other things I always tell people is, let's make sure we give our parents credit because they know a lot more than we realize.

Even when they're single parents and they're working two jobs, they know a lot more than we realize. So how do we work together so that we're meeting the needs of parents and how do we find a different way of doing things?

There’s always going to be some areas where we don't agree and, as I'm learning the hard way, sometimes those issues will continue to grow. But I'm still optimistic that we'll continue to work together. I ultimately am looking for quality choices for our families. And the hope is that you find people that are reasonable, that are willing to give it a try.

And, when we make a mistake, we will admit it because this work is hard. It's complicated. There is no magic bullet. Let's learn together. And, lastly, let's not make it personal and let's keep the interests of children as our top priority.


 
 

For advocates here in Albuquerque, what advice would you share from your experiences in Chicago and San Antonio about the importance and best ways to rally and sustain community energy?

First of all, it's important to engage the community early on about a clear vision. We laid out ten academic goals my first year. My staff and I went into our communities and asked, “Is this where you want to be? And, by the way, here is where we're at.”

And we're very transparent about the fact that less than five percent of our children were college ready on the SAT. Less than half of our children were going to college. Less than a fourth were going to four-year universities. Less than two percent were going to tier one universities.

And people were shocked. They didn't realize what our numbers looked like. I also showed them where Texas was at, and the state was underperforming the nation. Then I showed them national statistics. We did that our first year and we united the board around that.

Then as we started creating proof points, which are our quality options, people started understanding. This is what we mean by a high-quality school. Then we opened up our all boys school (Young Men's Leadership Academy) and we saw positive results in the first year it was a complete shift in what people had been seeing. Even our two schools that were already strong, they got stronger.

It starts with setting a vision. Creating something tangible that people can see and touch. We’ve also been open about the fact that we're inclusive and that we are not going to create models that just reach the top kids.

When I asked the business community what's the one thing that distinguishes what we're doing from what they've seen anywhere else? And they say, “Your priority is equity.” For them that's important because they know, especially those who have lived in San Antonio for decades, that nobody talked about it enough that we have the “haves” and “have nots”.

We have companies moving into San Antonio and many thousands and thousands of children who never could take advantage of those opportunities. Our business leaders started seeing that now we're going further in some of the equity work and they understand that at a deeper level.

I would say that it takes a lot of time. We're doing it slowly. We're showing individuals what it could be and still have transparency. We're not there yet, but this is what's possible. What I'm excited about is the conversations that are changing from our students, from our parents, and from the business community, even though I have some resistance right now.

I still believe that the resistance isn't coming from a bad place per se. We just have a philosophical difference. My hope is to continue the work and see how we can find new ways to work together because what really matters is not so much what I believe or even what unions believe, it's what's happening for our children. If you get stuck on philosophical differences you don't move forward, and nothing changes.


 
 

What's something that you are seeing or would like to see in terms of those who seek to improve public education did differently in our approach to the work?

What I would love is, and I got this from John King our most recent former Secretary of Education. I wish that we talked about a different way of doing things. Instead of talking about traditional schools versus charters as you saw in Massachusetts when they were fighting to raise the charter school cap. We keep going on these two different debates and a lot is lost.

What motivates me is that when I look at college graduation rates and see, in the 40 years since the 70s, when I started being tracked, to the most recent data, the gaps have never been wider. And that predicts whether you're going to graduate from college.

I now have two children, a seven-year-old and four-year-old that I think about. And about my students on the west side of San Antonio who, just because of where they live, have less than a ten percent chance of graduating from a university. I think we have to really grapple with that.

Whether it's a traditional school, whether it's a charter school, what's the difference? The real question we should ask ourselves is: How do we work together?

When I talk with the business community here about the challenges of poverty and how they are correlated with so many other ills of society, from drug abuse to teenage pregnancy, I try to make that connection. And it's not just the bottom quartile of students, but also that second quartile of students we focus on.

Ultimately, we're not trying to do this for any other reason than trying to figure out a very complicated problem. We have to ask those tough questions about what is happening to these children and how do we work together and get better outcomes?


 
 

Lastly, and most importantly, here in New Mexico we care a lot about our chile peppers. Are you a “green” or “red” kind of guy?

I’ve visited before, three years ago probably. I’ve tried the Red and I like the Red. The Green is fine, but I like the Red more!