New Education Initiatives

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Offering More Choices for Many San Antonio Kids

By Renee Haines

When school doors re-open in August for the 2014-2015 academic year, many San Antonio kids will be introduced to new or expanding education programs. From a growing citywide pre-school program to a new way of educating sixth-graders, the city’s public schools are embracing innovative models for increasing learning success.

More high school students will take classes on local college campuses this fall, while all ninth-graders will adapt to a new way of focusing their classes on specific fields of college- or career-based study that is now mandated by state legislation.

San Antonio’s model Pre-K 4 SA program for area 4-year-olds will complete work in August on two new education centers, the West Center and East Center. Together with the existing North Center and South Center, the program expects to reach an enrollment of 1,500 by next year.

Belinda Gonzalez, director of the South Center, uses the word “phenomenal” to describe the results of the just-completed first year of a full-day pre-school program that is free to eligible 4-year-olds and available at a deeply discounted rate for other youngsters.

“We’ve had an amazing year. We’ve seen the kids grow academically and socially,” Gonzalez says. “The kids are confidently signing their names. They interact with technology. Some of our kids are already reading. The kids have had some incredible opportunities.”

U.S. studies show that early education programs result in higher academic performance in subsequent years, lead to increased high school graduation rates and produce higher college attendance numbers.

New students will be able to learn on iPads and interactive Smart Boards being installed in new classrooms this year, and the centers will continue offering adult literacy classes for parents. Gonzalez says parent participation was high at special events for families during the past year.

“It’s a very happy place for the kids and the parents. The parents feel at home here,” says Gonzalez.

A New Place for Sixth-Graders

All sixth-graders in San Antonio’s Edgewood School District for the first time this fall will attend their own 6th Grade Academy, a bridge program for students leaving elementary school and entering their middle school years. The goal is to make it easier for kids to make the transition with a “blended instruction and project-based learning” approach, says district spokesman Roland Martinez.

About 800 sixth-graders, who otherwise would have been attending the district’s three middle schools, will report for class in August at 6th Grade Academy, housed in a district building next to Brentwood Middle School. The districtwide program follows a pilot program in place during the last school year that involved only Brentwood sixth-graders.

“We saw a decline in discipline referrals, and academic performance did not dip as we traditionally see when students transition to middle school,” says Martinez about positive outcomes from the pilot.

Free SAT Tests

San Antonio’s Northside School District this fall for the first time will allow its more than 7,000 high school juniors to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) free. The SAT is an admission requirement for many colleges and universities. Students also will be allowed to use free online preparation programs for the SAT.

Unlike previous years, Northside students also can take the SAT at their own schools instead of traveling to another testing center.

District administrators say the goal is to encourage more students to consider college by eliminating SAT costs and offering the college entrance exams in a familiar place.

A Head Start to College

Some San Antonio School District students will begin their freshman year in high school on a college campus, thanks to Alamo Colleges’ Early College High School program, which will expand this fall to St. Philip’s College. About 100 high school students will take classes at the St. Philip’s campus beginning this year, although the schools expect to expand enrollment in coming years.

In an era of dramatically rising higher education costs, this early college program is free, and eligible students can graduate from high school with their high school diploma and as many as 60 hours of college credit and/or a completed associate degree.

They can also earn certification in fields such as information technology and automotive technology to help them get jobs immediately after graduation. For students who want a four-year degree, they will have completed as many as two years’ worth of college courses at no cost to their parents.

National studies show that these programs produce increased high school graduation rates, higher college enrollment numbers and an obvious increase in high school seniors graduating with college credits and/or an associate’s degree or a technical certificate.

Some SASD high school students already are attending Early College High School on the campus of San Antonio College, which had its first graduating class in 2012. The San Antonio Colleges program is also in place at the Northeast Lakeview College campus, which houses the Judson Early College Academy for Judson School District high school students.

San Antonio area parents of this year’s eighth-graders can contact school officials about enrolling their children in next year’s Early College High School program.

House Bill (H.B.) 5 Changes

In August all ninth-graders in San Antonio and the rest of Texas will start school with curriculums designed to embrace what has been compared to declaring a college major four years early.

Because of last year’s H.B. 5, a Texas bill signed into law that reduced the number of high school tests required for students to get their diploma from 15 to five, this year’s ninth-graders will be the first under the new regulations to have to pick one of five areas of academic/career interests.

Their high school course schedules will be tailored to fit the five areas that are also called endorsements. The five are: public services, business and industry, arts and humanities, multidisciplinary studies and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Last year’s eighth-graders already have picked their concentration.

While some Texas school districts will not offer all five areas this year, San Antonio’s North East School District is among those that will offer all five.

“Is one [endorsement]better than another? No. It just provides kids more choices to focus on programs of study,” says John Vahalik, director of career and technical education at the district. “While everything was focused on being college-ready, this also focuses on helping them become career-ready.”

The traditional academic rigor required to earn a high school diploma, he adds, will still be in place for all students.

“I think parents are confused right now. The plan is very complicated,” says Vahalik, about meetings with parents and students last spring to address the changes. They’re not alone, he adds, “we feel like this is so new, we’ll have a lot of changes this year.”

Vahalik suggests that parents of high school students not worry about specific endorsements, because the program is flexible enough to allow students to change their areas of concentration. For example, he says, students attending magnet schools or special programs in the past have focused on one area and then changed their mind after completing the courses to then concentrate on another field.

For academically struggling students, “there’s been so much focus on academics, they don’t get to take electives.” Vahalik’s district will begin including industry certification that can be included on a student’s high school graduation diploma should the student opt for a more career-based curriculum.

“I think it’s cool when you have all these opportunities at North East. There’s a plan there for every kid,” he says. For parents of high school students and eighth-graders who will join the program next year, he advises that they consult school counselors. “Talk to your child and see what they’re interested in. Find out what your kids want to do,” Vahalik adds.

Renee Haines is a freelance writer based in San Antonio.

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