Walking the Line
with Barbara Jenkins, Pedro Martinez and Evan Meyers
The story of school choice is evolving across the United States. But how that story plays out is influenced by a complexity of circumstances and leadership. The Line Editor-in-Chief John E. Deasy talked with Barbara Jenkins, superintendent, Orange County, Florida Public Schools; Pedro Martinez, superintendent, San Antonio Independent School District; and Even Meyers, founder of the fledgling Manhattan School in the Square charter to discuss their experiences, perceptions and hopes for school choice.
San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD) stretches across 79 square miles. While San Antonio is served by 17 school districts, SAISD covers the center of the city — its poorest zip codes — as well as parts of the cities of Olmos Park and Balcones Heights and a small part of Bexar County. In recent years, San Antonio has ranked among the most segregated cities in America for the extreme disparity in income levels among communities there. Within the SAISD boundaries, students are nearly all Hispanic, with an astounding 92 percent living in poverty. Pedro Martinez, Ph.D., has been superintendent of the district for nearly two and a half years. Just shy of the mid-way point of his 5 year-plan, Martinez is seeing progress.
“Growing self-esteem is core to the YMLA approach.”
After serving as deputy superintendent, Barbara Jenkins became superintendent of Florida’s Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) in 2012. Under her leadership and with 100 of 189 district schools qualifying for Title I, OCPS has made significant gains in student achievement. The graduation rate is now about 82 percent for all schools and more than 90 percent for traditional high schools. The district has won accolades for academic and operational progress, including the coveted Broad Prize in 2014 and the governor of Florida’s Sterling Award. In 2016, Jenkins was named Florida Superintendent of the Year and was one of four finalists for AASA’s National Superintendent of the Year Award. The Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents (ALAS) named Jenkins the Hispanic-Serving School District Superintendent of the Year in 2017. Jenkins points to the OCPS strategy and student achievement as the real markers of her success.
After a mid-life career change from financial services to education and five years of teaching under his belt, Evan Meyers founded School in the Square, a charter school for middle-schoolers in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Now in its second year, School in the Square has doubled enrollment and added 10 new faculty members, including teachers, social workers and a parent coordinator to support the school’s ongoing mission of providing students with a differentiated and inclusive learning environment. New York City does not have enough charter schools to meet student interest. Last spring, a record 78,000 students applied for 25,000 available spots. While in its infancy, clearly there is demand for community-based options like School in the Square. Meyers points to enrollment numbers and feedback from students and their families as evidence his vision for the young school is resonating.
“When they believe their voice matters, they believe their choices matter.”
John Deasy: How are you measuring your success?
Evan Meyers: School in the Square has an enhanced definition of success. We measure academic growth in several ways that are very typical, including annual test scores. However, we’re trying to triangulate different measures of growth around literacy and numeracy to track exactly where students are and to move them forward through the educational process. We also measure students’ sense of belonging through attendance, suspensions and attitudinal surveys. We believe the holy grail of measuring student achievement is to measure the social-emotional learning of a community in addition to academic growth. That’s an approach that we’re exploring.
In addition to student achievement, we also measure the success of our staff in our ability to attract strong talent, keep them engaged and keep them in our school. In our first year, we had 100 percent retention of our founding staff. I’m proud of that.
John Deasy: Is your ambition to expand beyond middle school?
Evan Meyers: We have an ambition to work with our students and our families over a very long time. We hope to eventually expand School in the Square to serve grades K–12, but more than that, we want to stay involved with students. Today, the kids that I taught in high school are now graduating from college. Over the past four years, I’ve been in touch with so many of them, providing help writing resumes and finding summer jobs. All young people need mentors, need support to launch successfully into the world. We hope to do that.