ACCESS – San Antonio
A Community Collaborates for Student Success (Part 2)

Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., and Albert Cortez, Ph.D.

Systemic change is taking place at the San Antonio Independent School District (ISD) because of the work of the ACCESS – San Antonio collaborative. The October 2002 issue of the IDRA Newsletter provided an overview of this work. This article describes the systemic changes that are occurring and envisions the future of the collaborative.

For the past three years, six organizations in San Antonio have partnered to improve student achievement and increase high school completion and college enrollment and completion rates, especially among traditionally underserved students. With funding from the Ford Foundation, ACCESS (Academic and Community Collaborative Ensuring Student Success) has evolved as a model of institutional and public engagement education in targeted schools within the San Antonio ISD. As the model gears up to reach an even greater number of students, families and educators, it is becoming known as ACCESS – San Antonio.

ACCESS – San Antonio has strengthened relationships based on trust, mutual respect and shared decision making across all levels and with all stakeholders which, in turn, has yielded improvements in the quality of teaching and learning. This past year, we re-focused our work to support the concept of vertical alignment and teaming and creating smaller schools-within-a-school (or small learning communities). Our approaches and the early results follow.

Seamless Academic Transitions Across Grades and Schools

The collaborative partners understand that some transition points are especially treacherous for students: the move from home to kindergarten, from fifth grade to sixth grade, from eighth grade to ninth grade, and from high school to college.
ACCESS has already cast a light on these transition points and has begun to ease the transition for students through improving communication between teachers across transition points. The project has also been informing students and parents about the challenges and opportunities that await them.

Authentic Learning that Transcends All Areas of the School Curriculum

We believe that authentic learning goes well beyond the knowledge and skills tested by the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) – the state-mandated criterion reference test – and other multiple-choice tests. Authentic learning is genuinely meaningful to learners and prepares them well for the next level of schooling and for life beyond schooling.

While there remains a tension between “studying for the test” and authentic learning, ACCESS has helped teachers ease some of this tension through targeted professional development. Teams of teachers from the nine Burbank High School clusters participated in specific training on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) and the changes in its successor, the TAKS. The training outlined changes to test item format, data analysis, benchmark assessment development and use, as well as TAAS and TAKS objectives transition and impact on course sequencing. This done, it is now possible to think beyond the testing.

Transform Classroom Instruction Through the Use of Innovative Strategies

ACCESS has provided a forum for teachers to share their best practices, share their innovative strategies and build on new school efforts including using data to inform decision-making. This year, the district began using interim assessments to assess the scope and sequence every nine weeks. ACCESS schools are incorporating these assessments into their decision-making across grade levels.

New and Improved Relationships among Families, Communities and Schools
ACCESS provides opportunities for secondary level teachers to learn from elementary school teachers about student-centered approaches. Elementary school teachers have also learned from secondary level teachers how to acquire more subject matter expertise. College professors have learned to appreciate and use the creativity of pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers who meet the challenges of diverse classrooms.

Through ACCESS, parents have a greater understanding of how to work effectively to get issues resolved. They are aware of and appreciate the efforts teachers make for their children, and teachers acknowledge and salute the efforts parents make.

ACCESS has helped students see themselves as “college material” and contributors to their communities and chosen professions. Parents and teachers see their roles as ones in which they both nurture and guide students toward these futures. Teachers challenge students to strive harder, set higher goals, and achieve more.

Consistency with School District Reform Priorities

The goals of ACCESS have always been consistent and aligned with San Antonio ISD’s educational reform efforts. The school district’s major reform efforts are embedded in its Vision 2005 – a five-year district improvement plan that gathers broad-based support to improve the academic performance of all of its students. District activities are designed to build consensus of key leadership groups around the Vision 2005 plan based on five fundamental beliefs:

  • Excellence and equity in student performance are achievable for all students.
  • No child will be left behind.
  • The teacher is the program
  • People support what they help create.
  • Change comes from within.

San Antonio ISD’s Vision 2005 is working toward having the following:

  • A high quality cadre of academically-prepared, professionally-performing, and student-caring teachers and staff;
  • A state-of-the-art instructional environment with proven successful technology for student learning and teacher support;
  • An educational delivery system where no child is left behind;
  • An entire community that is student-centered and committed to student learning;
  • Trust between policymakers and community members and a foundation for a continuous school improvement culture; and
  • An effective, unified governance structure with strong leadership and high quality policymakers.

San Antonio ISD has undergirded this effort with an extraordinary commitment to continuous self-assessment. Its comprehensive self-evaluation has provided a reality-based framework that establishes where the district has been, where it is going and where it wants to be. As such, the district has already begun a systematic and systemic set of educational indicators that ACCESS – San Antonio will build on and expand.
ACCESS – San Antonio will take this beyond the pre-kindergarten through 12th grade system and connect it with the higher education dimension in a way that is aligned and integrated – a critical difference from what currently exists.

Collaborative Learnings and Promising Strategies

Over the next two years, we will concentrate on two primary activities. We will identify our collaborative learnings and promising strategies through a series of structured, introspective meetings. We will also develop a “school success indicator” (SSI) system. These indicators will assess the “educational health” within the school system (e.g., staffing, teacher qualifications, professional development, student performance, budget, parent and community engagement) in a quick and efficient manner. The indicators will be reliable, valid and useful to the school, parents, community and policymakers.

Our collaborative’s learnings, promising strategies and possibilities for sustainability will be critical for the San Antonio collaborative stakeholders to institutionalize those strategies that ACCESS created and deemed successful in strengthening a pre-kindergarten through grade 16 educational pipeline. It will be important to reflect on and document what has worked, what has been transformed, what has been institutionalized, and what has remained the same over time.

This is particularly important given the recent evidence that the Burbank High School cluster of schools has made significant gains in alignment of curriculum and instruction, coordination and communication, and student achievement. When compared to the other cluster of schools in the district, the Burbank High School cluster distinguishes itself as a leader in these and other areas, operating as its own learning community. The San Antonio collaborative will explore and examine the relationship of our work these past three years, the gains the schools have already made, and what should be sustained over time.

The collaborative learnings will also provide an empirical grounding for the identification and strengthening of effective professional development and parent and community engagement strategies that have proven to be most successful in helping San Antonio educators strengthen their practices and/or assisted parents and community members in understanding their rights and responsibilities.

School Success Indicator System

Our second activity will be the development of the school success indicator system, a new dynamic initiative that will point to the educational areas needing attention and support. The framework will be comprised of information at the key transition points: fifth to sixth grade, eighth to ninth grade, 12th grade to college or university enrollment, and ultimately college graduation.

Our collaborative, including parent and community representatives, will identify the guiding questions and subsequent data needed to answer those questions as well as determine where the indicators will be housed and how they will be maintained and updated. Partners’ databases will be accessed (using confidentiality protocols) and the data organized and housed in a user-friendly, publicly accessible central database.
Unlike most indicator systems that focus on student factors, this one will target school and community factors in an effort to shift the paradigm from “fixing kids” to changing schools, strengthening those characteristics that work for students and changing those that do not. Possible indicators include:

Contextual indicators such as (1) student access to a wide range of extracurricular activities, like fine arts, sports, and media, that serve to engage and hold students throughout their schooling; and (2) school efforts that positively address student needs in areas such as teenage pregnancy, disciplinary incidents, access to higher education, including access and support for success in the SAT and ACT, Advanced Placement courses, and high school graduation.

Quality of the delivery system indicators such as the number of certified teachers, the breadth of curriculum, instructional practice, and professional development, among others.

Resources available including expenditures per pupil, facilities allocations, and other resource issues.

Outcome indicators, such as TAKS scores, the numbers of students taking the SAT and ACT and their scores, the numbers of students taking Advanced Placement and dual credit courses, and higher education retention and graduation rates.
Guiding questions for the development of indicators might include the following:


  • How many students is the high school graduating each year?
  • How many students from that high school is the college or university enrolling and graduating?
  • Who is the high school, college, or university not graduating?
  • What high school, college, or university factors influence student success?

Staffing, Teacher Qualifications, Professional Development

  • What is the student to teacher ratio?
  • What is the average class size?
  • What is the average tenure of teachers, principals and faculty?
  • Are teachers qualified to teach the subjects they are teaching?
  • What professional development is provided to teachers and faculty?


  • How much is spent per student?
  • How much is spent on staff, student services, professional development?
  • How much is spent on programs and are the programs effective?
  • What outside sources of funding are available and how is that funding used?

Parent and Community Engagement

  • How are the schools connecting with parents and the community?
  • What are the effects of the linkages?
  • How satisfied are employers with the preparation of the community’s graduates?

ACCESS – San Antonio is clear about what this indicator system can and cannot do. By definition, it cannot set goals or priorities or evaluate. It can, however, signal problems as well as identify areas of school success within the system in a quick and efficient manner. Ideally, it “must tell a great deal about the entire system by reporting the condition of a few particularly significant features of it” (Shavelson, et al., 1991).

During the next year, the collaborative, including parent and community representatives, will develop criteria to select indicators that are reliable, valid and useful to the school, parents, community and policymakers. The next step will involve inventorying what data are currently available in databases and areas where new indicator data are needed. Each potential indicator will be evaluated by the collaborative for its usefulness, accessibility and feasibility (if data gathering is needed). Strategies for parents and the community accessing and using this system will also be developed with leadership from Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA) and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) through professional development and parent training.

One natural linkage that will be cultivated for this effort exists with neighborhood association coalitions whose members have been trained at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

The school success indicator system will provide much needed information to further advocacy of schools that work for all students and will amplify the indicators of school success from its currently narrow focus in the Texas accountability system of one test to a much wider, richer and more appropriate picture of success.

This activity comes at a particularly propitious time as the University of Texas system further expands its kindergarten through grade 16 initiative. Recently, the Board of Regents approved a major expansion of programs in the University of Texas system to assist teachers and students in the public schools.

The million-dollar initiative, “Every Child, Every Advantage,” will include new programs for teacher education, professional development for current teachers, and research-based instructional programs in elementary and secondary schools. Our collaborative learnings, promising strategies, and SSI system will be an important contribution to this initiative helping to inform larger state policies that will impact the future of education in Texas for decades to come.


Cortez, J.D., and A. Cortez. “ACCESS – San Antonio: A Community Collaborates for Student Success,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, October 2002).

Shavelson, R.J., et al. “What Are Educational Indicators and Indicator Systems?” ERIC/TM Digest (1991).

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is the director of the IDRA Institute for Policy and Leadership. Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., is the IDRA production development coordinator. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at

[©2002, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]