• by Josie Danini Cortez, M.A., and Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • October 2002 • Dr. Albert CortezJosie Cortez Josie Danini Supik, M.A.

Collaborations among educators, families and community organizations can oftentimes accomplish more than individuals can do alone. Ensuring that students go from pre-kindergarten through college graduation and careers is a topic that benefits from the attention a collaboration can give.

ACCESS – San Antonio is one collaboration concentrating on the crucial issue of education reform to help underserved students. 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.alt

With funding from the Ford Foundation, Project ACCESS (Academic and Community Collaborative Ensuring Student Success) has evolved as a model of institutional and public engagement in targeted schools within the San Antonio Independent School District (ISD). As the model gears up to reach an even greater number of students, families and educators, it will become known as ACCESS – San Antonio.

Photo Above: Jesse Zapata, vice provost for the University of Texas at San Antonio downtown campus and former student at Charles Graebner Elementary, cuts the ribbon marking the hallway adopted by UTSA at the elementary school as part of Project ACCESS. Through the “Adopt-A-Hallway” program, representatives from UTSA and the Alamo Community College District (ACCD) visit local schools to distribute information about the colleges. Students also are invited to UTSA and ACCD campuses for tours during the year.

Over the next two years, ACCESS – San Antonio will build on successes, learn from challenges and develop
tools for educators, students, families and communities to create excellent schools. The collaborative consists of five partners:

  • Alamo Community College District that includes four two-year colleges and is one of the largest community college districts in the country;
  • Intercultural Development Research Association (IDRA), a vanguard research, training and technical assistance team that serves as the fiscal agent and lead for the project;
  • Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a legal and education advocacy organization;
  • San Antonio ISD, the second largest of San Antonio’s 13 school districts; and
  • The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), the fastest growing public university in Texas, with more than 20,000 students.

COPS (Communities Organized for Public Service) is a grassroots advocacy organization that partnered in Project ACCESS during the first three years.

This collaborative is dedicated to creating a pathway that safely leads students and their families through school – from elementary school to middle school to high school and on to college and careers. This seamless network of systems will ensure that no student is lost or forgotten and no student is left behind.

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. These insights will be summarized and shared with the stakeholders and the Ford Foundation. 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.

This new initiative is not so much a departure from our previous course as the next leap needed to make a significant difference for more students. We will create a School Success Indicator (SSI) system that will take the pulse of educational health of our community as a whole and show the community that we are indeed making that critical difference for our students.

Where We Began

Our original strategy for reform of the San Antonio ISD Burbank High School feeder pattern was grounded in research on effective school reform and our collective experience. We organized our work around a change framework with four key elements of change in: (1) school organization and culture, (2) district services, (3) teaching and learning, and (4) the broader community’s role in school and district operations.

To achieve the various reforms we envisioned, we organized our efforts through five distinct workgroups that focused on specific areas:

  • School-to-School Transitions – coordinating transition issues within the pre-kindergarten to 12th grade system;
  • School-to-College Transitions – concentrating on communication, alignment and coordination issues across the school levels;
  • Professional Development – identifying and filling needs in teacher and administrator professional development;
  • Parent and Community Engagement – creating strategies for more meaningfully including and engaging parents and community members in all levels of school decision making; and
  • Policy Reform – identifying local, state and national policy issues that hinder or support successful student transitions and high school and college graduation.

Each area of focus experienced significant milestones and accomplishments. Here are a few of them.

School-to-School Transitions

Project ACCESS helped develop critical linkages between the nine schools in the Burbank High School cluster. Teachers and administrators from elementary to middle to high school are now connected, creating opportunities for cross-level meetings that focus on curriculum alignment issues. Vertical and horizontal alignment is now facilitated with increased communication, coordination and understanding. Through these linkages, teachers, counselors, librarians, and community liaisons in the nine cluster schools have identified critical skills and objectives for each grade and shared best practices.

As part of Project ACCESS’ curricular and instructional alignment effort, sixth grade teachers communicated with the elementary school teachers and met with fifth grade students to advise them on what to expect the next year in middle school.
Student voices have been integrated into the project work with Burbank High School administrators forming the ACCESS student advisory committee, comprised of students who were likely to be overlooked or forgotten. Their insights and experiences are being shared with middle school and high school teachers to help inform instructional practices and ease the transition from middle school to high school.

School-to-College Transitions

Through Project ACCESS, “college” and “access to college” have been introduced and conceptually integrated into every student’s vocabulary at the elementary, middle and high schools. Activities have included: visits to ACCD colleges and UTSA, “Adopt a Hall” activities, Burbank High School alumni of the month awards, $1,000 scholarships to ACCESS students each year, meaningful career days, and speakers and campus visits. As a result, more students are now speaking of when they will go to college instead of if they will go to college.

ACCD has helped middle school students prepare for college by providing materials and training teachers on how to assist their eighth-grade students in creating personal portfolios to use in preparing their college applications as seniors.

A school culture in which all students are expected to go to college is being re-affirmed, especially at the middle school level. The project has created an emphasis on conveying those expectations throughout the pipeline. A variety of direct services to students and indirect services through counselors and teachers have provided information about college opportunities and served to interest more students in going to college.

All of these activities have been so successful in heightening student awareness and engaging their teachers and counselors in preparing them for college, that other San Antonio ISD schools are requesting similar efforts. Leveraging resources, activities have already been extended to another middle school.

Professional Development

Through Project ACCESS, there is now communication and coordination with the Burbank High School cluster and the colleges and university, allowing for a deeper understanding of needs at the teacher preparation level and at the kindergarten through grade 12 teacher in-service level.

Professional development activities focused on sharing best practices and aligning curriculum and instruction across the grades. Elementary school teachers shared their best practices, methods and approaches for aligning instruction and assessment during a cluster-wide workday. This workday also provided for horizontal teaming within the cluster in which each school shared a successful activity that focused on specific math objectives in scope and sequence.

Parent and Community Engagement

Project ACCESS has provided opportunities for parents and community members to participate in leadership development sessions. These sessions result in a better understanding of how the educational system works within the school district. The sessions have been so successful that participants have requested that the complete parent-school partnership curriculum be offered in its entirety this school year (in the previous year, only half of the issues and topics were addressed).

Project ACCESS has established monthly staff development for the community liaisons in the Burbank High School cluster. These sessions have provided an opportunity for the liaisons to network with each other to strengthen their campus parent involvement program. The effort has been so successful that the area director has expanded these sessions to include the other community liaisons. The positive effect of the district’s support and commitment has created among the liaisons open communication, camaraderie, and the validation of their contribution to the total school-community partnership.

Parent and community engagement was exemplified by both middle schools completing all of the activities required to become Alliance Schools, becoming part of a statewide network committed to improving school performance through coordinated, community-school partnerships. Furthermore, the high school was accepted as a member of the San Antonio Education Partnership this past year. Graduates from partnership schools who have a B average and a 95 percent attendance rate are awarded full scholarships to any public college or university in the city.

The project has been instrumental in expanding parent access to the cluster schools. One important example is the establishment of parent centers in both middle schools. The centers are used for parent and community liaison meetings and other efforts designed to integrate parents and families into the day-to-day activities of the schools.
School staff and parents have moved from conventional teacher-parent meetings to engagement in genuine dialogue over issues of mutual concern, with parents assuming extensive ownership and leadership in the framing of the agendas. More than 100 parents attended a recent meeting held in the school’s cafeteria, a significant increase in participation when compared to prior teacher-parent meetings with only one parent present. Project ACCESS has also brought attention to the need to have community liaisons as an integral part of each campus.

Policy Reform

A group of parents and school staff met monthly to review district and state policies and make recommendations for improvement. As a result of these meetings, parents and staff discovered that the district Student Code of Conduct was available in both Spanish and English, but that parents had to specifically request a copy of it in Spanish in order to receive it. After discussions with district staff, the district changed its practice, and the information is now distributed in both languages to all parents.


Three years is a short time to implement education reform, but ACCESS – San Antonio is making significant inroads in the issue. The groups that make up ACCESS – San Antonio are all committed to ensuring that students, especially underserved students, go from pre-kindergarten through college graduation and careers. As individuals, these groups might have made small advances, but as a collaborative, they are succeeding in ways each group only dreamed of.

This article highlighted some of the achievements in each subgroup of the collaborative. Next month we will discuss changes in instructional practice, curricula; consistency with school district reform priorities; and next steps in the process.

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 feedback@idra.org.

[©2002, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the October 2002 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. 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.]