San Antonio Independent School District
I am convinced that education is the best equalizer in society.
Pedro Martinez is living the American Dream. Born in Aguascalientes, Mexico, his family moved to Chicago when he was five years old in search of a better life. As the oldest child, Pedro set the example for his siblings. “I was the first in my family to graduate from high school and college,” he says. “Because of the decisions I made, all of my siblings have either finished or are in the process of finishing their college education. In fact, three of my sisters are Chicago Public Schools teachers.”
His own career has been largely dedicated to helping children living in poverty. After graduating from college, he returned to Chicago to work in accounting. In 2003, he had the chance to meet Arne Duncan, then CEO of Chicago Public Schools. Pedro recalls saying, “You have 90 percent of your children in poverty and 90 percent children of color. Education is the key.” His willingness to address difficult issues earned him the position of budget director for the school district.
Pedro’s frank assessment came from first-hand experience. “Our neighborhood had pretty high poverty and we saw a lot of gang violence. But my parents were loving people and, even though my father only had a second-grade education, he and my mom instilled in all of us a love of learning and a strong work ethic.”
Those values helped Pedro overcome the harshness that surrounded him by focusing on school. He started high school as one of 700 freshmen but just 170 of his classmates remained at graduation. “That fact drives a lot of my motivation to want to work in education and help kids,” he explains.
Pedro rose through the ranks of Chicago Public Schools to become its chief financial officer, managing an operating budget of $5 billion. Over six years, he helped create and streamline systems to help educators improve outcomes for the district’s 400,000 students, raising the high school graduation rate by 20 percent. One of Pedro’s strengths is his flexibility and ability to alter course if things don’t go according to plan. As he sees it, “My role is putting programs in place that support positive change in the classroom. We see what works and what needs to be changed and do what is necessary to support our teachers, principals and students.”
Pedro’s openness to change took him to Nevada, where he served as deputy superintendent before assuming the role of superintendent for the 65,000-student Washoe County School District. Although the second-largest school system in the state is significantly smaller than Chicago’s, its students face many of the same issues. “Many of the district’s families are first-generation Americans and poverty rates are growing,” he says.
At the time, Nevada was among the nation’s lowest-spending states when it comes to funding public education. Of course, budget constraints are nothing new to educators, much less to those working in
large urban districts. Despite the obstacles, Pedro helped boost the district’s high school graduation rate to record highs during his tenure. Additionally, the percentage of students taking Advanced Placement exams to gain college credit increased by double digits each year. In fact, African-American students had an increase of more than 25 percentage points in just one year.
Pedro’s influence went further than the numbers. School board trustee Estela Gutierrez recalls, “He’s a role model — his strength communicating with people in the community is remarkable. When he is at a school, the way he deals with parents and kids, he doesn’t stand up. He kneels down, talking to students at eye-to-eye level.”
His impact on students’ hearts and minds is exemplified by the story of an eight-year-old boy who came to school wearing a Superintendent Martinez costume. The occasion? It was not Halloween but rather a class assignment to come to school dressed as one of your heroes. Like Pedro, the boy was the son of immigrants, and his superintendent was a shining example of how mighty trees can grow from humble roots.
Pedro now leads the San Antonio Independent School District, which faces many of the same obstacles as Chicago and Washoe County. Ninety-three percent of its 53,000 students live in poverty, and the district has a 30 percent mobility rate. A family on the move means that for many students, the only stability they can count on is at school.
Pedro and his school board have put together a bold five-year plan to begin tackling these issues, from increasing college readiness to improving teacher retention. And the local community is taking on the challenge. SAISD has partnered with local and regional organizations to build the district’s first high school with a technology-centered curriculum. The long-term plan is to create a network of these schools, called Centers for Applied Science and Technology, that prepare today’s students for college as well as tomorrow’s jobs.
Pedro is meeting the issues his district faces head on, perhaps because he knows that, with the right supports, the sky is the limit no matter where you start. “I am convinced that education is the best equalizer in society. My vision is to see all children reach their potential, regardless of their family’s ethnic background or income level.”
Chief financial officer, Chicago Public Schools
Deputy superintendent, Clark County Schools
Superintendent, Washoe County Schools
Superintendent, San Antonio Independent School District
San Antonio Independent School District
Serves 53,700 students across 90 campuses
93 percent of enrolled students live in poverty
When he took over, 60 percent of college-bound SAISD high school graduates required remedial coursework