Pedro Martinez was in sixth grade when his teacher, Mr. Asher, informed him his skills were two grades behind. It was his first brush with student achievement data, and he wanted more.
“Teachers could do a lot of things they can’t today. They could threaten you,” Pedro said. “[Mr. Asher] told me, ‘I’m going to test you every two weeks, and you have to pass every one of these or you’re not going to junior high.’ He scared me; it was tough love.’” It also worked. By the end of that school year, Pedro had improved his math and reading skills to eighth-grade levels, granting him access to advanced coursework in middle school. He entered high school as an honors student with 12th-grade math skills and 10th-grade reading skills.
The math-loving young Pedro kept track of his place in the 700-student freshman class at Benito Juarez High School in Chicago. By sophomore year, only 500 students remained. By graduation day, only 171 students crossed the stage to the applause and pride of their families, diplomas in hand.
“I’ve always been saddened that there were so many ninth graders that fell between the cracks,” said Pedro, who has found many former classmates on Facebook. “One of the reasons I’m a big supporter of high school graduation and students going to college is because I lived through that myself.”
Now in his third year as superintendent of the San Antonio Independent School District, overseeing the education of 50,000 students, Pedro works to create educational options — dual-language, single-sex, Montessori, dual-credit and career pathways — for families that often do not have access or information about navigating the education system. Those families are like his.
Pedro’s father Rodrigo was a Mexican cowboy, working at a Chicago furniture factory by day and gigging with his Tex-Mex band at night. “He always wore one of those Texas hats, and I used to make fun of him because it was embarrassing to me,” Pedro said. “He loved wearing the boots, which used to drive me crazy as a kid.”
The Spanish rock music-loving Maná fan wasn’t interested in his father’s music tastes, but Pedro marveled at his father’s musical talent. “He could listen to a song one time, and he could play it for you on four different instruments. Nobody ever nurtured that gift of his.”
Rodrigo never earned more than $7 an hour at the factory, Pedro said. “I used to do his income taxes. The music didn’t pay much, but he loved it. It was the way he made ends meet.”
Even though math was his passion, Rodrigo only went to school up to the third grade in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and was orphaned as a teen. Rodrigo decided to leave for the U.S. when Pedro’s two-year-old sister died. “She died mainly because she didn’t have access to quality medicine and healthcare. When my father saw that, he realized very quickly it really was a matter of survival. He really saw the U.S. as a pathway. If you work hard, you can have a brighter future for yourself and your family,” Pedro said.
So the Martinez family’s immigrant story began in the 1970s. Rodrigo arrived to Chicago as a legal resident and worked for two years to save money for lawyers and file forms to bring his wife Manuela, five-year-old Pedro and his other younger sister Maria to the windy and snowy big city. “When I first came to the U.S., he was like a stranger to me, and I think that created some of the friction I had growing up with him.
“When I was a child, I felt resentment that we were so poor. I’d see what others had. I would watch The Brady Bunch show, and — for me — that’s the way families should be. Why don’t we have that type of house? We lived in a poor neighborhood, but I would see some of my friends had a lot more than we did. They didn’t have to work at age 16, and I did,” said Pedro, whose family moved from apartment to apartment. “I was just a kid. It gives me empathy for our parents because I know they’re probably dealing with those situations living at home with their children.”
Pedro started his work life at McDonald’s, moving up to an assistant manager role. “It started with my ability to buy my own clothes, to feed myself, to not be a burden on my parents,” said Pedro, the oldest of 12 children.
In high school, Pedro and his sister became naturalized citizens, a process driven by his parents. “When I think about these children that are Dreamers, it makes me appreciate my father that much more because he had that foresight. It makes me feel that much more empathy for our children, because it was no fault of their own” that they are in the U.S.
The data lover continued to do his father’s income taxes while he himself rose through the ranks of the working world. In college, he pursued accounting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Internships led to jobs in finance and accounting and an M.B.A. from DePaul University.
Pedro’s father passed away in 2008, but his lessons continue to teach.
“It’s always on my mind. How do I take those lessons learned and experiences and ensure that they shape me, both as a father and as a husband? I think it makes me a much stronger superintendent, too,” said Pedro, whose two children attend district schools, making him both a consumer and leader of creating options for families.
“Unfortunately, [my father] is somebody who I think about in both very fond memories but also very sad memories — because he never was able to reach his potential, and that affected him in his life as an adult,” Pedro said. “Learning that really shaped the way I look at things and the way I even think about children and the opportunities they have, because I feel blessed by the way so many different adults have helped me and mentored me in my life. My father never had that, and I always wonder: What if he would have had access to mentors and opportunities that I had? What would have happened in his life?”
He may not have a career history as a teacher or principal, but Pedro knows deeply the life of the students he leads, because he led that life himself.
“When I hear criticisms of our parents — that they don’t care about education, that they have low expectations of the children — I push back a little bit. You can’t fault them for knowledge they don’t have,” Pedro said. “We have the responsibility to ensure both parents and students have the knowledge to know what a tier-one university is, to know that some universities have graduation rates of 90 percent for children just like them and some have graduation rates of less than 10 percent. Even some educated parents don’t know that. For my parents, they know even less, and it’s not their fault.”
The numbers man was working for the archdiocese of Chicago, with its mission-driven work in its homeless shelters and schools, when then-superintendent of the local city schools Arne Duncan talked to him about joining the district’s finance office. Pedro was more interested in lodging complaints about the school system that educated the Martinez kids. “I didn’t see a mission and values. I saw this very large organization that didn’t get it, that didn’t understand how they were affecting the future of so many children who had nobody else to advocate for them and look out for them academically. They didn’t get it,” Pedro told Duncan. The superintendent was impressed by his willingness to discuss difficult issues and, after two more months of conversations, Pedro joined Chicago Public Schools in 2003 and eventually served as its chief financial officer.
Pedro then spent six years in Nevada, becoming deputy superintendent of Clark County Schools, the fifth largest school district in the nation, superintendent of Washoe County School District and superintendent-in-residence at the Nevada Department of Education. He took the helm of San Antonio Independent School District in 2015.
In each of his roles, Pedro looks at the numbers. What stories do they tell? Where are the resources? Beyond data, he works to develop a common definition of what excellence looks like for all students, not just for some.
“Redefining what excellence means is critical. All districts have islands of success — we had them in Chicago, we had them in Nevada — but when you limit yourself to that, what you’re doing is limiting the amount of access that children have to a quality education,” Pedro said.
“In San Antonio, they were ready for change, and we’ve seen the community embrace it,” Pedro said. “It’s been hard on our staff, but even they are understanding the need for change and the urgency of change, and that makes me very optimistic.
“We are already seeing results: Grad rates are up. We have more college-ready students who won’t need remediation, and we have more students than ever attending four-year universities. We’ve tripled the number of students attending tier-one universities in the last two years. We still have a long way to go, but it’s moving in the right direction.”
Poverty is Pedro’s lens. He was inspired by a presentation by a local university researcher who talked about the history of segregation in San Antonio and the impact of red-lining on education and housing. He said it’s time to talk about poverty differently from the traditional measure of free and reduced-price lunch applications. Pedro worked with his SAISD team to dig even deeper, reviewing census data for the district’s 50,000 families showing median household incomes, education levels, homeowners and renters and single- or two-parent families. They created a matrix of categories to understand where their families attended schools. “Block 4” families earn less than $20,000 while “Block 1” families earn over $40,000, which is still below the national median income.
“For all of our new [school] options, we have waiting lists. I want to make sure we don’t accidentally create segregation,” Pedro said. SAISD reserves seats for “Block 4” families to ensure that they don’t lose access to the most popular schools.
“I look at this work over the long-term. I don’t look at it as what’s going to happen next year or the year after,” Pedro said. “We’re sticklers for performance and we want indicators of success to make sure we’re doing the right work and approaching the problem the right way. But I think of systems. How do I make sure this work is going to outlast me?”
In the meantime, Pedro is making data more approachable with parent data nights where families can see the academic growth of students over the course of the year. Recently, parents even answered sample test questions to better understand the formative assessment and how teachers use it.
He didn’t know he was behind grade level until his sixth-grade teacher told him. Now, he makes sure all families are getting the data they need to help students succeed, no matter their income or education level.
“If [my father] were alive today, he’d be so proud that we’re living in Texas, because that’s probably where he always wanted to be,” Pedro said. He also would, simply, be proud.