In this episode of the Unboxed Learning podcast, Alec talks to Stephanie Hall-Powell, founder of San Antonio Preparatory Charter School, about what it was like getting the charter, what Stephanie learned from seeing her own sons navigate the school system, and what the Air Force taught her about pedagogy.
This episode is part of the “Groundwork” series: interviews with school leaders who are laying the groundwork for something big, anything from transforming their school’s culture to building a new school from scratch.
The key for me in navigating this is have the right people in my corner and know when to be quiet.
From High Tech High, this is the Unbox Learning podcast. I’m Alex Patton. This episode is part of a series we’re calling Ground Work, where I’m talking to school leaders who are laying the groundwork for something big– anything from transforming the school’s culture to building a new school from scratch. These conversations are raw, they’re inspiring– sometimes they’re a little crazy. I love doing them and I’m so excited to be able to share with you.
In this episode, I’m talking to Stephanie Hall Powell, founder of San Antonio prep, a public charter school serving grades five to 12 in San Antonio, Texas. It’s opening in 2020 and they just got their charter approved. We’ll talk about what it was like getting that charter, what Stephanie learned from seeing her own sons navigate the school system, and what the Air Force taught her about pedagogy. But we started with her own experience of school growing up in a military family.
Where’d you grow up to start with?
Oh, so that is always a very interesting question to answer because I’m an army brat, so I didn’t grow up in one place. And so I’m the young lady that’s very jealous of people who have childhood friends. Someone who was born in the same city, grew up in that city– I didn’t have that experience. I’ve lived in quite a few different places. And so there isn’t one place that I grew up.
So what was that like as far as your education experience, then, for yourself?
It was all over the place. So when you move from city to city, back then standards didn’t align. So one city didn’t do the same things that another city did. You were either ahead or behind, always. And so there was never this consistency with my education.
So either my parents thought I was doing well or they thought I wasn’t doing so well depending on what the educational landscape looked like in the city that we were in. But I didn’t know the difference at the time. I just know that people either praised me or they told me that I needed to take these classes that would help me be better at whatever I was supposed to be doing.
It wasn’t until I got a little bit older where I really started digging in more in high school and really putting forth more effort, doing the things that people told me that I was supposed to do– if you do this, if you take these classes, if you get these grades, you’re going to do well in life. And that actually didn’t end up working out for me the way that they said it was supposed to.
Tell me more about that. What wasn’t working out?
I graduated early, so I graduated at 16. And I end up going to a community college at 17. And I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I worked in daycares for my entire high school experience. And so I knew I wanted to start my own daycare and I knew I wanted to have that business. So I was going to go two years to the community college and then the other two at the University. And my first year, I failed out.
So you were 17 at that point?
I was 17 at that point.
So what happened?
I was not prepared for the academic rigor or responsibility of being in college. So I worked really hard. I had really great work ethic, but when I got into college I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t know how would it look to get support in something that I struggled with.
And then just the pride of like, I’m supposed to be able to do this because other kids do it too. So I don’t know how to ask for help. I’m not going to ask for help. I’m just going to try to figure it out. And I end up failing the same class twice.
So you’re 17 years old. You fail out of your first year in community college. What happens then?
I joined the military. So I go into the United States Air Force, where I end up getting help. Going to tutoring classes, getting help, and just learning a lot from the military as well. I think the education you get from the military helped me with college as well.
You must have been thinking about going into the military from a really young age.
I actually did not want to go into the military because of my dad, and because of all of the moving, and not having consistent friends. And I remember telling myself that I didn’t want to do this. And so that’s why I knew the track that I wanted to take was to start my own business. But then when that didn’t work out, I really felt like that was my only option. I said, there’s no other way I can go, there’s no way I can pay for my education unless I go into the military. But it ended up being a really great experience.
Remember, my goal was to have my own business as a daycare provider. And so I knew I liked and I enjoyed working with children. It wasn’t until I got into military education where I realized there was much more to it than just running a business and being a child care provider. And that’s when I got entrenched in the curriculum– the pedagogy– of what it looks like to actually run a school, to be in a training facility, to educate adults. And so that made be more curious about what it looks like for younger children.
So talk me through what military pedagogy looks like.
In basic military training, you break down and then you build back up. The idea is that you start from scratch. These people don’t know anything. And so it’s our jobs to remove everything from them and then build them back up. So that looks like– you’re no longer allowed to speak the way that you used to speak, you’re no longer allowed to look the way that you used to look so we cut your hair off, you’re no longer allowed to operate the way that you used to operate.
So now, we put you in the six to eight week system where have you have limited contact with the outside world, because we want to remove that from you so that we can put into you what we want to put into you. And so it’s just a consistency of– if I want you to learn how to make your bed, then what I do is I teach you how to make your bed.
And then I give you the opportunity to make your bed. And then you walk away, I mess your bed up, and I make you come back and fix it. And we do that 100 times until you know how to make that bed without even thinking about it.
It sounds awful.
For the person, it is.
When you were the military educator, what was your role?
Basic military training instructor. And then there’s different jobs within that title.
So as somebody who’s seen movies but never been in the military, I think of the drill Sergeant being the one who is screaming at you.
That is correct.
So were you that, or were you something else?
Yes. I was that that. But there’s another side to us that people don’t see and that’s the instructional side where we actually take trainees into a classroom setting. And there’s different things that we want them to know about– Air Force history, or how to load a rifle, or just anything in a classroom setting.
So you’ve got this kind of– if I’m looking at what I’ve heard of your kind of educational influences– you’ve got your mom, you’ve got the church, you’ve got the military. And you’ve had this dream ongoing of starting a preschool. So you start this kindergarten-prep preschool. When did you decide you were ready to do that?
I don’t think that I ever know that I’m. ready. It’s just that I have a dream. I have a goal. And you just work it out and you do it. I don’t think that I was ever ready to be a parent. I don’t think that I was ever ready to be a wife. I don’t think I was ever ready to be divorced. These things just happen. You live life and so– it’s not a moment of knowing that you’re ready. It’s just a moment of knowing, I’m willing to try, so let’s just do it.
And so you open up this kindergarten prep in San Antonio?
It was in Hawaii, actually.
And was that because you were there for the Air Force?
Yeah, for my husband. My husband was stationed in Hawaii at the time. And the kindergarten prep was actually a backwards plan from what I saw graduating from high school. I saw that there was a need in school. That children weren’t getting what they needed to be successful once they were graduating high school.
And so in my mind, I automatically did this backwards plan thing, “well if they’re not prepared here, at what point can we prepare them so that they are prepared at the end?” And if you know about Hawaii’s educational system they don’t have publicly funded preschools. And so I said, if I could be a part of the solution and start at the beginning, and make sure that children can go into school knowing how to read, and write, and compute, and articulate, then maybe that would help as they got into their older grades.
So you start the school in Hawaii. And then you move with your husband to San Antonio?
Yes. Actually, I very much wanted to stay in Hawaii. I loved what I did. I love working with the three to five year olds and preparing them for school. But he ended up retiring and so we had to leave to move back to San Antonio, where we owned property here. And so we moved back. And I knew I wanted to stay in education, but I didn’t know if I was going to stay the preschool route or kindergarten prep route.
And because Texas has state-funded preschools, that we have our Pre-K 4 SA. And so I was like, well there’s not necessarily a need or a market for what I was providing because that was already being provided for free for families. And so then I said, “Well let me challenge myself. I don’t want to go to the end again, so I don’t want to go to the end of high school when they’re trying to graduate right before they enter into college and they’re still not prepared. What part of this system can I enter into?”
And I was drawn to middle school. And middle school is– I call them our middle children. They’re the children that are not the babies, they’re not in elementary school, nor are they the big kids because they’re not in high school. So they’re in this age range where they’re still trying to figure out who they are and then that’s where I came back into education.
And so what did you do first?
I taught science– sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th grade science.
So that had to be a big shift.
It was. Middle schoolers are different. They talk back not that three to five year olds don’t, but they say different words when they talk back.
Was there a day that you just went, I got to start my own school?
The desire had always been there. Even with the kindergarten prep, that was my school for those children to do the goal of preparing them for kindergarten. So the desire and the dream had always been there but to be honest with you, my dream never left a kindergarten prep.
It never got bigger than three-to-five-year-olds, preparing them for kindergarten. It wasn’t until 2016-2017 probably working. With my middle schoolers, I began to start having a dream of, maybe I could start my own school. But that’s where it stayed. It never went anywhere past, I think I could have my own school.
And yet here we are.
So how’d that happen?
I began to tell people that, one day maybe I’m going to have my own school, but I only ever thought that would be a statement that I would make to people. I struggled with low self-esteem for a while so I always thought that, this is a great dream but it’s only ever going to be a dream. It wasn’t until maybe the end of 2017, beginning of 2018, when I started telling people and they started telling me, do it. And then you’re like, well I don’t know how to do that.
And so it was right before the summer of 2018. I had a person approach me and say, I have a way for you to start your own school. And then of course I chickened out and I was like, no, I don’t want to hear about it, thanks. Because now my dream was starting to take shape and form.
And I didn’t know how to deal with that. But obviously, we’re here at this point. But a little bit of probing, and pushing, and encouragement, and education and learning. And building myself up and knowing that what we can provide for children can be great.
So who’s this person?
It was actually several people. My husband at the time was encouraging me. And then I had friends that actually worked in my circle and so I was an administrator at the time. And they were actually my teachers and they were saying, we think that you having your own school would be amazing. And so they began to encourage me and build me up. And they were like, we would come work for you in a heartbeat. And so I was like, oh well people would actually come work for me.
What do you think they saw?
So one of my driving passions– and really, driving qualities– that you will see throughout the school in our school design is my ability to build relationships and love people where they are. And it’s important. Our school, our teacher model, is built around relationships. And so I think it was those two pieces of, she has really high standards and she’s really tough, but she’s also fair. And she’s loving, and this relationship she’s built with me because she genuinely cares about me. It’s something that’s genuine to her. And that’s been consistent from the first day I met her.
So I’m really curious because I feel like there’s these two contradictory things that I keep hearing. That on the one hand, you love people where they are. On the other hand, when you describe military pedagogy, it was fundamentally breaking down everything that somebody was. So is that tension something that is there in you? Have resolved that?
They actually go hand in hand. So loving someone where they’re at doesn’t mean that you don’t want to change those things about that person. It just means that you don’t beat them up over it. And so if there is a certain quality about you that I don’t like, I still love you where you are because you are still a human being and you are still very valuable in this earth. But I want to teach you in this process, as I want you to unlearn that thing that isn’t healthy for you. And I want you to be this better person over the course of time, over these things that I’m going to teach you and give you. So they’re really not contradictory.
So your teachers are saying you should do this thing. How do you start the process of starting a school?
For me, my path was a little bit different because I got introduced to Building Excellent Schools, which is a fellowship for school leaders to help them to start the process. And that’s a year long program with the non-profit and based out of Boston. I applied to the program based on suggestions from other individuals and I was accepted into the fellowship.
And in this program, you get to visit schools. They pay for it. And you build your school design while you’re in the program. And it’s a support to where you are able to devote 100% of your time to your project without having to work a full time job. So that was very, very helpful.
And then you got your charter. So tell me about that process.
Our charter was due January 4th, 2019. And so we’ve been working on it since last year, 2018. And initially everything was fine. Our charter ended up being 325 pages, which you chunk. It’s different things that they’re asking you about your school design, your board of directors, the executive director, your schedule, your budget, your five-year plan, all these things that are included into it. Then for the state of Texas it’s broken down into these different phases.
So they have a phase in which they check for plagiarism. They do phase one. You have to pass with a certain score. They have external readers that will read your document and you have to score over an 85%. They go through your application and it’s broken up into two sections. So they read section 1 first, and that’s graded. And that’s phase one. And so you pass, or you don’t pass. And then you move on to phase two if you do pass, which is the same process. They read through and they give you a score. Over 85%, you go forward. If not, then you don’t make it past the process.
Once you make a past phase two it goes into what we call a capacity interview stage in which now the State Board of Education and also the Texas Education Agency will sit at a table with your entire board and they’ll ask you questions about your application and the capacity of your board to be able to oversee the school. You are invited to that and they do a few assessments.
They’re checking to see the capacity of the board. They’re looking at the diversity of your board, your competence, their competence at this meeting and then they give a recommendation to the commissioner. And so they either say, we think that the school would be great, you should recommend them. Or they say, no, we don’t think so. And so then the commissioner will go based off of their recommendation. He gives a recommendation– it then gets sent to the State Board of Education, which is our final step.
And so he says, “I recommend these schools. I don’t recommend them.” Then they don’t go any further. And then the ones he does recommend go to the state board. And then there’s two final meetings. One is the public hearing, where the public is now able to come forward and say, “We are in favor of the school,” or “We don’t want the school to come to our community at all whatsoever.” And so they listen and they take down the comments, and they take the suggestions from the public, and then the schools also have the opportunity to be able to speak if they want to. But the next day is when we actually speak.
And so the next day the public is invited but they’re not allowed to speak. And then that is just when the schools either defend themselves, or just explain a little bit more about their model, or answer questions from the State Board of Education. The State Board of Education has a discussion. They do immediate voting on the spot so you know on the spot whether or not your charter was approved.
So what was the scariest part of that process?
It was very political for us in the sense that when you had the meeting on Thursday, there’s a small vote between the school initiatives committee, and that’s a committee of five individuals who are a piece of the larger 15-member board. And they come together and they discuss. And that’s who the public is for or against in this meeting. And they vote first, and their vote gets sent to the big board.
And so initially on the Thursday, we had an entire school district, the school district that we’re going to be located in– the entire school district came out in opposition to us and said, “We do not want this school. It’s not good for kids. They’re going to take money out of our budget. We’re already struggling with our budget. They made false claims in their application.”
Which, our application was checked for accuracy. And so they came with all these claims and so initially the school initiatives committee vetoed us, which means no charter. So that recommendation gets taken to the big board. The big board makes the discussion after asking us some questions. And the veto fails.
And so once the veto fails, then they have to vote again. Which normally if a veto fails, then you’re in favor. And so they vote for the second time in favor and then we’re authorized. So it got personal. It was very political. But at the end of the day, we were authorized.
So that sounds awful.
Let me go back, because one thing I was thinking about was when your administrator and teacher said, hey, we’d love to work for you, you should start a school, an obvious way to do that is to get a principalship of an existing school. Why don’t you try to do that?
If you get in a principalship or a principal-in-residenceship in the school that I happened to be in, you have to follow the model of that school.
What was it about the model that made you feel like, this isn’t the model that I want?
My personality is relationship. And one thing that I noticed is that we weren’t able to build really strong relationships with children in the model and how it’s set. One child in middle school– and most middle schools operate this way and that’s just how the system was set up– but you have one middle school teacher that teaches 125 to almost 200 students a day that rotate to these different classes. It’s hard to grade papers. It’s hard to keep up with building relationships. It’s hard to keep up with communicating with families and grades.
And for me, that doesn’t give the adult the opportunity to really, really, really, really get to know and understand our children, especially when you work in low income minority communities where these children need to be known and understood and not just seen as a brown kid or a Black kid. And so we didn’t have the opportunity to do that even though we wanted our teachers to do that.
To me, that was an unrealistic expectation to have of them, to try to get to intimately know 200 children in a way that they could really be effective in a classroom. So that’s only one piece of what I thought we could change. And so our model has two teachers in a classroom that deal with no more to 28 to 54 students at any given moment, and really getting to know them and their families.
And the other piece is teaching children to learn. Not teaching children to memorize a test and not teaching children strategies on how to be the best test-taker, not teaching children that if they score high on this test then they are seen as good and if they don’t they’re seen as bad. And not to say that we did that on that campus but there was a lot of focus on this end-of-year assessment that we forgot how to teach children to use their brains. And that’s something that I don’t want to happen on our campus.
We want to teach children– yes, they have to pass a test– it’s a state assessment. I get it. But we also want to teach children how to learn and use their brains because that’s the thing that they’ll use forever. When they get out of college, when they go into grad school, when they’re parents. That’s the one thing that’s the common denominator. So if we can do that and we can help them to be successful in college or anything that they decide to do, whether they join the military or go to a trade school, then we’ve done our jobs.
You’ve mentioned Black and brown kids, who are not given the support that they need and they deserve. Is that something that you noticed in a particular way in San Antonio?
I would probably have to say, with my own children, yes. My children have gone to both charter and to traditional district schools. And I first actually noticed it in the charter school that I worked at with my own children. And I noticed that there was something that was different about the way that my son was being treated in his class. And come to find out later on that my son actually had a disorder that he was dealing with.
But when I kept bringing it up to the teachers and to the administration– that we’re struggling with this one thing, he’s struggling with this in class, but I also don’t understand what this is like, can we find out what it is? Can we work with it? Can he be tested? I’m unsure. But he doesn’t have a decoding problem. He has a comprehension problem. Let’s figure out where it’s coming from.
And I met with the administration and the teachers every six weeks for an entire year and nothing changed. Nothing changed. And it wasn’t until I put him in another school– and then I got him tested by an independent person that I had to pay for out of my own pocket– that we actually found out that he had a learning disability that affected the way that he could read and comprehend words on a page. But when I was basically screaming that to the school like, I’m an employee here but I’m also a parent. I see that something’s wrong. I’m asking you for help. You’re not doing anything.
That’s when I noticed but even then, that same son– we get to the district, school, and they’re like, fine, we’ll put them on 504. We see this. He has all of these accommodations that will make sure that we do in compliance to what the state wants us to do. But it was never anything outside of that and there was never any additional support outside of that.
And he was labeled as, oh, he’s ADHD. And he was never labeled as ADHD by a doctor. It was by the teachers in the staff. Well, he’s hyperactive. He may have ADHD. You need to get him tested. He’s always busy. He’s always out of his seat. He’s always this, he’s always that.
And I’m like, well, what are you doing to support him in the classroom? What are you doing to help? I’m not going to put him on medication because you think that he’s busy. Are you giving him clear what-to-do directions? Are you giving him a set routine? What are we doing to curb this? But they just refuse to do anything outside of what was within compliance.
And I noticed that my youngest son was treated the same way. My middle son is an overachiever. He’s a lot like me in the sense that he’s learned how to work the system. He knows how to get in A. He knows how to do exactly what the teacher wants him to do so he stays off of people’s radars. But the other two are just– they’re kids.
And so they were treated differently and especially when we got to the second school because we actually lived in the suburbs at the time. And so he was one of two Black children in the classroom, that– why I was getting phone calls every day. And I’m like, well, are you calling the other parents as much? “Well, I don’t really have problems like I do with your son with the other children.”
And so then I was like, OK, well I see what this is. And so it started out as a parent and then working in low income minority schools where children look like me. And loving being where I’m at, but also seeing the disparity in the way that I may have taught. And being in a system that required me to meet certain compliance or expectations that didn’t meet the needs of all of my children and seeing that as well.
Now I did a little bit of background research about this and I saw that you were one of two schools that got approved. And the media, the articles, gave the impression the other one just sailed through and that you guys have the big political thing.
So what was the difference? Why’d that other school get a pass?
I don’t know that they got a pass. I think one thing worked in their favor and then something else that they did really well. One thing that they did really well was that they engaged heavily and very specifically within their communities. And piloting their model, really understanding families, interviewing families, and inviting the community to be involved in the planning of their campus of their school of this project of their school.
The other thing I believe that they had in their favor is that they are white leaders. And so most of the leaders, and especially the charter leaders and most district leaders, are either white male or white individuals. And so that is the other thing that they had in their favor. But I do know these two individuals and they are just very passionate about education. They are really good and honest people.
And they really did a really good job with making sure that they involved San Antonio into what they were creating. That’s something that I wish that we would have done better. We came into the game a little bit after them, after they had already been ingrained into the community. And we are now, we’re getting to that point. But I wish we would have started sooner like they did. But then I do believe that the other piece that may have been against me is that I’m not a white leader. I’m an African-American leader.
I’m not native to San Antonio. But I’ve been there for 17 years. And so I did have that in my favor where they’re like, OK well you practically live here now, you’ve been here so long. But it wasn’t the same as that was concerned.
One thing that I tell people all the time is that Texas is very relational and people don’t want to know what you have going unless they know who you are. And these other two leaders did a really good job with making sure that people knew who they were, and I came in late too the game to allow people to really understand who I was. And so I think that hurt us just a little bit.
What was it about your school and your district that clashed so much?
Our district does not have any charter schools that operate within its attendance boundaries. We would be the first ones. So that’s an additional threat like, we don’t have any school so now this one school wants to come in, let’s keep it out.
So have there been points when you’re like, man, this is not worth the pain?
I think it was during the authorization time when the district initially came out, because they didn’t come out and say, we don’t think that this is good for kids because we offer all of these great school options. It was very personal. They lied on their application. They lied about this meeting. Their application is not valid. And I think that was the most stressful part where I felt like, I don’t know if I can do the political part of this. Because that was one thing that I actually dreaded coming into this process.
I said, if I become a school leader, I now have to deal in politics and that is not my strength. I’m a relational person and politics are not relationship-built. They’re actually built to tear relationships down and so I was very fearful of that coming into it. So I think at that point is when I was like, I don’t know if I can do this. But then after that really just nasty personal attack which end up being very political, I was like, you know what? I think I can do this and I think the key for me in navigating this is to have the right people in my corner and know when to be quiet.
Where is the process right now?
So we are under contract right now for land. We were trying to purchase 10.8 acres, which will be our permanent home. So we’ll put our middle school and high school on the land.
Let’s see– we are directly in the middle of our community that we want to be in. Once we are up and established, we will be the first charter school in Judson ISD, which is in Northeast San Antonio. We are in the process of hiring our Director of Operations and our Dean of Students that will all be hired by the end of the year. And they will also be doing teacher interviews November-December until we’re completely staffed.
Well, good luck. Thank you so much for talking to me.
Thank you. I appreciate it. This is an honor.
Stephanie Hall Powell, founder of San Antonio Prep Charter School in San Antonio, Texas. And this has been the Unbox Learning podcast, written and produced by me, Alec Patton. Stephanie is a fellow in the Hi Tech Hi GSC New School Creation fellowship, which is funded by the Walton Family Foundation. You can read more about it on the Hi Tech High Graduate School of Education website. Our theme music is by Brother Horschel. Thanks for listening.