Giving Families an 'Equal Shot' at Finding the Right School
- Expertise: Expanding School Choice
- Position: Chief Innovation Officer
- District: San Antonio Independent School District, San Antonio, Texas
Mohammed Choudhury was a 6th grader in Los Angeles when he took a trip to his family’s homeland in Bangladesh.
His grandfather, the young Choudhury learned, had built the first school in a village in Jagannathpur Upazila in 1953. “To me, that story was fascinating,” he said, because people didn’t even consider getting an education in what was then east Pakistan. Formal education was only for the privileged, who sent their children far away to school.
More than two decades later, the influence of Choudhury’s grandfather is clear in his own work to engineer equity and access for public school students in San Antonio as the district’s first chief innovation officer. He now leads the charge for desegregation and equal educational opportunity in the 50,000-student district.
“My grandfather was able to bring education from scratch, in a formal manner,” he said. It just took four walls to have folks gather and begin teaching, and it was a learning environment that paled in comparison to Choudhury’s Los Angeles public school.
Choudhury, 34, can be found juggling what he calls “design for diversity” as he focuses on providing students and their families more school choices in San Antonio, and a new enrollment system that will make those choices easier to access in a district where many families who could afford to leave did so, or who sent their children to private schools or charter schools, said Superintendent Pedro Martinez.
Lessons from the Leader
- Encourage Debate and Ideas: Don’t assume “the boss” has all the answers, so invite people to push back. Advice should come from all points within an organization, not just the top down.
- Show Vulnerability: Vulnerability is the heartbeat of innovation and creativity. It is not a weakness, it’s a form of courage. Being vulnerable and courageous is a potent combination.
- Don’t Fear Consequences: If what you are doing is right and just, don’t fear the consequences. Managers see risk and try to carefully mitigate it. True leaders see risk—and if their values or principles are at risk—they run into the fire.
Hired by Martinez last year, Choudhury is drawing on lessons learned in the Dallas school district, where he was selected by a change-minded innovator to help launch similar work in 2014.
“The first thing that strikes you about Mo is his passion about doing what’s right for kids,” said Mike Koprowski, who chose Choudhury to be his right-hand director for the Dallas schools’ office of transformation and innovation. They worked as a team for nearly three years in Dallas, a district three times the size of San Antonio.
“He doesn’t shy away from tough conversations,” Koprowski said. “The work he’s doing is very much rooted in tough issues around segregation, poverty, race, and staffing. He’s a consummate student of research and best practices.”
A former teacher in Los Angeles middle and high schools, Choudhury conveys that passion in firehose-fast conversations about what his team is doing in San Antonio, how they plan to accomplish their goals, and why they are doing it.
One of the whys: “This city is made up of 17 different [independent school districts],” Choudhury said. “That is not healthy. We lost the socioeconomic lottery when those lines were drawn.”
Access to Quality
Often, a school’s demographics are defined by families’ ability to afford rent or home prices in certain neighborhoods, with wealthier families choosing areas where schools’ reputations match parents’ expectations for student achievement and even homogeneity. That unregulated, market-driven school choice doesn’t sit well with Choudhury. It “leads to a few winners and lots of losers” in who gets access to high-quality seats, he said.
“We can’t let housing dictate the educational opportunities for all students,” he said. “If our children can’t go to school together, they’re not going to learn to live together.”
To that end, he is working to even the socioeconomic playing field by expanding school choice options on 12 campuses in an innovation zone with charter schools run by the district. The goal is to simplify access to enrollment so families who often don’t know about different educational options can exercise that choice. In addition, he is overseeing a design process to help existing schools try new approaches driven by educators interested in piloting initiatives like competency-based, personalized, or project-based learning.
In this last group—which includes most schools in the district—the goal is for educators to gain “more autonomy in exchange for accountability” in what they want to use to accelerate student achievement.
Central to his plan are schools that are intentionally mixed by socioeconomic status, an initiative that relies on the work he has done to segment San Antonio’s student population. “All our kids are poor,” he said. “Resource allocation matters. Let’s be smarter, better, and faster about it.”
Rather than depending solely on free and reduced-price lunch eligibility, Choudhury enlisted a district data scientist to dig deeper into the 320 U.S. Census blocks that make up the footprint of the San Antonio schools. Each block was evaluated for students’ family’s income, home-ownership, single-parent status, and the highest education level achieved by the head of household. Then the block is ranked in one of four socioeconomic groups, with the highest having the most income and greatest stability, and the lowest with the most poverty.
Those groups were used to ensure that 25 percent of students with the highest needs would be assigned to balance the demographics for the 3,000 seats in choice schools and magnet programs available in 2018-19.
“Blocks are great for ensuring that students from those neighborhoods have an equal shot,” he said. The four-tiered system will ensure that seats reserved for children on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder get choice opportunities. Without what he calls the guardrails of this demographic evaluation, “islands of affluence” would be the result.
Martinez said he chose Choudhury for just that kind of expertise. The community has been “sort of waiting” for his work on equity and is behind it. “Everybody who has worked with Mohammed says he shows not only how smart he is, but he gains their respect,” Martinez said.
Besides Choudhury’s responsibility for building new initiatives, he was charged with evaluating them in Dallas—which he is also undertaking in San Antonio.
New Schools in Dallas
In Dallas, Choudhury and Koprowski were asked to create 35 new schools by 2020 in two categories: innovation schools where educators redesigned their campus around different pedagogy, like personalized learning or International Baccalaureate, and transformation schools, which were open-enrollment startup schools in new buildings or reopened schools. Here, educators could pursue their “dream school” concepts.
After a superintendent change in Dallas, Koprowski took a new position outside of education and Choudhury left for San Antonio. “We left behind 18 really great choice schools,” said Choudhury, and the work in Dallas continues.
We can’t let housing dictate the educational opportunities for all students. If our children can’t go to school together, they’re not going to learn to live together.
Nancy Bernardino, who co-founded one of the new Dallas schools—Solar Preparatory School for Girls—and is now the principal there, described how she was coached through the competitive-application process with Choudhury’s help. As decisions were made about opening the single-gender school with a focus on social-emotional learning and STEAM education—for science, technology, engineering, the arts, and math—he made sure equity was in the mix.
When Solar Prep debuted in August 2016, 50 percent of the openings were reserved for students eligible for free and reduced-price meals.
Such moves don’t come without questions and some pushback in a gentrified neighborhood where homes are commanding $1 million. “When we were there, real estate agents met with Mike and me to ask, ‘Why don’t you put a priority attendance zone around this?’ and we said, ‘Absolutely not,’ ” Choudhury said. Such a designation would prioritize seats for families who live in the affluent area where the school is located, “basically recreating the segregated attendance zones that define the system to this day,” he said.
Today, Choudhury said what makes him proudest about Solar Prep is not the curriculum. It’s the play dates that are happening, in which families from million-dollar homes and those in government-subsidized housing are arranging get-togethers for their children.
Bernardino, the school’s principal, said she was struck by Choudhury’s “passion for making sure that the educators who were working with the kids directly were the ones really building these schools.” She appreciated Choudhury’s emphasis on going beyond reading research about launching their school.
Traveling coast to coast to visit schools was helpful, she said. “Without his guidance, we might have just created another school similar to the ones around us, because we hadn’t experienced anything other than Dallas.”
Choudhury proved to be a strong mentor. “Were all conversations with him pleasant? No, but I think all conversations were productive,” said Bernardino. “In the end, it’s hard to prove him wrong. He bases all his arguments on research and what he’s learned over time.”
In Dallas, one of Choudhury’s lessons learned is how important it is to understand the operational and political roles of the central office “as a system is in shock going through a wide variety of changes,” he said. Choudhury pushed for a strategy to give more autonomy and decisionmaking authority to building leaders, work that continues, Koprowski said.
Keeping the work going is another imperative, Choudhury said.
He emphasizes to his staff that it’s important to “design as if we will not be here one day,” he said, and so that it would be difficult to make decisions to undo what they have done.