Each morning, as students climb the stairs into San Antonio’s Advanced Learned Academy, they are met by a smiling and familiar face: their principal Kathy Bieser.
Waving hello, Bieser pauses to ask individual students about what they are learning in the classroom, or, at dismissal, she asks them about their favorite part of their day.
"That is probably my favorite thing to do with students," Bieser says. "I encourage them to tell me what excites them, what is going well, and something that we can do to make school better."
The academy opened its doors in August 2016 and is designed around a "gifted curriculum for all" model. Five hundred and fifty students, admitted on a first-come, first-serve basis, are enrolled in grades K-10 until the academy can expand to grades Pre-K-12. For the 2017-18 school year, the academy will have a published deadline and will accept students by lottery. Teachers use strategies typically reserved for gifted and talented students to raise expectations and achievement for all students, whether they are considered intellectually advanced or not. The school was established through collaboration from Trinity University’s Department of Education and the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD).
Bieser ’97, ’98, ’03 says the academy employs the "best practices in gifted education" to support all its students. The academy’s curriculum is largely project-based and prompts students to solve real-world problems using an interdisciplinary approach. Students are asked to draw inferences and analyze data, applying multiple lenses to one topic.
"Our goal is for students to grow their critical thinking and problem solving abilities," Bieser says. "Designing this school from the ground up has allowed us to examine best practices and to decide which ones make sense for the type of school we want to create."
In addition to Bieser’s leadership as the academy’s founding principal, 16 alumni from Trinity’s Master of Arts (MAT) in teaching and MAT teaching interns work at the school. Moreover, assistant principal David Nungaray ’14 earned his Master of Education in School Leadership (MEd) from Trinity. Bieser’s other assistant principal, Frances "Beth" Koennecke ’05, ’06, ’12, holds a Bachelor of Arts, an MAT, and an MEd from Trinity. The academy is engineered so that the teacher interns work side-by-side with master teachers to earn their Trinity graduate degrees. All interns and faculty at the school are provided with professional learning to enable them to earn the Texas state certification in serving gifted and talented learners.
Shari Albright ’83, ’86, chair of Trinity’s Department of Education, adds that a critical aspect of the academy is that it doubles as an incubator for adult learning and talent. All Trinity education master’s students are trained in professional development schools. The academy brings Trinity’s list of professional development schools up to five, including Robert E. Lee High School, Lamar Elementary, Jackson Middle School, and the International School of the Americas (ISA).
"Trinity works deeply with a small subset of schools to ensure that they are the strongest learning laboratories possible," Albright says. "Our candidates train in urban settings, in functional and healthy schools, with adults who are being prepared and supported to mentor new teachers into the field."
The academy’s intern teachers started their training in Trinity’s master’s program during the summer. San Antonio nonprofit City Education Partners (CEP) has awarded resident teachers with scholarship grants in exchange for a commitment to teach in SAISD for three years after graduation. Candidates applying for the CEP grants underwent an additional round of interviews on top of requirements for Trinity’s graduate program. The grant includes a paraprofessional salary with SAISD while completing the MAT internship and $25,000 structured as a forgivable loan for the three years of SAISD teaching service. Upon successful completion of their graduate degree, candidates are guaranteed a job with SAISD and funding for students’ supplemental gifted and talented state certification.
As the former director of ISA, Bieser underscores the importance of adult learning in schools and the need to refine education practices. Bieser says she is "surrounded by a team of amazing staff and faculty" who are all engaged in making the new academy a success. Already thriving in its third month of operation, the academy itself is a testament to the commitment Trinity has to the San Antonio community and the future success of its students.
"In this school, we will train the next generation of San Antonio teachers and school leaders," says Danny Anderson, 19th president of Trinity. "Together Trinity University and SAISD support enhanced learning and teaching for students across the city as well as leadership development for teachers and principals."
photos by Scott Ball, courtesy of The Rivard Report