Former Texas state representative Dr. Michael Villarreal is working to make the new Urban Education Institute at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) a trusted community partner for education stakeholders looking to improve educational attainment, outcomes and economic earnings for San Antonio’s students.
Seed-funded by the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation and embedded in UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development, the Urban Education Institute will support teacher preparation efforts and establish, among other initiatives, an interactive website with data visualizations and research for education administrators, philanthropists, policymakers and more to make evidence-based decisions that support the success of the city’s P-20 students.
“When I looked across the landscape in San Antonio, I saw that we could really maximize our current investments in education by creating the Urban Education Institute at UTSA,” said Villarreal, the institute’s director. “People want to know what works for different students and under what conditions do education programs work best.”
Much of the institute’s early commitments have been directed at helping organizations answer questions such as what happens to students who receive a financial award to go to college, Villarreal said.
Dr. Michael Villarreal
“But the deeper question is, ‘What would have happened if these students had not received our scholarship investments?’” the director added. “That’s really the question that I’m helping a number of organizations answer in our first year.”
Observers can similarly look to a current partnership between the institute and Pre-K for San Antonio, a city initiative to raise the quality and accessibility of pre-kindergarten for children in the community, for an idea of what to expect from the institute in the coming months.
The partnership will assess the impact of the Pre-K for San Antonio program, and this year is the first year that students who participated in the program completed third grade, meaning that the institute has test scores for these students and their peers.
“We’re tracking the outcomes of the students who went through a highly-resourced pre-kindergarten program that the city of San Antonio has dedicated local tax revenue to and comparing those outcomes to the outcomes of classmates at the same schools who did not participate in the program, who shared the same demographics as our students that went through the program,” Villarreal said.
This will help researchers understand if the intervention is moving the needle on learning in math and reading, improved attendance and improved socio-behavioral outcomes in school. The findings will be important, Villarreal added, because they will help inform the next public election to continue the tax that supports the Pre-K for San Antonio program.
In addition to partnerships with local San Antonio school districts, the institute has partnered with organizations such as the Greater Texas Foundation, the San Antonio Area Foundation, the San Antonio Education Partnership, the Baptist Health Foundation of San Antonio, the City of San Antonio and Goodwill Industries of San Antonio.
“Soon we’ll have a website where nonprofit organizations who want to know how certain subgroups of students in San Antonio have historically performed on different tests, on matriculation into college and completion of college at various levels will be able to go to our website and have those questions answered for them,” Villarreal said, noting that the institute will be adding a full-time statistician to join him in the data work.
In addition, the institute will put out a call for proposals across UTSA that asks faculty members in and outside of the College of Education and Human Development to submit education projects that they would like financial resources to launch.
“We’ll be looking to identify innovative, applied projects that are highly relevant to our local community and that bring together a transdisciplinary team of researchers to execute,” Villarreal said.
Preparing future educators will also complement the institute’s emphasis and work on leveraging “big data” to improve student success outcomes for San Antonio’s students. Undergraduate and graduate students in UTSA’s College of Education and Human Development will be able to work closely with education researchers to complete projects and develop best practices in education, according to the university.
“Aligned with UTSA’s mission as an urban serving university, the institute is an educational incubator where transdisciplinary research teams, school districts and community organizations can discuss best practices to address equity and access across the P-20 educational spectrum,” said Dr. Margo DelliCarpini, dean of the UTSA College of Education and Human Development.
As director, Villarreal will guide the Urban Education Institute’s work, bringing not only his training in quantitative methods and experience working with the community, but also his insight as a first-generation college student.
“Students can do better than I did in being able to start early in planning and preparing for college, identifying all the postsecondary education programs that they are eligible and prepared to succeed at and find the resources to help them meet their dreams,” he said.
Noting that it is an honor to help establish an institute that is community-focused and that is seen as a trusted partner by the city’s education stakeholders, Villarreal is working to ensure that the next generation of students has the support system to succeed that prior generations, including his own, did not.
“If we can do that, we will grow many more leaders who will surpass what we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said. “Ultimately, when people think about the Urban Education Institute, I want them to think about this idea, and that is, when you need to know what works in education for our people in San Antonio, they can turn to the Urban Education Institute for those answers,” he said.
Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.