In 1954, the Supreme Court rocked the segregated South when it ruled that the State Board of Education of Topeka could not prevent third-grader Linda Brown from attending Sumner Elementary, an all-white school seven blocks from her house.
After the decision, a trickle of black students attended white schools, and a tsunami of white families continued their flight to the suburbs, paying higher home and commute prices to keep their kids “safe”from the influence of brown and black classmates.
Legally-sanctioned segregation was dead. But subtler forms of segregation took its place, and it would prove to be damn near impossible to eradicate.
Linda Brown died on March 25, just weeks before the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. It seems like the right time to ask ourselves, “How are we doing in ending segregation?”
The answer is it’s still alive and well in the American Northeast, Midwest, West Coast, and, yes, the South.
It’s also alive on the North, East, West, and South sides of San Antonio, a city that prides itself on its Mexican-American heritage. If you want to understand the city’s particular brand of segregation, no data is more compelling than the economic disparities in local schools.
At McAndrew Elementary (Northside ISD) on the northern edge of Bexar County, fewer than three out of every 100 students were considered to be at an “economic disadvantage” under federal guidelines in 2017.
That same year, at J.T. Brackenridge Elementary (San Antonio ISD) on the city’s near West Side, the number was 99.5 percent.
Twenty-six miles separate the two schools, but according to the Bexar County Health Collaborative, the children who go there are also separated by a 10 to 20 year life expectancy gap.
If they stay in the same neighborhoods, a child attending McAndrew is statistically likely to live 10 to 20 years longer than a child going to J.T. Brackenridge.
Still Segregated, Despite Self-Congratulations
Ask many San Antonians – especially Anglos – and they’ll tell you that the Alamo City is not segregated. They’ll tell you about wealthy Mexican nationals living in Stone Oak. They’ll tell you about their black neighbors in Dignowity Hill. They’ll tell you about Fiesta and how their school celebrates Dia de los Muertos.
In a way, they are right. San Antonio doesn’t show up on any of the “most racially segregated” lists published by think tanks and policy institutes. But since the 1970s, researchers have realized that economic segregation — the stark contrast between the rich and poor sides of town — is on the rise. In that regard, San Antonio tops the charts.
Researcher Richard Florida has repeatedly ranked San Antonio as one of the most economically segregated cities in the nation. The results reappear annually, and other studies echo these claims. Every time they do, it generates a media frenzy. Reporters compare zip codes 78207 and 78208 east and west of downtown with zip codes like 78257 and 78231 on the Northwest Side.
What they are missing, says Trinity University professor Christine Drennon said, is the potential to close the gap. We may be segregated, but high- and low-income neighborhoods pay taxes into the same City and County coffers. It’s possible to spread some of the wealth.
“If we know that portions of our population have been denied investment for generations, is it our responsibility, as a society, to alleviate those mistakes?” Drennon asks. (She would answer yes.)
Economic segregation has a racial component. But it is more insidious than straight-up efforts to keep people of different races and ethnicities separate. It’s also harder to address, thanks to another Supreme Court ruling that hits disturbingly close to home.
In the 1973 San Antonio ISD v. Rodriguez ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court said that poverty does not count as a protected class like race did in the Brown decision. School districts and local governments are not required to address inequities based on income. It was just too complicated, woven into housing, the lack of economic opportunity and all the other inequities that the Supreme Court wasn’t ready to take on, says Albert Kauffman, a St. Mary’s Law School professor and former attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
“I consider it one of the worst opinions ever written,” Kauffman said. He represented the plaintiffs in one of many subsequent school finance lawsuits against the state of Texas. His suit and those that followed tried to show that the system was unconstitutionally stacked against poor students, but the Rodriguez decision would prove a major obstacle, broad and intractable.
In other words, you can’t enforce economic equity.
It’s no coincidence that parents in both Brown and Rodriguez filed suit over their children’s school assignment. Both wanted their kids to be allowed to attend a “better” school with more resources. In Brown, those resources were allocated based on race. In Rodriguez, disparities resulted from wealth.
Just as it was in 1954 and 1973, current school segregation is as obvious as it is harmful. San Antonio schools have been feeling the effects of economic segregation for decades. They’ve watched the students from McAndrew and J.T. Brackenridge grow up in drastically different worlds with deepening disparities. So, what are they doing about it?
Right Solution? Depends on Who You Ask.
Depending on how you count, Bexar County has between 16 and 19 independent school districts. The lines were set in 1947, after the state legislature provided incentives for districts to consolidate under the Gilmer-Aiken Act.
When San Antonio’s 60-plus districts began the horse-trading process of who would join up with whom, a few notable things happened.
The 12 largely rural districts in northwest Bexar, Medina, Bandera counties became Northside ISD, a geographical behemoth with more space than students in 1947. North East ISD became the premier suburban school district. Alamo Heights ISD opted to stay small since it had a higher wealth per capita than its largest neighbors. Edgewood ISD also stayed small, but not by choice. The district was too poor for its neighbors to take on the financial liability.
In the decades that followed, the city changed. City Council invested heavily in the North Side, and the populations of Northside and North East ISDs exploded. White flight shaped and continues to shape those districts, the two largest in the city with 106,000 and 67,000 students, respectively. Both have added high schools further and further afield with each decade. As the neighborhoods and schools between Loop 410 and Loop 1604 age and the population grows more economically and racially diverse, new subdivisions and high schools pop up along 1604 and increasingly outside of it.
Allocating resources across this spread is a matter of political will and can be tricky.
“If you really are pro-every kid then the question has to be how do you improve and resource some without taking away from others,” said State Rep. Diego Bernal, whose district covers several school districts and a mix of income levels.
Bernal has visited every single public school in his district as well as some private schools and home-school groups. To get to the school, he’s had to drive through the residential blocks surrounding it, and what he sees usually foreshadows what he will hear inside.
“Nine out of ten times, the schools and the neighborhood are in lockstep,” Bernal said.
Every school has needs, he said, and no one feels like they are in any position to give up resources.
The effects of segregation are “less about hoarding resources in one place, and more about comfortableness with and acclimation to the fact that there are children who have to do with less,” Bernal said.
Bernal has increasingly come to the conclusion that school district boundaries keep people from having to worry about the kids across town.
Northside ISD: Welcome to the (Concrete) Jungle
Northside ISD superintendent Brian Woods can’t ignore the effects of San Antonio’s economic segregation. He’s living it.
What was once a rural school district of 823 students and one high school is now a microcosm of San Antonio’s metropolitan makeup. This is the district of McAndrew Elementary. Its lowest income school, Westwood Terrace Elementary, is 93.7 percent economically disadvantaged. It is closer geographically and demographically to JT Brackenridge than it is to McAndrew.
“The diversity of Northside mirrors the diversity of the city,” Woods said.
Its challenges also mirror the challenges of the city.
He believes in the value of socioeconomic diversity, but the city’s sprawling geography is making that more and more difficult to achieve. A few schools such as Clark High School can capture high- and low-incomes families in one attendance zone. But with no shortage of wide open space to the northwest, Woods sees more sprawl in the future. Simply refusing to build schools to serve those students is not an option for the district, he said.
Northside ISD uses school choice to try to draw middle-class students back to the economically diverse or lower-income campuses like Holmes High School and John Jay High School. They put desirable courses of study and magnet programs at those schools and allow students to transfer into them. They market directly to middle schoolers on all Northside campuses to make sure students know their district options. Some socioeconomic mixing has been a happy byproduct, Woods said, but it’s not an initiative specifically aimed at integration.
But a lot of division between wealthy and poor students remains.
Rather than allocating funds using only the blunt instrument of free and reduced lunch rates, Northside – using highly granular data – targets academic interventions, coaching, professional development and other services to the exact students and teachers who need them.
While those efforts are getting results, Woods wishes they could gather data for kids’ mental, emotional and social wellbeing so that the district could deploy similarly specific interventions.
“Kids’ situation outside the school day clearly impacts their ability to be successful inside the school day,” Woods said, “The data’s just harder to gather.”
The district does what it can with the information it has, and relies on teachers and school administrators to send up a flare when they need more “wraparound services” such as food pantries, trauma counselors, bus passes and social workers. “Resources are really hard to come by for that stuff, too,” Woods said, “State funding is not adequate for wraparound services.”
The poorer the southern edges of the district become, the more creative the district has to be to meet their needs.
North East ISD: The Times They are a-Changing
Once considered an exclusive, wealthy district, North East ISD now covers a wider spread of economic geography. At Johnson High School, 15.6 percent of the students qualify as economically disadvantaged. At Roosevelt High School, 66.4 percent meet the criteria.
“Most kids look down on Roosevelt,” Churchill High School sophomore Sophia Mendez said. “Also, they’re jealous of Johnson because of all the money that school has. We all know that being at Johnson will give you a better chance for a successful future.”
She described Johnson as academically competitive, more so than Roosevelt and even Churchill, one of the NEISD schools where the population is growing more economically diverse as its neighborhood ages.
Mendez and her peers are witnessing the effects of a national reality.
Family income is the largest predictor for academic success in the United States. The Pell Institute and the National Center for Education Statistics track college graduation rates of low- and high-income students. The numbers fluctuate based on how researchers measure them (Did students graduate in four years or six years? Do you include two-year degrees and certificates?), but a gap persists. In almost all higher education settings, a minimum ten-point gap sits between graduation rates for high- and low-income students.
It gets worse from there. Remember that 20-year life expectancy gap? If wealth predicts educational attainment… guess what predicts health.
“Income and educational attainment,” said San Antonio Metropolitan Health District director Colleen Bridger. One of the best ways to combat the ill effects of poverty in certain parts of town, she said, is to support the city, the police department, school districts and anyone else involved in making stronger, more stable communities. Improving individual health needs to happen in the context of community health, Bridger said.
Like Northside, North East is trying to balance its income disparities by sending resources where they are needed most.
The district relies heavily on data to allocate resources, NEISD executive director of curriculum and instruction Patti Salzmann said. “The strategies we use for one school may not work for another school.”
Federal and state money for low-income students goes directly to bulking up everything from food pantries to extra technology on low-income campuses in NEISD. Since the buildings in poorer neighborhoods are usually older, the district puts extra money into maintenance and upgrades. “You won’t go to one school and say, ‘Oh, this is the rich school,” and to another school and say, ‘Oh, this is the poor school,’” Salzmann said.
Each low-income school also gets additional personnel, an expense paid for by the district. Academic coaches allow teachers to teach across different levels. But maybe even more important are the social supports. The less well-to-do schools in NEISD each have a professional family specialist who helps with everything from rent assistance to parent coaching. These campuses also have a Communities in Schools site coordinator to provide social and academic support as well as a clinical counselor through Project Access, another Communities in Schools program.
Years ago, Salzmann said, NEISD looked to the horizon and saw the increasing poverty rate across the state and in their district. It planned accordingly so that as neighborhoods changed, schools stayed stable.
“We can’t change the societal challenges that we have,” she said. “But we can make sure that when kids walk in the doors that they don’t feel those influences.”
SAISD: We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore
After decades of families – and money – moving northward, the districts inside and south of Loop 410, except Alamo Heights, have seen a decline in student numbers and wealth.
Yet even Alamo Heights feels a little bit of the pinch. In Alamo Heights ISD, 20.7 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.
That number may seem high – until you see the numbers in San Antonio, Edgewood, Harlandale, South San, Southside and Southwest ISDs. All six have economic disadvantaged rates over 85 percent. SAISD, the city’s third largest district, serves 50,000 kids, more than 90 percent of whom meet the federal definition.
Here it’s worth checking back in on those claims that San Antonio is not racially segregated. Check the racial demographics of all six southern districts. They are more than 90 percent Hispanic, and none have student populations with more than 7 percent Anglos. Many decades of racial discrimination created entrenched housing and wealth accumulation patterns that continue to affect Hispanic and black families. It hasn’t been that long since property owners were allowed to draw up that deed restrictions that blocked minority homebuyers from moving into the neighborhood.
“If we’re wondering if the effects of those lines have changed…they haven’t,” SAISD chief innovation officer Mohammed Choudhury said.
Poverty is still concentrated in certain schools across the United States, according to the National Equity Atlas. What’s more, 42.6 percent of students of color attended those schools in 2014, while only 7.6 percent of white students did.
Racial segregation is not only about looking at where Hispanic and black students go to school. It’s about looking at where white students are not.
To serve its students, SAISD knows it must do two things well, Choudhury said. “We have to do high poverty schools well. At the same time, we have to stop recreating them.”
Putting stronger curriculum and better teachers into the highest poverty schools is part of the plan.
But Choudhury’s economic integration effort is more ambitious. It hinges on the success of parents choosing to do what they would not allow the government to force them to do: integrate schools.
In the 1960s and 1970s, districts across the country tried to force racial integration by sending kids to schools outside their neighborhoods in order to achieve racial balance. Parents lost their shit. Families living in affluent neighborhoods served by affluent schools hated being told that their child would lose that benefit. They’d bought those houses for a reason.
“You have attendance zones that concentrate poverty in a certain manner and attendance zones that mirror affluence,” Choudhury said.
Until the city achieves more balanced and mixed-income neighborhoods, Choudhury plans to use open enrollment to overcome residential economic segregation.
Open enrollment means that anyone can go to the school, not just the kids who live nearby. The district has several high-performing open enrollment schools already. Young Women’s Leadership Academy and Travis Early High School are National Blue Ribbon Schools. While they are both technically majority economically disadvantaged, they skew toward the higher end of that spectrum – most of the district skews to the lower end. The high performance of those schools has also attracted philanthropic investment.
“Although most girls at my school are low-income, I think we can all recognize that the driving factor that brought us to YWLA was the availability of resources there versus at our nearest home school,” Ruby Polanco, who graduated this year from YWLA, said.
She watched gang violence, teen pregnancy and the stress of poverty ravage what would have been her senior class at Lanier High School. Those kids, many of whom went to elementary school at JT Brackenridge, had “all the potential in the world,” Polanco said. They just didn’t know how to get the resources they needed.
Under Choudhury’s plan, the district will continue to create specialized schools – schools with Montessori, early college, dual language, or other high-demand curriculums, as it has been doing for the past decade. But instead of letting those campuses fill with the kind of students who typically fill strong, trendsetting schools (middle-class kids whose parents make sure they get in), Choudhury plans to ensure that the schools stay economically diverse – truly economically diverse.
Instead of the federal, income-based, yes-or-no economic disadvantage rate, Choudhury uses four “blocks” to define poverty in the district. “Block one” neighborhoods have higher homeownership rates, median income and educational attainment than “block four” neighborhoods. Block one neighborhoods have lower rates of single-parent households. The blocks are relative to SAISD, where the districtwide median income is $30,000. So, blocks two through four all include students who meet the federal criteria for economic disadvantage. It’s a nuance that gets lost using the free and reduced-price lunch rate.
When Choudhury fills a school, he doesn’t just look at the free lunch rate. He makes sure the kids from the most challenging neighborhoods make up at least 12 percent of the student body. These kids will go to school with kids from usually higher-income families outside SAISD whose parents are driving them, in some cases, across the city. They are busing their kids by choice.
These parents are capturing an additional benefit for their students, Choudhury says. Research shows that diversity in and of itself has social and cognitive benefits for kids. So not only is SAISD alleviating the effects of segregation, it’s going a step further and harnessing the benefits of integration for those students who choose it.
“This is a great example of doing it right,” Metro Health’s Colleen Bridger said. “I hope that other districts are listening and asking them how they are doing it, because that’s the long-term solution.”
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