Author: Bekah McNeel

The McNeels Choose a School, Part Five: What’s in a neighborhood?

When applying for SAISD’s choice programs, parents may choose three programs per child. While we started out with the ambitious goal of visiting about five schools before applying, by the time we visited our top three choices, we were pretty much set. Both kids are in the lottery for Steele Montessori. Moira went on the Kinder waitlist at the Advanced Learning Academy, and both kids are in the lottery for Mark Twain Dual Language Academy. 

While Moira is an obvious candidate for dual language—she watched Frozen in Spanish the other day, and still quotes the few phrases she could understand—we don’t know yet how well Asa take to it. Moira was bilingual in French and English until she was two and a half, thanks to her caregiver (not her monolingual parents). She later picked up Portuguese from our Brazilian au pair, Jessica. Asa, who was home with Jessica all day, did not pick up as much. Moira loves all things verbal, including, I suppose, the Romance languages. 

Of course, interest aside, there are tons of reasons to seek out bilingualism for children, especially in San Antonio, where speaking Spanish is a huge advantage socially and professionally. 

Learning two languages is good for children’s brains as well, as evidenced by Moira’s early exposure and continuing ease picking up vocabulary. 

At the Twain prospective parent night, the principal recalled funny examples of how students who learn Spanish from an adult speak Spanish with adult formality, whereas students who speak to other students in Spanish sound much more natural. 

Of course, “sounding natural” is a happy outcome for families whose main goal is bilingual biculturalism. However, the academic value of their language skills will be determined by a standard assessment. How we assess students ultimately determines the value placed on each skill, and English is still the lingua academia of the American public school system. To be considered bilingual, an English speaking child has to know less Spanish than a Spanish speaking child has to know English. The stakes are higher for Spanish speakers picking up English.

Dual language, SAISD says, is the most effective way to achieve those ends for Spanish speakers, while allowing them to maintain and build on their native language—which is not a goal in traditional ESL. Dual language programs are supposed to be made up of a 50/50 mix of English and Spanish speakers. The children learn from each other, socialize in both languages, and learn their other subjects in both languages.

Twain is in high demand, as are all programs that promise bilingualism and biliteracy. Spanish in particular is super “hot right now.” In many places the demand for Spanish immersion programs comes a predictable pushing out of lower income students, some of whom are the very ones who would benefit most from learning in their native language, and celebrating a language they hear spoken by family members. SAISD’s rapid expansion of dual language programs—this year 45 campuses, nearly half of all SAISD schools, offer dual language services— and the Diverse by Design socioeconomic protections at Twain make it unlikely that middle class families will take up a majority of the district’s dual language seats in the immediate future. 

For us, the main appeal of Twain is its location, which brings up a far more interesting point.

We live less than one mile from Twain, which puts it at the top of Lewis’s list. We could, in theory, walk our kids to school. Forgotten lunchboxes…emergency vomit calls…all significantly more convenient to remedy. 

Twain is snuggled between Monte Vista, where the median home value is $499,000, and quickly re-gentrifying Alta Vista where median sale prices have gone up 33 percent in the past year. 

If this whole choice process were only about curriculum, Irving Dual Language Academy should be in similar demand. Both are Diverse by Design schools. Both wall-to-wall dual language. Both are building the student body from the ground up with families who have specifically chosen that school. 

However, Irving does not have the same student profile that Twain does. It’s student body skews poorer than the target 50/50, while Twain’s skews a bit wealthier.  Twain has a waitlist a mile long—we’ve been told multiple times that despite living less than a mile away and applying with a three year old, that we have little chance of getting in. Our chances at Irving, given our socioeconomic status, would be better. 

Irving is located in the heart of the West Side. The homes in Irving’s zip code, 78207, have a median value around $78,000. It is, in a way, a test case for the district to see if appealing instructional models can overcome class anxiety.

I recently drove the route between Twain and Irving, watching the neighborhood change around me. Sidewalks became spottier. Tree canopies thinned. All the signals of middle class economics changed to working class as I turned south on Zarzamora and west on Culebra. Thanks to years of reporting, I’m familiar and comfortable on the West Side, but I tried to take myself back to the first time I parked my car at the Lincoln Heights apartments. Would I have, in that frame of mind, been willing to leave my child in a place that I had been so conditioned to fear? 

I don’t know. 

It looks like SAISD administrations-past never anticipated such a question.

While the communities and instruction at Twain and Irving are similar, and similarly enthusiastic, their buildings bear signs of a different attitude, one that would have said a lot about what administration expected from these schools. One has windows, and a charming Hollywoodville school facade. The other, like Lanier High School and Bowden Elementary School, was built windowless, ostensibly for safety— a signal to parents that the neighborhood is something from which children must be protected. For now, one building signals “classic neighborhood school” the other signals “it’s 1973, and things have gotten out of control.” 

I didn’t apply to Irving, and I don’t think it would have been somehow more virtuous for me to do so. I also do believe that many wealthier parents will embrace the school, as long as it serves students well. I just can’t help but notice the many ways in which our segregated city has left its imprints on our psyches–what we fear, what we want, and where we feel at home.

To my kids, on the seashore

The beauty and energy of being four, and being certain of everything, and hungry for everything else.

The depth of being two, with emotions carving out subterranean chambers until they erupt, run down your face and cool into igneous beaches that will hollow into coves and  gather soft sand over time.

This is our now. It is not easy, but it is pure life, and it is life-giving. It is humanity distilled to its essences – need, delight, energy, feeling, understanding.

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These two small people- the four year old circus and her brother with moods like fog and lava- are exactly who I dreamed I would mother, and yet exposing every day how small my dreams were. How low was my bar for a full life. Fullness is not easy. Fullness is scary, like my daughter on a cliff, insisting she’ll needs to take just one more step toward the edge. Fullness is one more stop, even though it’s bedtime, because we may never be back.

Fullness comes with tears, of course. But I’ve learned that tears are not a sign of failure, not theirs and not mine. Tears mean we are growing, expanding our reach. Even though I know this, I still avoid them when I can, I’m incapable of drowning out the whining or the wails.

The ocean is a perfect mother. She drags her tides in and out, at regular intervals, morning, noon, evening, night. She never complains that the work continues, she only delivers a new smattering of simple treasures to be scavenged by insatiable collectors, like my own. She lulls them to sleep, and chases them from the beach when it’s time to go home.

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I’m not the ocean.

I’m like the wind. All force and no regularity, leaving my family tousled and chasing their scattered paper goods. I’m always with a list or a task, always on to the next thing.

It’s nice to let the ocean be mother for a while, so that I can watch my children be nurtured by her. I am taskless here.

When we go away from our routine, I discover my children in their latest form. Not in the ways their newest angsts disrupt, derail, and splatter paint the day’s agenda. But in the ways they carve adventure across a landscape, and spread to fill the frame of every moment. The way each passing year adds to their capacity for rapture.

 

 

Review: One Movie, One Book, One Vacation, One Humanitarian Crisis

Since it’s summer, it seems appropriate to recommend movies, books, and museums. Also, my name is Bekah, and if you think this is about the Incredibles, a mystery novel, or the McNay (ALL OF WHICH I LOVE!!!), you’re going to be super disappointed and probably mad. You’ve been warned.

Watching the events of the past few weeks, I’ve been wondering, what would Mister Rogers say about family separations? His concern was always with children—their wellbeing, their sense of self and security in a frightening world. Were he still with us, would PBS pull Fred Rogers out of retirement for a primetime PSA?

In the midst of all the chaos, we actually have a pretty good idea what Mister Rogers would say, because Morgan Neville has the direct quote, and a loads of other great documentary material packed into a 94 minute tearjerker, which is basically an instructional video on dealing with hostile politics and terrifying events.

In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” journalist Susan Stamberg, recounts Rogers’s advice that children needed to feel protected by their parents. They need to believe that the adults in their life could and would protect them, he believed. For Stamberg, this was difficult advice to reconcile with her own sense of vulnerability and the limits of her personal power.

Every parent knows what she means. But now imagine the parents who could not give their child that security in their home country…and then found that, by crossing into the United States they traded physical danger for psychological damage. A clear and crappy choice if ever there was one.

The release of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” on June 8, meant that most of us were seeing the film as the family separations were beginning to explode in the media. I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt devastated by Rogers’s more generous vision of the nation as a neighborhood, and who belongs in it.

 

Of course, Rogers, being a devout Christian, asked the question “won’t you be my neighbor?” as a response to another question, “who is my neighbor?” A question Jesus answered in the strongest of terms though the parable of the good Samaritan.

In case you missed that parable, it involves religious and political folks stepping over their bleeding countryman in order to avoid dirtying their hands, when a religious/ethnic enemy finally comes to his rescue. The Samaritan and Jew, he points out, are neighbors.

Rogers had something to say about good Samaritans. He famously called them “helpers.” In frightening situations, he said, “look for the helpers.”

While he credits his mother with this advice,  it’s worth noting that in seminary, Rogers would have learned a deeply biblical definition of “helper”, translated from the word ezer, a powerful and effective aid or protector. It is a word used to refer to God.

The following Rogers quote is not in the movie, but taken from the Fred Rogers Center’s professional resources page:

“We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘It’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” 

Looking over the news coverage coming from the border (and steadfastly ignoring all punditry from elsewhere), I see a lot of helpers. I see a lot that Mister Rogers would celebrate. But a humanitarian crisis of this magnitude begs the question, the same question posed by journalist Tom Junod when he was interviewed for the documentary: Did Fred Rogers succeed in his mission to influence America?

The answer, of course, is mixed. The documentary suggests that America in 2018 would overwhelm Rogers, the champion of the neighborhood. The humanitarian crisis at the border is just the latest systemic assault on human dignity.

In The War on Neighborhoods Daniel Cooper and Ryan Lugalia-Hollon examine mass incarceration, over policing, and the high cost of being “tough on crime.” It reminds us that what is happening on the boarder has been happening daily in communities of color for decades.

Children in Austin, the Chicago neighborhood studied by Cooper and Lugalia-Hollon, often grow up without one or both of their parents, who have been taken out of the picture by one of two “methods of justice”—either the criminal justice system as we know it, or the “street justice” system that is, really, just the other side of the same coin, they say.  A coin taken from the pockets of poor communities of color and placed into the pocket of politicians, the drug trade, and the prison system.

“To varying degrees, both systems remove key actors from family and community life, and as a result, both perpetuate cycles of trauma within communities.” (The War on Neighborhoods, pg 69)

Throughout the book, Cooper and Lugalia-Hollon beat a continuous call for collective responsibility, similar to what Rogers (and the Bible) advocate.

“Issues of unemployment, addiction, and mental health were increasingly reduced to questions of personal decision-making. The policy focus moved away from neighborhood-level need and toward problematic people, rarely drawing the connection that the former provides the environment needed for the latter to emerge,”  (The War on Neighborhoods, pg 44)

They too look for the helpers, and extend that charge to local, state, and federal governments, who can choose whether to invest in services that strengthen communities—education, healthcare, economic development—or continue the cycle of incarceration, which, as the book points out, is not as easy to avoid as most white people like to think.

“Arrests, felony trials, and prison time all become the basis for society to further condemn these residents, to pile on stressors, removing them from existing supports, and further narrowing any redemptive opportunities,”  (The War on Neighborhoods, pg 14)

Because I was reading this during the same weeks that I was watching the border events, and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” I took particular notice when the authors cite deterrence as one of four reasons given for incarceration. Of course the threat of punishment is not a deterrent, as everyone knows. Deterrence requires “making an example” of someone so that others will not follow. Interestingly enough, this deterrence argument, which at least some members of the Trump administration believed to be at the heart of Attorney General Jeff Session’s family separation policy, is also cited as a common reason for lynching.

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If books and movies are one staple of summer vacation, family trips are certainly another. This summer my daughter and I, with two longtime friends, made the trip to Montgomery, Alabama to see the Memorial for Peace and Justice and the Legacy Museum, which commemorate the victims of lynching and tie the practice to the very practices of mass incarceration chronicled in The War on Neighborhoods.

I took my four-year-old to the memorial and to the museum, because I actually think she is old enough to learn about these injustices, as long as I am by her side, and we skipped the most graphic parts. I was by her side to assure her that she was safe, and that because she was safe, she could be a helper.

We ended our trip to Montgomery with a trip to the Freedom Riders museum so that we could embed the idea of being a helper right alongside the reality that injustice exists.

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But now I have to figure out how to talk to her about family separation. I have yet to do it, because I don’t want her to be afraid that it will happen to her. But when I explain why it won’t happen to her, I have to explain a larger injustice. It will never happen to her…because she’s genetically white…she was born with legal status…because her parents make a lot of money…because she’s lucky. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that.

I wish I had Mister Rogers for guidance.

We are left to imagine what Fred Rogers would have said to all of us in a primetime PSA, which would have gone viral on YouTube. I imagine that he would have reminded us that children need their parents, and they need helpers—adults supporting them and keeping them safe. He would have gently admonished us to be those helpers. Then I imagine that he would have pulled out the Daniel Striped Tiger puppet to talk about being afraid…and then maybe mad. And then, I think that there would have been a third element. I think he would have said something in Spanish, to remind us all that the migrant children are part of our neighborhood, and to try to give them some kindness to hold onto, if at all possible.

Ode to Tom Wolfe, a delayed tribute

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Another book assigned by Jack Simons.

I was 19 years old when I read “Radical Chic,” Tom Wolfe’s biting critique of New York socialites who try to capitalize on the cultural cache of the Black Panthers. The teeth of the essay have come back to bite me often. It’s incisors haunt me as I try to write about social justice in an age where “wokeness” is having a moment.

That’s not a bad thing, that haunting.

When he died in May, I thought about how Wolfe’s work in general, and “Radical Chic” in particular, brought me into journalism. Ultimately, it was less about what he wrote, and more about the fact that he wrote it.

I read “Radical Chic”…and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test…and The Painted Word…and Bonfire of the Vanities…and Hooking Up…while I was deeply mired in the corner of the Evangelical world that is skeptical of outsiders at best and anti-intellectual at worst.

Jack Simons— a singularly formative voice in my education— assigned “Radical Chic” to his intro to journalism class. Simons is a Fulbright Scholar, Baptist preacher, and Vietnam vet, and at the time he had been seemingly exiled to a tiny building on the far edge of the campus at The Masters College (now University). He also taught a class on Southern Women Writers, which he boiled down to an exploration of the fear of “sexual predation between the races.” He devoted one class per semester to the proper use of swear words in writing.

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A book recommended but not assigned by Jack Simons.

In other words, he was a smart guy in a weird world. So when he assigned Tom Wolfe, he knew what he was doing.

He also assigned what came to be all of my other favorite books.

I read those mentioned above and other works from Wolfe, and fell in love with his style, which is super fun. It’s catchy yet human, casual yet precise. It’s readable. A perfect hook for the boy crazy and distracted reader (see photo below)

Wolfe often wrote about things far from the ordinary person’s experience, but he did it in a way that felt like it was happening in your back yard. More importantly, he wrote about a world of limited access in a way that didn’t act like he was happy to be there.

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What I looked like the summer I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and clearly took it to heart.

He was one of “them” in almost every way, except for the collective self-righteousness.

For an Evangelical kid from semi-rural Texas, Tom Wolfe was my inside man. He made me see that those people who, in every other form of writing, tended to sneer and disregard people-like-me, were just as silly and insecure as I was. They were striving and shallow at times. They were guided by the same base instincts as I was, and just as afraid of them.

With a trustworthy guide who was not trying to sell me or shame me, I was able to take a few glimpses into worlds outside my own. Wall Street, free love, radical counter cultures, and hyper-intellectualism. While my people were adding more locks to the door, I was able to cautiously peek outside. I could let down my defenses, because Wolfe was already on the offensive.

Evangelical alarmists beware, though. Wolfe made me feel “safe,” but I clearly was not. He made it appealing to think for myself. And that led to a life that is far from where things were headed when I first read “Radical Chic.” For those who knew me before, I’m a cautionary tale. If you ask me, I’m a close call. What if I had ignored the “Radical Chic” assignment, never discovered Tom Wolfe and kept fearing the Left and running harder to the Right? 

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Another Simons assignment. (Also Plutarch’s Lives was on his recommendation.)

If we want more people to fall somewhere in the middle, instead of on the far ends of ideology, we’ll always need Tom Wolfe in some form. Someone inside the camps has to be willing to critique their campiness in the most searing tone. Someone inside the pastures has to be willing to tip the sacred cows.

Writers like Tom Wolfe are good for everyone. No one has to be on the back foot when our toughest critics belong to our tribe. It opens up dialogue inside and outside, because it doesn’t equate criticism with rejection.

In the church, we call these internal outsiders “prophets” and they have long since been exiled by the greed of kings and the anxiety of priests. They are had to find in our partisan media environs and increasingly polarized academic institutions. There’s pressure to choose a side and back their play as they drift to the fringes. There’s pressure to put Team over Truth, and it’s dangerous.

But it’s a world with lots of fodder for the next Tom Wolfe.

Bathhouses of Hot Springs: Buckstaff

Recently Lewis and I took the family to Hot Springs National Park. This little gem of a park is tucked into the Ouachita National Forest, where very, very hot water flows like honey.

It’s also the only national park chockablock full of naked folks who have no idea what’s happening to them.

Beginning in the 19th century, a series of bathhouses appeared, ostensibly to harness the healing powers of the springs. They evolved over the decades until the 1910’s when they pretty much became what they are now. Today, two remain operational as bathhouses. The Arlington Hotel, once the fancy place to stay if you were a mobster, pro-ball player, or Tony Bennett (apparently), also has a bathhouse.

We visited all of these, thanks to our wonderful au pair Jessica, who kept our underage kids in the afternoons. Each steamy, naked experience was it’s own unique mixture of total relaxation, awkward mooning of strangers, and fear that you were more or less naked than you were supposed to be at any given time. If you ever plan to visit the baths, I recommend you stop reading here, because the element of surprise definitely adds to the fun.

Day One, Buckstaff.

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Buckstaff, still outfitted in blue stripe awnings, like a mid-century resort on the French seaside, is the only bathhouse that does not take reservations. It allows entries twice per day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The line starts forming about an hour in advance, and will extend out the door and down the sidewalk by the time the the first-come-first-bathe service begins. 

There is no other spa service in the world that begins this way, to my knowledge.

While you wait, you can study early 20th century photos of patrons, neatly arranged in rows, shrouded in white, smiling attendants behind them. It looks like an infirmary. Like they are being prepped for organ donation, or sweating out the plague. Behind them in these photos are a few metal boxes with heads sticking out through a hole in the top. The whole thing is as intriguing as it is unsettling.

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The other thing I noticed in line was that the Buckstaff, like every other National Park experience, draws a really eclectic crowd. Like really eclectic. And we were about to get naked together.

The bathers are divided into men and women, women go upstairs in a cage elevator run by a wizened bathhouse attendant in a blue t-shirt rather than a man in a fancy suit and hat. 

Your entire experience is guided by a tiny slip of paper with your name written on it. The elevator operator takes it first, and she hands it to the lady in the second floor lobby, who escorts you into the locker room. Advice: don’t tip every single one of your handlers or you’ll go broke. 

Lest you be picturing rows of lockers and benches, remember that there is nothing modern about a bathhouse, including the locker room, which is a series of curtained stalls, each with two full size, public high school style metal lockers. You go in, take off your clothes, lock them in the locker and poke your head out to let the locker room attendant (your third handler by this point) know that you are naked. She then comes tells you to face the locker, opens the curtain, and wraps you, toga-style, in a sheet. It’s like prison, but instead of a cavity search, you’re dressed for a fraternity party.

Then, you sit with the rest of the Roman senate and wait, trying not to see through anyone’s sheet.

Seated next to me was one nervous NPS visitor whose pre-toga attire had screamed “hiker.” She sat bolt upright, and her eyes darted around the dated (though very clean) room. The whole facility is built on a 1912 activity using 1952 technology and 1972 interior materials.

The hiker, whose heels tapped compulsively, blurted out, “I hope this is worth the wait.”

I shrugged. They’ve been in business since 1912, I wanted to say. But I stuck with, “I’m sure it is…”

“I mean, the line is one thing, but now having us wait in here?” she went on about not having much time in Hot Springs. I shrugged again, trying to look sympathetic. There’s not a lot else to do in Hot Springs National Park, unless I’m missing something.

“Oh well, I just hope the floors are clean,” she said.

Sister, I wanted to say—but didn’t (remember we were wearing sheets. It seemed like civility was of utmost importance during this unfamiliar social situation)—sister, you may have picked the wrong way to relax this afternoon.

Eventually a bath attendant (your fourth handler) steps into the room and calls your name. This is the woman who will be administering all of your…treatments? Rituals?

My confusion over what to call the series of bath activities gets to the heart of the experience. In the United States, we prefer to be by ourselves while naked, and we prefer a total sensory immersion with the right smells, music, and lavender tea accompanying our spa ritual. However, in 1912, being fancy was more Old Worlde, and the baths were billed as a healing treatment, and, if the grainy black and white pictures all over hot springs are any indication, it was one of those highly clinical environments where the well-to-do subject themselves to a lot of undignified pseudoscience in the name of progressive wellness.

And sometime in between, someone invented fluorescent lightbulbs.

Walking into the giant bathing room with marble panels, hanging fluorescent office lighting, the first thing you notice is that there is steam all over the place, and nothing looks particularly luxurious. Piles of towels, the occasional bucket, and pipes everywhere make the place look a bit like an institutional laundry room. Then you remember that you’re wrapped in a sheet, and begin to wonder if you are in fact about to be laundered.

It’s also fair to note that none of the bath attendants are anyone you’d want to cross. My guess is that it takes a particular constitution to usher naked National Parks visitors around in a steamy laundry room all day.

First stop is the whirlpool. The attendant takes away the sheet, which is momentarily awkward, but then you are in the tub. This is a pedestal tub with what looks like a turbine motor dropped into it. I was afraid the entire time that I was going to lose my toe or be electrocuted. This jet/agitator device, however, is not dangerous at all, and, once you slide in, a very well-placed jet stream gives some clue as to why bathhouses may have been so popular in the pre-battery era.

That particular 15 minutes goes by quite quickly, and the water feels glorious. It’s about 102 degrees and has just the right sting as you get in.

The attendant pops back in, however, and then it’s time to get out and put your sheet back on. You shuffle through the Agora of other women in white (now damp) sheets, over to what is essentially a row of massage tables, each the kind one would find in a college athletic facility.

Aha! The row of mummies from the photo in the lounge!

Yes indeed, covered in heat packs (piping hot hand towels) and one ice-cold head towel, I basically took a sublime 15 minute nap.

My attendant managed to wake me without startling me, which tells me I’m not the first one to fall asleep in the mummy lineup.

Now into the Sitz bath. I had assumed sitz was some sort of mineral or something. Now I’m wondering if it’s called that because you sitz in it. It was like a little water throne. My husband compared it to a janitor’s mop sink, which may be because his (male) bath attendant wiped it down with Ajax just before he got in. I can’t say I’m crazy about the sitz. It was nice, and if I had lower back issues, it could have been helpful.

The sitz baths do offer a great view of the room though, so I could observe the system of human laundry, and man what a system.

After the sitz, it was time for steam. My attendent led me to a little closet with a split door. The top was frosted glass, and open. The bottom was stainless steel. She opened it to let me in, and invited me to sit on the little bench inside.

She took my sheet, which made getting adjusted rather unpleasant to watch, I’m sure. But she swung the door shut and then folded two stainless steel panels down over the top of me with just a cut out for my head. Final mystery solved. She wrapped my sheet around my neck, and I sat for five minutes like a disembodied head on a metal box. Inside the metal box, the rest of me was being delightfully sauna’d. Truly, one of the better sauna experiences I have had, as my head was nice and cool.

Because I had opted not to be massaged, I was taken to the needle shower, which is infinitely more pleasant than it sounds.

The needle shower is a web of pipes wrapping almost 360 degrees around you. Water comes out everywhere in pleasant “needles” which are more tickly than prickly. There was a shower curtain, but by this time my attendant had seen my bare ass and twice-post-nursing breasts enough times that she barely made a show of trying to give any privacy, and I made very little show of caring.

The needle shower was delightful and refreshing and I want one very much. In my house. Lewis didn’t even fully inhale before saying “they’re hugely wasteful of water and against code.”

Guess I’ll have to come back, then.

Texas School Finance Commission: You get the teacher you pay for

A teacher at Olmos Elementary in North East ISD works with students. Photo by Robin Jerstad for Folo Media

When Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath was Dallas ISD Trustee Mike Morath, he championed a performance-based teacher salary system.

Three years in, student outcomes are up, teachers are happy, and it’s going very well, DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa told the Texas School Finance Commission, except that it’s bleeding the district dry.

“We’ve put all our money into teachers, and (now) we don’t have any,” Hinojosa said. 

Gov. Greg Abbott’s 2017 commission to study school finance met for the third time today, with two groups on the agenda: teachers and pre-schoolers. (The pre-kinder presentations will be covered in a subsequent blog post.)

Teacher quality, pay, retention, and evaluation occupied most of the day for the commission, which seems appropriate as personnel costs account for about 42.9% of total education spending in Texas, according to the Texas Education Agency.

Practitioners, interest groups, and experts all agreed that teacher quality is essential to equitable education. They also agreed that compensation matters. 

Some go above and beyond trying to quantify the value-add (or subtract) of a good (or bad) teacher. The commission heard from Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist who made the argument that one good teacher can add $430,000 to the lifetime earnings of his or her class. Hanushek also went so far as to say that money spent incentivizing teacher performance was more effective than the total amount of money spent on education. 

“If you confine your discussion to how much you spend or how much you add, you’re not going to get very far,” he said, perhaps unintentionally echoing Craig Enoch, the first presenter of the first commission meeting.

When pressed by commission member Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Hanushek would not say that total money spent didn’t matter at all, only that how it was spent mattered more. Like Enoch before him, Hanushek presented a scatter plot graph that, he said, demonstrated no correlation between increased spending and improved outcomes for students. States like New York and Wyoming increased their spending more than any other states between 1992 and 2011, but it was frugal Florida with the highest growth. 

From Eric Hanushek’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission

Commission member Rep. Paul Bettencourt (R- Houston) immediately suggested looking into what Florida is doing right.

“It’s hard to put any state in the shoes of any other state,” cautioned Hanushek, though he did note that Florida has a robust school choice program instituted under former governor Jeb Bush.

After spending a very long time discussing the minutia of Hanushek’s data, too long according to commission chair Scott Brister, the commission got back on track to talk about teachers. 

Teacher attrition in Texas was 16.5% in 2016. Environment was a major factor in attrition, presenter after presenter confirmed, as was lack of opportunity to grow in any way other than seniority or leaving the classroom to get into administration. Compensation, of course, is one way to measure professional growth.

Hinojosa, as well as representatives from Lubbock ISD and rural districts, spoke about the various systems of teacher compensation and talent development they have in place, and how that relates to both student performance and teacher retention. While the systems varied in scope and sophistication, all shared common elements: 1) pathways for teachers to promote up without leaving the classroom, such as a “master teacher” track, 2) evaluations systems that consider factors beyond state test scores, and 3) more pay for high performing teachers. 

DISD, which has the most highly developed system, the Teacher Excellence Incentive, also uses incentive pay to get the most effective teachers in front of the students with the most obstacles between themselves and their goals. These thirteen ACE (Accelerating Campus Excellence) schools where high performing teachers are paid an extra stipend, have gained considerable ground in academic and disciplinary outcomes as well as parent satisfaction, according to the district.

Commission member Todd Williams, education policy advisor to Dallas Mayor Mike Rowlings, reported that it would cost around $1,200 per student to implement the ACE model at the average Texas school.

Pay is only part of the equation, Holdsworth Center executive vice president Kate Rogers said. At the Holdsworth Center, the focus is on intrinsic motivation in talent development. Rather than “carrots and sticks” she said, they train district leadership to cultivate those inherently driven to succeed. Such people will be attracted to a system where their compensation reflects their performance, Rogers explained, but they don’t need compensation to drive their performance.

Nikki Beaty, a teacher at a high need school in Lubbock ISD, affirmed Rogers’ assessment. Lubbock ISD also uses performance pay to encourage the best teachers to stay in high-obstacle classrooms. While she would be there anyway, Beaty said, the extra pay was an encouragement to her family, who sacrificed along with her when her students needed extra time and energy from her. That support made it easier to stay, and affirmed her commitment. 

Lubbock’s system includes intensive mentoring and professional development, and Beaty said that works with the performance pay to create a collaborative professional environment.

Many teachers support the idea of differentiated pay, said representatives from the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the largest teacher representative group in Texas, as long as it is accompanied by sufficient minimum salary requirements and effective mentoring.

All of these efforts, many presenters noted, amounted to professionalizing and adding prestige to what has become a discounted career.

“It’s not that highly regarded respected position it used to be,” said Don Rogers of the Rural Texas Educators Association.

Of course, Finland and Singapore each came up several times. These countries are known for the high social capital and carried by the teaching profession. 

Dallas ISD and a growing number of other districts appear to be moving in that direction. But superintendent after superintendent confirmed that, at current funding levels, it is unsustainable. In Dallas ISD non-instructional staff has not received a cost of living wage increase in over a year. In Lubbock the program will simply end. Centerpoint ISD, could not afford pay increases, so they used days off and special mentoring lunches, paid for by the superintendent himself.

This kind of inconsistency keeps teachers from enthusiastic buy in, ATPE executive director Gary Godsey said.

With that testimony before them and around them, those going before the commission to say that money doesn’t matter appear to be increasingly in the minority.

To be continued…

Post Script

The night before the commission meeting Bernal sat on a panel for an “Ed Chat” hosted by Communities in Schools of San Antonio. To Bernal’s right, co-panelist Raúl Rodríguez Barocio lamented the lack of competitive spirit in the city, and the drain that put on the middle class. (It should be noted that Hanushek made the same comment about Texas as a whole.)

On Bernal’s left, sat part of the solution. Panelist Mohammed Choudhury, chief innovation officer at San Antonio ISD, was part of the team that designed the DISD system, and there’s no reason he can’t do the same in San Antonio except that,“it’s expensive.”  He noted that SAISD had to raise its tax rate to pay for the district’s new master teacher initiative. The district also received a $46 million federal grant for teacher incentives.

Texas School Finance Commission: Rough Equity


The Texas School Finance Commission meets for the third time on Thursday, Feb 22 to hear from more experts on how to to improve the state’s infamous school funding system. You can and should watch.  Below are my notes from the first meeting on Jan 23. The second meeting was on Feb 8.

People who would like to see school finance reform know two things about the Gov Greg Abbott’s 2017 commission to study the issue.

First, it is Texas’ only active chance of seeing changes made to the universally reviled funding system currently in place.

Second, it’s a slim, slim chance.

During the last legislative session, the passing of House Bill 21 created the Texas Commission on School Finance after the Texas Supreme Court passed the school finance overhaul ball to lawmakers. By declaring the current system constitutional in 2016, “the court has all but closed the door on future court interference,” former associate Texas Supreme Court Justice Craig Enoch said in his testimony before the commission on Jan 23. The court will likely give “high deference” to whatever the Legislative designs. 

The court would override a new system only if it failed to achieve “rough equity” between districts Enoch said. But short of that, Enoch explained, the lege has a ton of wiggle room.

Furthermore, Enoch said, there is no reason that education funding needs to be tied to property taxes, as it currently is. The commission is free to “think outside the box,” he said.

There’s a lot of freedom, and a full toolbox for the 13-person commission, which will take its recommendation to the legislature by Dec 31 in preparation for next year’s session.

So why the pessimism? They have the power, the time, the flexibility, the data.

The commission met for the first time on Jan 23 in Austin, and by the end it was clear why the chance of reform is so slim: it will require the Legislature to admit that not only does poverty matter, but that something can be done about it.

“I want you to understand,” Enoch said, “Scholars and educational experts disagree on whether there is a demonstrable correlation between educational expenditures and student outcomes.”

Immediately Chandra Villanueva, a senior analyst at the progressive Center for Public Policy Priorities, tweeted: “Show me a low cost alternative to a high quality teacher or small class size and I’ll start to consider that money in education doesn’t make a difference.”
Of course, neither Enoch, nor anyone else on the dais saw that tweet in the moment.

Equal outcomes should guide the school finance system, Enoch argued, not equal funding. Rather than ensuring that every district get the same amount of money, the Legislature should ensure that each district has what it needs to reach the desired outcomes, he said.

He went on to present a graph that showed districts spending very little money, but performing very well, while other spend plenty of money and performed poorly.

Enoch’s graph presented to Texas School Finance Commission.

“There is a pattern here, but it’s not finance,” Enoch said. 

This is a trend in the Legislature, commission member State Rep Diego Bernal D-San Antonio told me. “There’s a will to prove that there’s already enough money and that it’s inefficient spending that’s the problem.”

Pflugerville ISD superintendent Doug Killian, a commission member, asked Enoch if the spending estimates on his chart included transportation costs, new facilities costs, and other costs that some districts include and some do not include when calculating per pupil expenditures.

“I don’t have an answer to your questions,” Enoch acknowledged, the variables in accounting made it very difficult to compare district expenditures. He also clarified that he wasn’t saying money didn’t matter. “The experts are saying that it’s dangerous to say that only money matters in the education system.”

His graph, he insisted, demonstrated that.

“The devil is in the details,” Killian said, warning that such data might lead the commission to an erroneous conclusion.

Enoch acknowledged that he could not guarantee that the data was consistent, but stood by the conclusion that spending does not determine outcomes. He called on the TEA to determine what really makes a difference.

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, the third presenter of the day, already had the answer.

Morath’s own graphs show a correlation between student poverty and student performance. Wealth makes the difference – not how much a district spends, but how much a family has.

From TEA Commissioner Mike Morath’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission.

Morath’s presentation seemed to support the money-doesn’t-matter narrative, in a way. “It’s not as simple as dollars in a budget functional area,” Morath’s presentation read, “Instead it is programmatic choices and execution quality of that spending that matter the most.” 

Texas is among the lowest 10 states in the country for per pupil spending. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Massachusetts, which scores near the top of most education rankings, spends $14,515 per pupil (average). Texas spends $8,299 (average).  

The lawmakers on the commission offered plenty of alternative explanations for that dubious distinction. Perhaps it has to do with economies of scale, commission member Sen. Larry Taylor R-Friendswood said. Texas educates five times the number of students Massachusetts (number one in spending and outcomes) does, and yet both are run by one central administration.

Or perhaps, commission member Rep. Dan Huberty R-Humble suggested, Texas spends less because the cost of living here is less than in Massachusetts.

Morath to Huberty’s and Taylor’s points in stride. Whatever the reason, the low spending per pupil did not squelch the quality of education students were getting. When the various demographic subgroups are broken out, and when the scores are adjusted for economic disadvantage, Texas scores near the top on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test, the gold standard of standardized tests. Texas does a better job educating Hispanic, black, and economically disadvantaged populations than most other states.

from Morath’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission.

With low per pupil spending!

But don’t look away just yet, Morath warned, because life does not adjust for poverty. Employers don’t ask what resources you had at home, or how often you moved, he explained. 

The data shows that in college readiness, graduation, and subsequent lifetime income, economically disadvantaged kids do not outperform their middle class and wealthy peers–not in Texas, not anywhere.
“I’m less concerned with Massachusetts,” Bernal said after the meeting. “We heard today that our students are increasingly unprepared for life after high school.”

It’s not enough to move kids forward, Morath said, they have to reach proficiency. Even though one student is running with crutches, and one student is running with optimum health, both students have to run the race, he said, speaking in metaphor.

When the scores are taken all together and not adjusted for poverty, Texas falls near the middle on performance. Our economically disadvantaged kids do better than other states’ economically disadvantaged kids. We just have more of them.

From Morath’s presentation to the Texas School Finance Commission.

Since 1996, the percentage of Texas students considered economically disadvantaged has grown, Morath.

Morath made recommendations with this reality in mind. He agreed with Enoch that big budget numbers were not the key indicator, but went on to show that targeted spending in certain areas with proven efficacy for all students, including those living in poverty: teacher quality summer learning opportunities, and “coherent curriculum.”
Commission member Sen. Royce West D- Dallas,  indicated that the commission might consider different funding streams to support students in poverty, such as health and human services funding. Morath added to that they might consider ways to incentivize spending in certain areas so that money, wherever it might come from, is spent in ways that have been proven to best support those populations.
For example, Morath said, we know attendance improves student outcomes, and so it’s helpful that out current finance system uses daily attendance to allocate funds. Morath would like to see more of these kinds of mechanisms. One idea he floated: higher pay for the most effective teachers at high need campuses.
Herein, Enoch’s proposition might be more expensive than the current system. Forgetting the arbitrary per student allotments assigned by past Legislatures, if Texas studied what it would cost to close the gap between economically disadvantaged kids and their wealthier peers, we may be paying more than we are now. If we paid for the programs, services, and supports that allowed economically disadvantaged kids to test like wealthy kids, how much would that cost? The commission has the power to ask.
But first, what is the real root cause of low performance, Commission member Paul Bettencourt R-Houston, asked. Is it really poverty? Or is it not speaking English as a first language? Is it high mobility rates?

“The thing that matters is poverty,” Morath said leaving no room for doubt, “Everything else is a proxy for that.”

To be continued…

 

Rumblings continue in the battle over SAISD-charter partnership

San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel President Shelly Potter addresses members of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers Support and Personnel, Stewart Elementary parents and staff at a rally outside Burnet Elementary before the school board votes on whether to move forward with a partnership between Stewart Elementary School and Democracy Prep Public Schools, Monday, Jan. 22, 2018.
Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media

“Whose schools?”

“Our schools!”

“Whose schools?”

“Our schools!”

That was the call and response chant on the steps of the SAISD administrative building ahead of the January 22 board meeting, in which the board voted to move forward in a charter agreement with Democracy Prep, a nonprofit organization that runs charter schools in Louisiana and the Northeast. 

Following the Jan 22 meeting SAISD authorized Democracy Prep– which had not previously been approved to operate in Texas– to effect a school turnaround at Stewart Elementary, a traditional neighborhood school currently in its fifth year of failure to meet state standards. Authorized through SAISD, Democracy Prep can open more schools in Texas. 

The 2017 law that incentivizes SAISD to contract with Democracy Prep, Senate Bill 1882, requires the school to serve every single child living in the Stewart attendance zone, if they chose to go there. What this means for special education and English language learners had not been fully worked out at the time of the January 22 meeting, but Martinez assured the board that it would be fully explored as the district hammered out a performance agreement and subsequent contract.

The Texas Education Agency had not finalized rules for SB 1882 in time for the February 20th board meeting. The district will check the terms of any partnership by those forthcoming rules before bringing the performance agreement to a vote. Final rules will be published by Feb 26, with guidance following on March 12, per the TEA website.
In the meantime, tension continues to build between the district and the union.
The San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, the union representing faculty and non-administrative staff in the district, rallied ahead of the Jan 22 meeting to protest what they describe as the abdication of responsibility.
Later that night (once the decision was official) the Alliance Facebook page posted a summary of the meeting that ended with, “The district administration, in effect, admitted they do not know how to do their core mission of educating our district’s students and because of that they are bringing in a company from New York City to do the job that they are evidently not capable of doing.”

One of the Alliance’s concerns is what will happen to students who would not typically thrive on a Democracy Prep campus. Because of its history as an independent “no excuses” charter district, Democracy Prep schools have not operated under the same legal requirements to accommodate students considered part of “special populations.” 

Democracy Prep was not on the agenda at the Feb 12 board meeting either, however Alliance president Shelley Potter presented an extensive list of performance recommendations to the board during the citizens to be heard portion of the meeting. Under the title, “What Our Community Demands from Any Proposed Charter School Operator in SAISD” the two page document lists six categories of detailed assurances the Alliance would like from the district, including transparent planning, high quality curriculum (including bilingual or dual language instruction), classroom management policy, and family supports. Two sections pertain to teacher and employee concerns.

Martinez has made his position known as well. In a January 24 interview with nonprofit news site The 74 Martinez noted that while the district has many choice schools, Democracy Prep is the first time he’s gotten backlash. He attributes this to the teacher contract issue.

“For every other option, the employees have reported to us, so we’ve been able to open new models with little resistance,” Martinez told The 74, “Is it coming from parents? The short answer is “no.” I had a parent meeting last week to explain this, and it’s not coming from them. I’m proud of the trust we have built with parents. Parents want these choices. The backlash is coming from our unions and alliances in San Antonio. It’s about having charter schools that don’t have union contracts versus schools with union contracts or union right.”

SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez at a school board meeting Monday, Jan. 22, 2018, where a vote was taken to move forward with a partnership with Democracy Prep Public School to takeover Stewart Elementary starting in the fall. Photo by Alma Hernandez for Folo Media.

He went on to say that the district will choose partners who treat teachers well. While the details are not yet finalized, faculty contracts were non-negotiable for Democracy Prep, Martinez said, the charter school will be the employer, not SAISD. Teachers currently have protective contracts at SAISD, Democracy Prep practices at-will hiring. This came as an abrupt surprise for the faculty of Stewart.

During the Jan 22 board meeting, members of the Alliance spoke passionately to the board. Alejandra Lopez, a teacher at Stewart, accused the district of robbing the parents and faculty of their “right to self-determination.” Given the chance, she said, the parents would have participated in a redesign and used their voice.

As a matter of policy, the board does not respond to comments during the citizens to be heard. However, before the board voted to move forward with the arrangement, Martinez spoke to the issue of parental choice.

The parents of Stewart students have been advocating for their students for years, he said. The evidence is in the rapidly declining enrollment at Stewart as students have flocked to Brooks Academy and other nearby charter schools. 

“Those parents do have a voice,” Martinez said, “They walk.”

Enrollment at Stewart has been falling for years. During the 2016-2017 school year, Stewart served 542 students. Enrollment had fallen from 560 the year before and 565 the year before that. Many of those students went to charter schools like nearby Brooks Academy.

I watched the attrition first hand when I was reporting for the Rivard Report.

In the spring of 2016, photographer Scott Ball and I followed three students at Stewart as a way to highlight the need and possibility for change under Martinez, who was then in his first year as superintendent. One of the first students we interviewed was a fourth-grader identified as a good student who needed strong supports to stay on track. His guardian told us that she had put him on the waiting list at Brooks Academy after talking to other parents who had done the same. While their chief concern was middle school, they wanted to start applying early so as not to miss their chance.

When we came back for a second interview, we were informed that the fourth-grader had left Stewart to attend Brooks Academy.

Data supports these parents’ decision. Brooks Academy may or may not be the best long-term decision, that data simply won’t exist until the school has been around longer. However, the data does support the decision to leave Stewart.

Mike Villarreal, a University of Texas at Austin researcher and former State representative, also spoke at the Jan 22 board meeting. Through a collaboration with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, Texas Workforce Commission, and several local school districts, Villarreal has been able to trace graduates of various San Antonio area elementary schools into adulthood.

Long term student outcomes for Stewart were not good, Villarreal said. Even before Stewart had fallen out of compliance with state standards, it was graduating students into a future of low performance.

Stewart graduates who were in the workforce in 2016 made an average of $18,000 per year, Villarreal’s data showed. State average is $34,000. Only about five percent earned post-secondary certificates and degrees within six years of their projected high school graduation, compared to 20 percent statewide.

“I’m here to celebrate what you are already doing which is keeping your eye on student outcomes,” Villarreal said to the board.

San Antonio to Charters and ISDs: Let's get together

The common misconception that the city plays an active role in public education may stem from the fact that both are essentially financed through property tax.

San Antonio residents have watched their property taxes increase significantly since 2014, as average property value assessments climbed by seven percent in 2014, 11 percent in 2015, seven percent in 2016, and another almost nine percent in 2017.

As they climbed, many property owners consoled themselves with the thought of more revenues flowing into their neighborhood school. Imagine their disillusionment to find that not a single additional dollar went to their local school district. 

Meanwhile, their neighbors are calling city council to ask what the city can do to lower taxes.

Such is the general squeeze that Tuesday brought Bexar County superintendents, including charter representatives, to the literal table with the City of San Antonio’s Inter-governmental Relations Committee.

“The city needed to get it’s skin in the game to support our schools,” Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said, kicking off the meeting, “We have not, in a way that has been constructive, been brought into the conversation.”

The City, through its Inter-governmental Relations Committee chaired by Saldaña and comprised of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), Councilman Manny Peláez (D8), and Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), has committed to doing its homework to understand school finance so that it can effectively advocate for school funding in Austin, especially during the 2019 Legislative Session.

The room was full of community stakeholders as well, philanthropists and advocates who will undoubtedly play a role in the effort.

While she did not have an official seat among the committee and superintendents, the mayor’s chief of policy, Marisa Bono, was also in attendance. Formerly with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), Bono has argued before the Texas Supreme Court on behalf of local districts suing the state over its school finance system. In her the City has a powerful in-house resource, State Rep. Diego Bernal said, and thus, “there is no city better positioned to take this on than San Antonio.”

Bernal, vice chair of the House Public Education committee and a member of the Texas Commission on School Finance joined the summit as well. Bernal has often pointed out that the most effective way to lower local property taxes is to increase the State’s share of education funding.

Every district gets a set amount of money, determined by several formulas, explained David Thompson, a school finance expert brought in to educate the committee. At the end of the day, Thompson explained, there’s a set amount each district can receive. He compared this dollar value to a bottle. The property taxes go in first, and the State kicks in to fill whatever volume of the bottle is left to fill. If the bottle runs over after property taxes, such as in Alamo Heights ISD, the State keeps the excess and contributes nothing.

Those dollars do not necessarily go to other school district as the policy known as “Robin Hood” would imply, Brown pointed out. Excess property taxes from property wealthy districts go to the State’s general revenue fund. Some are designated for State aid to property poor districts.

By the current calculations of the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the state pays for 38 percent percent of all public school funding. The majority, 62 percent, comes from local sources, not including the Robin Hood dollars.

So, to Bernal’s argument, if the state committed to, say, 50% of every “bottle” the average property tax burden would decrease.

School finance reform will face an additional hurdle in the 2019 Legislative session: Gov. Greg Abbott has proposed what is effectively a cap on cities’ and counties’ ability to tax property owners. The same idea was floated during the 2017 Legislative Session. Mayors, county judges of both parties, and superintendents spoke out against what was then Senate Bill 2, the Property Tax Reform and Relief Act.  Any property tax cap would do one of two things to education funding, Thompson explained: Either the State would have to chip in more, or education spending would decrease.

Even then, while there can be a cap on the base tax rate, Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said, districts are still responsible to pay for their bond initiatives, even if they have less money on hand. This would cause their “interest and sinking” rate, (which is essentially payment on bonds) to skyrocket, furthering the “conspiracy” to place the blame for property taxes at the feet of local entities, Woods said. Northside ISD will place a $848.91 million bond initiative on the May 5 ballot.

By convening the superintendents, the City hopes to join forces, in a manner of speaking. The prevailing strategy in the Legislature is to place blame on local governments—city, county, and school districts—for the burdensome property taxes. Their approach, Saldaña said, will likely be to divide and conquer, pitting each local government against the other for political survival.

“If this is a hill we want to climb, we go together,” Saldaña said.

SAISD has room for 15,000 more students…where will they live?

One of the quirks of Texas government is the disconnect between school districts and the cities they serve. While districts answer directly to the state, bypassing city government, decisions made a city hall directly affect the health of schools.

Take, for example, housing.

A resolution unanimously adopted by the San Antonio ISD board (with President Patti Radle and trustee Debra Guerrero absent) at its Feb 12 meeting highlights the inextricable link between quality housing and quality schools. As the city fires up its task force to pursue a “Comprehensive Housing Policy Framework”, SAISD has stake in the conversation, trustee Ed Garza told me. Currently three SAISD trustees have City Hall on their resume. Garza served on city council from 1997 to 2001, and for two terms as mayor beginning in 2001. Radle served on city council from 2003 to 2007, and Guerrero from 1997 to 2001.

“You can’t really talk about infill, affordable housing and mixed income communities in the oldest part of San Antonio without talking about neighborhood schools,” Garza said.

The resolution acknowledges the role of housing in the district’s declining student population. Since its peak in 1968, the district has lost around 26,000 students, and can currently absorb at least 15,000 more into its existing facilities, the resolution states.

The northward sprawl of the city over past decades has left substantial gaps in quality family housing near the city’s core, which is served by SAISD, the county’s third largest school district with around 50,000 students. Other districts south of downtown have felt a similar attrition of middle class families looking for new or stable housing in the $100,000-$200,000.

The average home value in SAISD is around $70,023, according to the district. The state average. In those parts of the district serving the East and West sides of San Antonio— including two of the nation’s poorest zip codes, 78207 and 78208—the situation is far more bleak.

In 78207 more than half of the population, are renters and the average home value in 2016 was $62,000. In 78208, the 2016 average home value was a bit higher, $76,000. However, the percentage of renters was higher as well, and the median income was roughly the same. The later zip code runs into recently gentrified Lower Broadway where property values are climbing.

Concentrated poverty, Garza explained, makes it almost impossible for either schools or housing to improve without one another.  Schools can become the catalyst, but if there’s not transformation of the neighborhood, Garza said, “It doesn’t allow the neighborhood to elevate or start to break the cycle of poverty.”

Without the building stock to house them, Garza explained, families migrate northward where a virtuous cycle continues to feed middle class housing and schools.

The schools are not without culpability in the decline, acknowledged Garza. In some of the neighborhoods already experiencing “regeneration” (Garza does not like the term “gentrification”), such as Dignowity Hill and Monticello Park,  “We have not seen that translate into neighborhood school attendance.”

That’s changing in some neighborhoods where district efforts and housing stock have worked in concert. Lamar Elementary, located in Mahncke Park, is starting to attract its own middle class neighbors back to the school, which had seen enrollment decline for years.

The district has also launched ten “diversity by design” schools, which are not bound to an attendance zone. These schools use attractive curriculums and instruction models to appeal to families from across and outside the district. By attracting those parents, as well as families in the immediate neighborhood, SAISD chief innovation officer Mohammed Choudhury has been able to diversify the socioeconomic mix of students on these campuses.

However, open enrollment alone cannot solve the entire problem of segregation and economic isolation, Choudhury has said, housing will be critical.