78207: America’s Most Radical School Integration Experiment

Sep 27, 2018 by

By Beth Hawkins –

In the nation’s most economically segregated city, an innovative new approach to school integration designed to address poverty, trauma, and parental choice is working


San Antonio, Texas

J.T. Brackenridge Elementary sits on the eastern edge of zip code 78207, which is the way people refer to the Mexican-American community that surrounds the school. Located just west of downtown San Antonio, the neighborhood is as rich with art and history and culture as the rest of the city. Yet it’s a world apart.

To travel to or from the school is to take a compressed trip through time. Head east, and every few hundred feet Guadalupe Street presents a different line of demarcation — each a visual reminder of who lived here and what life was like during those respective eras of human habitation.

There’s Alazan Creek, one of the spring-fed waterways that drew nomadic tribes and Spanish conquistadors, now a concrete culvert lined, not with public art, like the city’s iconic Riverwalk, but with untamed scrub. After Guadalupe crosses the river, the road widens and rises, going over busy train tracks that conveyed the raw materials that were used to build the modern metropolis, and then the scrapyards to which spent rebar and steel are returned, to be reforged as the city’s next iteration.

The final boundary is an elevated interstate, a current-day conduit in the sky that bisects the cramped 25-foot lots of the 78207 from the lofts, the leafy, art-filled riverside promenades, the tail-to-snout eateries, and the brewpubs of the city’s prosperous core.

In this daily school commute up and down Guadalupe Street, parents and students are presented with a vivid illustration of their stark reality: By virtually any statistical measure, San Antonio is the most economically segregated city in the United States. Its poorest neighborhood, the 78207, is located a scant few miles from the epicenter of the third-fastest-growing economy in the country. But as the city as a whole thrives, the residents on the West Side are all but locked out of the boom.

Into this divided landscape three years ago came a new schools chief, Pedro Martinez, with a mandate to break down the centuries-old economic isolation that has its heart in the 78207.

In response, Martinez launched one of America’s most innovative and data-informed school integration experiments. He started with a novel approach that yielded eye-popping information: Using family income data, he created a map showing the depth of poverty on each city block and in every school in the San Antonio Independent School District — a color-coded street guide composed of granular details unheard of in education. And then he started integrating schools, not by race — 91 percent of his students are Latino and more than 6 percent are black — but by income, factoring in a spectrum of additional elements such as parents’ education levels and homelessness.

To achieve the kind of integration he was looking for, he would first have to better understand the gradations of poverty in each and every one of his schools, what kinds of supports do those student populations require, and then find a way to woo affluent families from other parts of the city into San Antonio ISD schools to disrupt these concentrations of unmet need. Martinez’s strategy: Open new “schools of choice” with sought-after curricular models, like Montessori and dual language, and set aside a share of seats for students from neighboring, more prosperous school districts, who would then sit next to a mix of students from San Antonio ISD, where 93 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

Only a few years into the experiment, the effort has reshaped the educational landscape and redefined the aspirations of its students and educators. The district’s diverse-by-design schools now have long lists of well-to-do families waiting for a seat to open up alongside students from working-class households and destitute neighborhoods. Families from the affluent communities on the city’s north and northwest sides are indeed now eagerly applying to share classrooms with families from the 78207.

Student learning has accelerated — in both the new, marquee programs and existing schools.

When Texas released its 2017-18 school performance scores last month, San Antonio ISD, with its 50,000 students and 90 schools, was named one of the fastest-improving districts in the state. The system as a whole had risen from the equivalent of an F rating to a C in just the past three years. Thirty-four of its schools earned the state’s “distinction” designation.

The number of San Antonio ISD schools that would have landed on the state’s “improvement required” list using 2018 criteria fell by half. Using the same calculus, the number of students enrolled in a low-performing school plummeted from 47 percent to 16 percent, the largest decrease among urban districts in the state.

With arguably the nation’s most radical school integration experiment reaping early wins, what Martinez says he needs most now is time — to get his still-disadvantaged schools from a C to an A, to change beliefs at all levels about what success looks like, and to stave off a gathering storm of opposition from those who disagree with his maverick approach.

National experts on school improvement are buzzing about Martinez’s work. But if he is to win over his detractors — and reach the most profoundly destitute children within a larger community marked by poverty — he needs the same sense of excitement his work is garnering outside San Antonio to catch hold in his own segregated backyard.

Source: 78207: America’s Most Radical School Integration Experiment | The 74

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