San Antonio ISD’s East Side bears the brunt of the school closure recommendations

San Antonio ISD’s historically Black East Side neighborhoods have more schools on the proposed closure list than any other part of the district.

By Camille Phillips, Texas Public RadioNovember 9, 2023 9:30 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

At Mount Zion First Baptist Church on San Antonio’s near East Side, Pastor Otis Mitchell stands in the church’s basement chapel and points to a simple wooden pulpit.

“When the church was first built in 1925, they could not afford to finish it. So, this area was where they worshiped,” Mitchell said. “And this is the pulpit that they used back then. So, this pulpit is almost 100 years old.”

Mount Zion First Baptist Church sits across the street from Frederick Douglass Elementary at the corner of Hackberry Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The school and the church have been neighbors for almost a hundred years, and their histories are intertwined.

“More than half of the congregation who is here graduated from Douglass,” Mitchell said. “We have a symbiotic relationship. We share a parking lot. We share experiences. Our kids go there; they use the gym.”

But now, half that history is at risk of coming to an end. Douglass Elementary is one of five East Side schools slated to close under the San Antonio Independent School District’s initial proposal to consolidate schools.

Otis Mitchell has served as the pastor of Mount Zion First Baptist Church since 2006. It’s located across the street from Frederick Douglass Elementary.
Camille Phillips / TPR

Mitchell worries that closing Douglass will erase the school’s history.

“I think it was, if not the first, one of the first — colored schools they used to call them,” Mitchell said.

According to a history of Douglass published by SAISD in 2008, Douglass was established after the Civil War when the federal government required cities to provide public education to Black children. It was originally called the Rincon School, but it was renamed in honor of Frederick Douglass in 1904.

A small group of parents and activists gathered at Mount Zion recently to brainstorm ways to convince the district to change its mind.

Mitchell told the group that closing Douglass would continue a pattern of erasing the history of marginalized people.

“African American history, Native American history, Hispanic American history. It seems to not matter as much. And when you take away Douglass, you’re going to take away those three histories. And that would be wrong,” Mitchell said.

In an interview with TPR, SAISD Superintendent Jaime Aquino said the district wants to work with community leaders like Mitchell to preserve that history if Douglass is closed — perhaps by turning it into a museum.

SAISD Superintendent Jaime Aquino speaks to families and staff at Douglass Elementary during a community meeting to discuss the district’s consolidation plan on Sept. 27, 2023.

“Honoring our legacy, our history, our heritage is significantly important,” Aquino said. “However, that should not then be the reason for our inability to provide a better future for our current students. And I believe that we can do both.”

Aquino says SAISD needs to consolidate schools in order to provide that better future for students, because right now the district’s limited funds are spread thin between too many campuses. Over the past two and a half decades, the district’s enrollment has dropped from more than 60,000 students to less than 45,000.

“We all went into this business because we care about doing the right thing for our kids,” Aquino said. “And what we are telling you is this is the right thing to do, and it’s really long overdue.”

Even though the East Side — represented by single-member district 2 trustee Alicia Sebastian — only accounts for a seventh of the residents in SAISD,it has a quarter of the 19 schools recommended for closure.

Aquino said the reason the East Side has the most schools on the initial closure list is because the East Side has lost the most students.

The district’s framework for deciding what schools to close is based on enrollment, and any school that fit the criteria was added to the list.

“We needed to make sure that it was objective, that we were treating everybody the same way,” Aquino said.

SAISD’s chief of data operations, Theresa Urrabazo, said a big part of the reason the East Side has lost more students than any other part of the district is because there’s not enough affordable housing.

“If we look at, you know, declining birth rates, yes, they are significantly higher on our East Side. If you look at the disinvestment in housing; significantly higher on the East Side,” Urrabazo said.

SAISD’s East Side is also home to a lot of charter schools.

According to district records, there were 7,700 SAISD students on the East Side in 2005. Now, there are 4,700.

Both district leaders and community leaders like Otis Mitchell are concerned about the impact of gentrification on the East Side. But they don’t see eye to eye on the best way to respond.

Mitchell has served as pastor of Mount Zion since 2006, and he said over the years more and more developers have moved into the neighborhood.

The main entrance to Mount Zion First Baptist Church, across the street from Frederick Douglass Elementary.
Camille Phillips / TPR

“The homes that used to be occupied by grandparents and middle-aged parents are either being bought out by developers and / or replaced with apartments,” Mitchell said. “These homes and / or rentals are more expensive than the neighborhood that exists here can afford to pay. So, I believe it’s called gentrification because that makes people have to move out.”

When district leadership met with the Douglass community in September, Mitchell called on them to take that gentrification into account when they made their final decision.

“The community is used to being gentrified. It’s used to being put aside and saying, ‘Well, we can get rid of that.’ How about don’t do that?” Mitchell said to a round of applause.

Aquino said his team is listening to the community’s concerns and will take them into account when they make their final recommendation to the board. But he said the district also has to respond to the reality of the situation.

“Schools are a microcosm of what’s happening in the larger society, and it’s not fair to put all the ownership on the school system,” Aquino said. “It is a reflection of housing policies that are beyond our control.”

However, unless SAISD reduces the number of schools slated for closure, community organizers like Diana Lopez are not going to be satisfied. Lopez has a son in Pre-K4 at Douglass Elementary. She’s also the director of the Southwest Workers Union.

A small group of parents, organizers and community members met in the fellowship hall of Mount Zion First Baptist Church on Nov. 2 to brainstorm ways to convince the district to keep Douglass Elementary open.
Camille Phillips / TPR

“It just seems like our communities are being punished for being low income, are being punished for being working class and are being punished because we can’t be as present as many of the other affluent communities,” Lopez said after the brainstorming meeting at the church last week.

She said the concentration of school closures on both the East and South Sides makes her sad and angry.

“It’s a systemic structure of excluding the most vulnerable communities. We’ve seen this throughout the history of San Antonio. We’ve seen the East Side being historically marginalized, excluded from important decisions about their own lives,” Lopez said.

Superintendent Aquino said he does not want to contribute to historic disinvestment.

“It’s not our intention,” Aquino said.

But when asked how he balances the reality of the situation while avoiding making it worse, he only said it was something he and his team would have to consider.

The conclusion they reach will be clear when they make their final school closure recommendations to the SAISD board on Monday, Nov. 13.

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