Bekah S. McNeel

If Santa’s main clientele were adults, I think a few things would be different. Hopefully there would be less lap-sitting and traumatized crying. And I think he’d ask a lot more questions like this:

“What would it take to make your neighborhood school your school of choice?”

That was the question SAISD Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools Mary Esther Macias (not Santa) asked a group of new and potential parents in Dignowity Hill.

The sampling of parents in the room, collected by the head of our neighborhood’s Educational Leadership Committee (ELC), all live in 78202, but might be inclined to look elsewhere for schools for their kids. These were the parents for whom the neighborhood school was an option, not a given.

(Full disclosure, I am on the Dignowity Hill ELC and was in the meeting as a soon-to-be parent.)

Many of the parents moving into the city center at this moment are paying premiums on real estate or renovation, biking to work, commuting to grocery stores, and cherishing density. They are idealists, and they make choices according to those ideals.

They chose where to live. They choose where to educate their children. And those may not be in the same neighborhood.

Christina Medrano's class at Bonham Academy. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Christina Medrano’s class at Bonham Academy. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

The reality is that not every family has these choices. Many families are tied to their school by their zip code. However, the growing private charter movement aims to change that. Charters like KIPP and IDEA are committed to the statement that “zip code isn’t destiny.”  As these chains grow, we can expect to see more choices offered to parents who didn’t have them before.

The same can be said of SAISD’s growing network of internal charters like Hawthorne Academy and Bonham Academy. Options are popping up where there were none. This is good news for many parents, but the ontological reality that having choice schools means that there are schools that are not choice. Schools that are (or are perceived to be) “less-than.”

So, it’s a proactive question to ask those who already have the choices. “What would it take for you to choose your neighborhood school over every other private, charter, and magnet school available?”

Throughout the meeting, and in conversations afterwards, a wish list of sorts emerged.

I can’t speak for every parent and future parent living in the boundaries of SAISD, but here’s my wish list. Here’s what my husband and I are looking for in a school. Readers should add to the list, or contest what’s on it. Santa may not have what you’re looking for in his sleigh of goodies…but SAISD just might.

(These are not ranked in order of importance.)

A healthy learning environment. 

  • Physical safety should be a given. But how about emotional safety? I am looking for a place where a student can be who they are without unchecked bullying or cynicism from adults. For shy students, this might mean teachers taking extra time to appreciate his or her strengths and ask good questions. For outgoing students, this might mean extra help channeling his or her energy into leadership and positive influence.
  • In addition to this, it would be really great if the building itself were “friendly.”  Kids spend a lot of their waking hours in this environment, and a growing body of research is showing that their surroundings affect the way they learn and the way they feel about school.
  • All research points to the benefits of emphasizing executive functions. Focus, regulating emotions, etc. Investing in the development of these functions will not only inform the academic environment, but the social environment we’re looking for as well.
Karen Villuendas, Tina Valdez, Ilana Villagran, and Belen Bonilla: college bound and loving it.
Young Women’s Leadership Academy students (from left) Karen Villuendas, Tina Valdez, Ilana Villagran, and Belen Bonilla: a sisterhood of support. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Enrichment Programs

What do the most demanding families seek in a school? They expect their children to learn much more than training in basic skills. They expect children to study history and literature, science and mathematics, the arts and foreign languages. They would never tolerate a school that did not have dramatics, art, music, and science laboratories. They would insist that the school have up-to-date technology that their children can access and use on a daily basis. They would expect excellent athletic facilities and daily physical education… an educated parent would not tolerate a school that cut back or eliminated the arts to spend more time prepping for state tests. – Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error

  • Paring down a school until it is enslaved to the TEKS is not going to win over parents who are on the fence about where to send their kids. Unfortunately, that’s the reality that high-stakes testing has brought to inner city schools that struggle to keep up with their well-resourced neighbor districts. But again, studies show that enrichment isn’t just fluff. For many students art, technology, and physical activity are the language that will open up path to life-long learning.
  • Field trips are wonderful, but they are not enough. Students need avenues to explore, not just one-time exposure. They benefit from a consistent and well-integrated diet of enrichment subjects.
Rebecca McMains leads discussion on immigration and its affect on art at SAMA.
Rebecca McMains leads discussion on immigration and its effect on art. San Antonio Museum of Art offers opportunities to integrate art into academic subjects.

Opportunities to accelerate, and optimistic help for students with learning specialties

If their child is unusually bright, [the most demanding parents] would expect advanced courses to keep alive the child’s curiosity and zest for learning. If their child has disabilities of any kind, they would expect the school to have appropriately trained personnel to offer the help and support the child needs. – Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error

  • We have not met our unborn daughter yet. In five years she may be a gifted and talented phenom. She also might be like thousands of other children who need a special learning environment. Whatever the case, should Baby McNeel fall outside the bell curve on academic performance on either side, we will look for a school where her gifts will be maximized. Where she will be challenged and encouraged by well-trained teachers who understand her capabilities, and can help me know how to stimulate her at home too.
  • If Baby McNeel turns out to be quite average, we want both geniuses and kids with learning specialties to be part of her world.

Inspiring Teachers

  • Most demanding parents have their ear to the ground for buzz about the teacher who makes kids love learning. The teacher who goes the extra mile for her kids. Competence and content mastery are expected. They are looking for the teacher who sends their kids come home squealing, “Guess what I learned today?”
Briscoe ES teachers receive Excellence grants from the SAISD foundation.
Briscoe ES teachers receive Excellence grants from the SAISD Foundation.

Classmates who are Cared For

Off all the items on our wish list, this is the most important. We want the other children in our daughter’s class to have access to the care they need in order to thrive.

Even if our daughter does not go to Bowden ES, I am still going to advocate for programs and funding that bring financial, medical, nutritional, and social resources into public schools. Because we share this world, and we belong to each other.

If I am going to read to my child, take her museums, save for her college education, take her to the doctor, and feed her healthy food, then I am going to advocate for those opportunities for all children. Programs like SA Reads, San Antonio Youth Literacy, and CHIP can bridge parts of the gap. Resources like SA Food Bank and Communities in Schools can bridge others. And if we could find a way to bring social services, clinics, credit unions, and nurses onto public school campuses, then we’d really be building bridges across the achievement gap.

The children with the greatest need are the most expensive to educate. They will not have equality of educational opportunity if their schools focus relentlessly on preparing them to take state tests. Like children in elite private schools and affluent suburbs, they need the arts and sports and science laboratories and libraries and social workers; they need school nurses and guidance counselors. They need to learn history and civics, to read literature and learn foreign languages. They need the latest technology and opportunities to learn to play musical instruments, to sing in groups, to make videos, and to perform in plays. They need beautiful campuses too.  – Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error

It sounds idealistic, I know. But we’re the idealists, remember? And Santa is not going to deliver the schools we want. We’re going to have to look to the other Christmas. The one with the Baby who loved the world.  And we’re going to have to take a note from his story and advocate not just for our own kids, but for the children of our neighborhoods, our city, and our world.

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

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Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog,, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.