On the first day of school Monday morning in South San Independent School District, just 26 students sat in classes at West Campus High School, one of three campuses newly reopened at an estimated cost of almost $6 million for construction and staffing.

About 200 more students were registered for school at Athens Elementary, which also reopened, and enrollment was still being tabulated at a third reopened school, Kazen Middle School, according to each campus’ principal. 

The district closed Athens and Kazen in 2017 because of declining enrollment while West Campus was shuttered in 2007 after flooding damaged the building. Four South San trustees began pushing early this year to reopen the campuses as a show of good faith to the community and an attempt to lure back students who left for charter schools or other districts.

Before closing, Athens enrolled 422 students, Kazen enrolled 480, and West Campus enrolled 631.

For at least its first year, West Campus will operate as a satellite campus of South San High School. Students will spend half their time at West Campus taking core classes and half their time at the larger high school for electives and extracurriculars. The goal is for West Campus to operate as a standalone high school by the time the freshmen become juniors, the principal said.

First day excitement

As “We are Family” played on a loop at Athens Elementary on Monday morning, board President Connie Prado embraced families and students walking in on a red carpet from the parking lot into the school building.

South San District Board President Connie Prado welcomes parents and families to Athens Elementary School on the first day of school.

“What it means to me is that the heart that was taken out of this community is now put back,” Prado said of Athens reopening. “We have revived our district by reopening our schools and that means a lot not just to the parents and to the children, but to our little businesses that are here.”

It was a homecoming for many families whose kids previously attended Athens.

Raymond Rodriguez, an incoming fifth grader, returned to Athens on Monday after spending the last two years at Carrillo Elementary. He was an Athens student before it closed and said he was excited to be back.

Third-grade teacher Linda Santillan paced up and down the red carpet, greeting former former students. In Santillan’s class, six of the eight kids who attended her class Monday had a family member attend Athens previously.

She has her own personal connection to the school – Santillan spent more than three decades teaching on the campus before it closed. She considered retiring but said she knew she had to return to Athens before ending her teaching career.

“I think the staff is more excited than the kids,” Santillan said.

Kazen Principal Anna Lopez also had a homecoming, returning to a school where she previously taught, this time as the campus’ leader.

The footprint of the school will start small, Lopez said. Kazen will use just three of five available wings before expanding in future years with the addition of a magnet program for middle schoolers.

The subject of the program is yet to be determined, and Lopez plans to collaborate with students and educators to determine what it will look like. Until it is established, students will have the opportunity to take a variety of electives to figure out what interests them most.

In future years, West Campus High School also will see the addition of new programs to its campus.

“The idea is to give the South San community a choice of either [high] school, each with its own programs,” Principal Lee Hernandez said.

By West Campus’ third year, Hernandez envisions the school becoming its own standalone high school.

South San ISD operates under an open-enrollment model; the flexibility allows parents with students zoned to West Campus to request their student attend South San High School. Some parents zoned to West Campus exercised that option already, but Hernandez said he expects some zoned to South San High School to choose to attend West Campus.

West Campus High School students attend their first day of biology class.

The five-month sprint

In the last five months, South San employees and contractors have transformed the shuttered school buildings, which had been out of commission for at least two school years, back into functioning schools. Some of the facilities had broken air conditioning units and potential issues with mold, while others needed new paint jobs and upgraded technology.

Work continued until Sunday as crews hurried to ready campuses to receive students. The smell of paint was fresh Monday morning.

“The schools belong to the community, so there is a complete wholeness back here and there’s no longer an eyesore when I drive down Gillette Road,” said Trustee Homer Flores, who was elected with the campaign promise of reopening Kazen. “Kazen has been reinvented and its going to reinvigorate the community. … It feels like it’s been a long road.”

After Flores and two other trustees were elected in November, they joined with Prado to form a board majority that began to advance a plan to reopen all three defunct campuses. In late March the majority of trustees voted to initiate the reopenings.

Remaining questions

The path to reopening Athens, Kazen, and West Campus has been anything but smooth. Questions from community members persisted about whether the demand existed to justify reopening the schools. Opposing factions of the board battled at almost every meeting over whether the plan made sense for South San.

State senators complained to State education officials about the board’s financial stewardship of the district. The Texas Education Agency opened an investigation into the board in April, citing allegations of trustees directing district administrators on day-to-day operations and impeding the superintendent’s work.

Interactions between members of the board and administrators were visibly tense and arguments over decisions made to reopen the schools frequent.

As of August 9, the district had spent $1.4 million and planned to spend $1.6 million on readying the facilities for students. Staffing the campuses cost South San an additional $3.1 million.

The district did not make public enrollment goals for any of the reopened campuses. Schools’ enrollment typically fluctuates throughout the first few weeks of the year, and the State education agency waits until October to take a snapshot of student enrollment.

Enrollment in South San has steadily declined in recent years. Five years ago, the districted educated more than 10,000 students. Last year, total enrollment was about 8,900.

Almost 1,570 students living within South San boundaries opted to attend another district or charter school last year, with most going to IDEA Public Schools.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.