By breaking down U.S. Census data into smaller blocks of neighborhood poverty data, Mohammed Choudhury hopes to clarify for the San Antonio Independent School District the educational challenges in improving student performance.
Choudhury, who is SAISD’s chief innovation officer, will present his original research Wednesday to the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, showing that while U.S. Department of Education poverty measures explain to some extent the obstacles poor students face, it doesn’t drill down far enough into other factors that impact student achievement and cycles of poverty.
“Growing up in the bottom third [income tier in San Antonio], your chances are slim of breaking out,” Choudhury said.
Choudhury contends that without parsing the information as he has, school officials cannot adequately address students’ needs, nor can they advocate for reforms in housing, economic development, and other policy areas that affect public schools.
“While we tackle the challenge of doing high-poverty schools well, we also need to break up concentrated poverty,” Choudhury said.
What Diversity Looks Like Now in SAISD
To excel at educating students living in poverty, Choudhury plans to delve deeper into the district’s needs and resources.
In SAISD, the percentage of students in low-income homes hovers around 93%. Economic diversity is not going to look like it might in a district like Northside ISD and North East ISD where less than 50% of the students come from low-income households. Those measurements come from a relatively simple economic formula based on family size and income. Families below a certain income qualify for reduced lunch rates, and those with even lower incomes qualify for free lunch.
Those numbers don’t tell the whole story, Choudhury said. “When discussing poverty in education we limit ourselves by using the free-and-reduced-lunch rate.”
Poverty is not simply about income, Choudhury said. It is also about family structure, household education levels, and the neighborhood network around the student.
With the socioeconomic range that exists within the district, Choudhury has broken the district population into four “blocks” based on median income, percentage of single-parent homes, percentage of family home ownership, and level of adult education in each of the U.S. census blocks – which are smaller than census tracts – served by each school.
Using U.S. census blocks to create a map of the district, he has determined the composition of every SAISD campus. The maps show that even within a high-poverty school district, some areas have lower home-ownership rates and more single-parent households than others.
The blocks will adjust slightly with each census, as district demographics shift. For instance, if business leaders continue to draw economic development into the city’s core, which is served by SAISD, the lowest income in Block 1 may be higher in a decade than it is now.
Using 2015 census data, SAISD’s District 5, which mostly falls into the high-poverty 78207 zip code, has the highest concentration of students in Choudhury’s Block 4, the lowest-income group. At Lanier High School in the heart of District 5, 43% of students come from Block 4; only 5% come from Block 1. In Highlands and Burbank high schools in SAISD Districts 3 and 4, respectively, each block is almost equally represented.
Some elementary schools in the district, which have smaller attendance zones than middle or high schools, have no Block 1 students. At JT Brackenridge Elementary School, which feeds in to Tafolla Middle School and Lanier High School, 0% are in Block 1, while 94% are in Block 4. The highest Block 1 concentration in the district is Woodlawn Academy at 67%. Woodlawn Academy feeds into Jefferson High School in SAISD’s District 7.
SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s strategy to improve the district focuses on high-quality instruction by master teachers, an emphasis on attending college, and targeted student and family supports. Understanding the needs of various campuses will help the district allocate those resources strategically.
However, any school improvement plan is made more challenging in the context of concentrated poverty, Martinez said.
Concentrated poverty – social settings in which 40% or more of the population lives below the federal poverty level – exacerbates the detrimental effects of poverty, especially when that poverty is experienced by children, according to a study conducted by Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The most expedient way to break up the pockets of deep poverty in SAISD would be to redraw school enrollment lines for existing schools, but such efforts usually face opposition from parents in the affected schools. Instead, Choudhury will use his role as chief innovation officer to spearhead specialized schools intended to appeal to middle-class families across the county, while ensuring that SAISD students from the lowest-income neighborhoods are enrolling at the same rate.
Bringing in the Middle Class
“Unquestionably, neighborhoods in the urban core have seen an influx of middle class families,” SAISD Trustee Steve Lecholop (D1) said. Lecholop’s district includes Dignowity Hill, Mahncke Park, and other rapidly changing portions of SAISD. However, not all of those parents send their children to the neighborhood public school. Private schools and charter schools provide alternatives.
“I’ve never spoken to a parent who said they didn’t care about the education of their children,” University of Texas at San Antonio researcher Bekisizwe S. Ndimande said, but many of the ways parents choose to pursue that education exacerbate inequity, pulling their children away from high-poverty peers.
Private and charter schools are not the primary mechanisms for this sorting, City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) said. Rather, it is the public schools themselves. “San Antonio has had school choice for a long time,” he said.
Because most school districts follow traditional neighborhood-based enrollment patterns, affluent neighborhoods have affluent schools, and affluent schools attract affluent families, Ndimande said.
Over the past five years, the Pew Research Center and urban studies theorist Richard Florida have ranked San Antonio as the most economically segregated city in the U.S., and the most recent Distressed Communities Index from the Economic Innovation Group supports these findings. The greater San Antonio area’s 16 independent school districts are clear indicators of that inequality. SAISD, Southside ISD, Harlandale ISD, South San Antonio ISD, and Edgewood ISD have struggled against declining enrollment as families choose to live in more affluent school districts.
Part of Choudhury’s mandate to create more economically diverse schools hinges on appeal to middle-class families who would not have previously considered SAISD an option for their children. Texas schools currently can take advantage of state-level grants to restructure schools or to start new in-district charter schools with diverse curricula that appeal to families at various economic levels and allow them to recruit across traditional attendance zones.
SAISD has 22 such specialized schools. Every spring, campus leadership teams can apply to the district’s innovation office to redesign their school according to their community’s needs.
Some parents choose schools based on their instructional model, such as Montessori. Strong school performance will broaden a specialized school’s appeal even further, Choudhury explained.
The Young Women’s Leadership Academy is the highest-achieving SAISD school, having earned a National Blue Ribbon School status in 2015. Travis Early College High School made the Blue Ribbon list in 2017, announced in September. More out-of-district families have enrolled their children in these schools as their performance has improved, which is where the other half of his plan begins, Choudhury said.
Diversity By Design
As enrollment demand increases, Choudhury explained, it is important not to allow specialized schools to become middle-class islands in a sea of concentrated poverty.
“It is very important that as we embrace school choice, we do it very carefully,” Choudhury said. “Unregulated choice exacerbates the segregation that already exists in our city.”
As middle-class families are drawn to specialized schools – something that is already happening at the Advanced Learning Academy and CAST Tech – Choudhury plans to exercise “diversity by design,” meaning that each specialized school will have an enrollment policy specifically engineered to balance socioeconomic groups.
Currently, specialized schools reserve a percentage of seats for neighborhood families who would naturally attend the school based on its location, another allotment for SAISD students, and another allotment for out-of-district students.
In some cases, Choudhury explained, the balance can be achieved through in-district versus out-of-district enrollment percentages, because the block analysis reveals that out-of-district students fall disproportionately into Block 1. The neighborhood where the specialized school is located could be made up primarily of students from Block 3 or 4, as is the case for the Young Men’s Leadership Academy, an all-boys 4th-8th grade school on the Eastside.
In other cases, such as CAST Tech, located downtown, geographic distributions will not balance the blocks, so enrollment could be based on the blocks themselves, with each block representing 25% of the student population.
Once a school’s enrollment has been economically balanced, Choudhury wants to see campuses embrace integration even further, on a classroom by classroom basis. His goal is to help campuses ensure that each child experiences the benefits of its diverse school.