San Antonio’s stark inequalities in academic opportunity and achievement are rooted in the city’s history of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic discrimination, Christine Drennon, Ph.D, Texas geographer and associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Trinity University, told 150 city and school district officials, teachers and non-profit leaders who met Wednesday at Sam Houston High School.
“Historically, we created a racially, ethnically, and economically differentiated landscape,” Drennon said, “and then we applied a set of standards to the entire thing, regardless of geography, and with that, it had a lot of unanticipated consequences.”
Drennon delivered her talk, “A History of Public Education in San Antonio,” at the annual meeting organized by Teach For America, a national non-profit that recruits, trains, and places teachers in low-income schools. Historical census data analyzed by Drennon tells the story of how San Antonio came to be the most economically segregated city in the country, with one of the most inequitable distributions of student success.
Like many U.S. cities, she explained, much of San Antonio’s urban development in the early 20th century was rooted in developer policies that restricted wealthier neighborhoods to white families. This pushed Hispanics and blacks into areas with smaller, more haphazardly planned housing on San Antonio’s West Side and East Side.
To make matters worse, from the 1930s to the late 1960s, non-white neighborhoods were locked into poverty when federal red-lining barred their access to lending institutions.
“We didn’t do this because people liked to live with people they looked like – you know, we hear that all the time,” Drennon said. “We did this with policy. This was the United States policy that produced this very differentiated landscape of who looks like what and how much money is going in there.”
At the same time, as school districts increasingly became independent, district funding became localized, sheltering wealthier, predominantly white districts from tax obligations to the county, while excluding poor, non-white districts from desperately needed revenues. While most U.S. cities have locally funded suburban districts, San Antonio districting is unusually fragmented, with 18 independent school districts represented within the city’s boundaries.
The result, Drennon said, is a deeply entrenched legacy of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic segregation that continues to define the city. The effects are profound and far-reaching. Not only do the neediest schools have the smallest budgets, but the students they serve face an array of poverty-related issues and a dearth of community resources.
“The legacy is still there in our inner city schools,” she explained. “The legacy is still there with our inner city kids.”
Drennon, who grew up in an inner-city community in Utica, New York, has been researching urban geography and the connection between education and community development at Trinity since 2002. She received the Marilyn J. Gittell Activist Scholar Award from the Urban Affairs Association and SAGE. As research director for the Promise and Choice Neighborhood Planning Grants for the City of San Antonio, her work has had a vital impact on neighborhoods on San Antonio’s Eastside.
Keeping our history in mind, Drennon argues, allows us to more effectively address the real issues that low-income and minority students face.
While more equitable funding for low-income schools and accountability to higher academic standards are essential, these policies alone are inadequate because they fail to address the discriminatory history that created the city’s inequity in the first place. Policy-makers and education leaders also must consider the broader challenges that students growing up in poverty face, such as increased financial stress at home, higher mobility, and inadequate access to adequate nutrition, healthcare, and mental health facilities.
Closing disparities in academic outcomes also requires an awareness of the diverse non-cognitive skills and cultural tendencies these students adapt in response to their circumstances.
“We’ve created inequality, we created it through policy, we inhabited it, we took ownership of it, we live it, but then we try to treat the whole thing the same,” Drennon said. “And when stuff isn’t equitable, we wonder: ‘Well what’s wrong with you?’ We don’t think about some of the legacies that are actually built into the system.”
Following the presentation, approximately 30 city, school, and community leaders from across the city met to ask questions and share their perspectives. Across the board, there was a shared interest in collaborating across district and neighborhood boundaries.
“It’s really important that not only our educators, but our whole community, understand our history and understand how our neighborhoods have evolved,” said Ana Acevedo, education policy administrator for the City of San Antonio. “We have these different districts, and we have these different neighborhoods, but how is it that we all work towards improving our city as a whole?”
Others voiced a need to increase funding for schools as well as other programs with an indirect impact on academic performance. Several shared their surprise in the origins of San Antonio’s communities and its long-term effects.
“I’ve been in San Antonio off and on my whole life,” said M’lissa Chumbley, vice president of the Northside Independent School District board of trustees. “Learning how these areas were created and about the (racial and ethnic) deed restrictions, I never had any idea that we had any of that, and that helped to lead to some of what we’re seeing.”
The struggle to close performance disparities in San Antonio’s economically disadvantaged population – approximately 65% of students in the city – has broad effects on the city’s education level. For example, only 18.8% of students in San Antonio who take the SAT – roughly 66% of the overall student population – achieve a score that demonstrates college readiness. In other words, the vast majority of students even considering college are unprepared, lowering the city’s overall workforce productivity.
San Antonio compares unfavorably with other cities where a higher percentage of the workforce has college degrees, which has a major impact on the city’s economic development and its competitiveness.
With a better sense of the historical context that led to these statistics, however, Drennon believes we can bridge these gaps in San Antonio and serve as an example to the rest of the country.
“It matters a ton,” she said. “Partly because they’re kids. But it also matters because the demographics of San Antonio are the demographics of Texas in 10 years and the United States in 20 years. So how we educate people in this city matters. People are watching.”
Top image: Trinity University Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Christine Drennon presents the history of public education at Sam Houston High School. Photo by Scott Ball.