Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Nearly a year after the Texas Education Agency installed a board of managers in Southside Independent School District, Superintendent Mark Eads is determined to transform the district in ways that have nothing to do with test scores, report cards, and other traditional measures of educational outcomes.
Instead, he is focusing on addressing students' most basic needs: food, health, a place to live, and how to pay for it all. He hopes such fundamental supports, in turn, will improve educational outcomes and opportunities for the district's students.
The district's close to 5,800 students, 81 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, face a number of challenges because of the lack of basic resources available in the district's Southside area, Eads said. For example, there is no full-service grocery store within the school district's boundaries. Parents do most of their shopping at dollar stores and gas station convenience stores or drive a long distance to get their groceries, Eads said.
"We have the poverty, and we are paying premium prices for food. It is just ridiculous," he told the Rivard Report.
Before coming to Southside ISD in May 2016, Eads worked in school districts in Snyder and Medina Valley, and in the Tuloso-Midway ISD in Nueces County. All of the students these districts served come from impoverished areas, he said, but Southside contains the most pervasive poverty and most "difficult situation" he has ever seen.
As a result, Eads has worked to support the community in ways that go well beyond his role as an educational leader. In the past year, he met with Mayor Ron Nirenberg to talk about how Southside ISD could attract a grocery store, forged a partnership with the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine to provide better medical care for families, and started offering three meals a day to all its students at the district's seven campuses.
This fall, Southside ISD plans to open a medical clinic next to the district's administration building and offer banking services through First Mark Federal Credit Union. The district also wants to offer dental services in the coming years, said Southside ISD spokesman Randy Escamilla.
The kind of schools Eads envisions for Southside are based on what Trinity University Urban Studies professor Christine Drennon refers to as “a really old model” — the community school. The idea, Drennon said, is to blend education with an effort to fulfill the other needs a student requires to be a “fully functioning person.”
Catering to the essential needs of students who come to Southside "basically at zero" will help them perform better academically and get them prepared for a successful future, Eads said.
"What we are seeing is students are doing better when you take care of the physical health, the bills, the hunger," he said. "They are doing better academically, athletically. It is all hand-in-hand, and it is going to continue to be positive."
On May 18, the district will mark one year since it came under the board of managers' governance, a change made because of misconduct and dysfunction on previous elected boards of trustees. Eads said when the new board of managers was sworn in, its members received training on how to achieve the best student outcomes. During the year in which the board has governed the district, the managers have been solely focused on boosting academic achievement.
"I think what is going to end up happening is we are going to look totally different in the next 12 months, 24 months, and even 36 months," he said.
Last fall, the district forged a partnership with the UIW medical school that matches its students with families facing health challenges common on the City's Southside. San Antonio's Metro Health Strategic Plan indicated that people living in San Antonio's Southside have a shorter life expectancy than those living on the Northside. In some cases, the report cites a difference in life expectancy as great as 19 years.
Robyn Phillips-Madson, the medical school's founding dean, said there are a number of factors that create health challenges for Southside residents.
"Poverty, education level, transportation, housing, food security," she said. "I think all of those factors work together, but in San Antonio, I think there is an increased concentration of diabetes on the Southside, but it is certainly not just confined to the Southside."
Through the partnership, medical students meet with Southside ISD families monthly to build relationships and address topics that impact student health. Among the topics covered are access to hot water, gun safety, basic housing standards, transportation, and healthy food habits.
Carmen Ferrera and her 6 year-old son Brian, a student at Southside ISD's Gallardo Elementary, are one of the 31 families who participate in the program. The most recent meeting involved a conversation with Brian about how to deal with items on a hot stove.
"They asked if I talked to Brian about the safety with stoves, and have I mentioned to Brian if when the stove is on, it is hot, so that way pots won’t fall and burn him," Ferrera said.
The medical students also have accompanied the Ferreras to Mission Southside, a religious organization that helps connect families with family care, food, health care, and other kinds of resources. Ferrera said when they were there, the medical students discussed how she and her son could get dental care.
Opening the medical clinic on school district property is another way of making access to health care easier, which translates into fewer absences for Southside ISD students, Eads said.
"A child is sick and we call the parents to come get the child," Eads said. "We tell [the parents] they need to take their [child] to the doctor. Well, they may or may not take their child to the doctor, so instead the child stays home for two, three, four days and never gets treatment. Whereas when the clinic is up and running ... we will send the student and parent over to our clinic to be seen immediately, give them medications, treatment, whatever is needed."
Another challenge for Southside ISD families is the lack of a full-service grocery store nearby. The area is not densely populated, with just 80 new home starts in 2015, and the school district's most recent demographics report shows it had the lowest enrollment growth from 2009-10 to 2014-15 of all surrounding school districts.
Ferrera, who lives just south of Loop 1604, said she normally drives about 20 minutes north to go to Walmart, or 25 minutes south into Pleasanton depending on how much time she has. Throughout the week, though, she makes frequent visits to the Dollar General down the street to pick up food items whenever she and Brian need them.
"It is quite a drive and I know that in the Southside community some people have trouble with finding ways to [get to a grocery store]," Ferrera said. "I think it would be nice and more convenient for us to have a store closer to where we live."
Until a grocery store eventually opens in the area, Southside ISD is supplementing its students' need for balanced meals. In October, the district began offering three meals a day for its students through funding from the Be A Champion after-school program.
"[The third meal is] like Lunchables, but the quality is really good, and the students are given the opportunity to eat another meal here," Eads said, noting that many of his students would otherwise not eat until they returned to school the next day.
Ferrera's son Brian takes advantage of the meal. She said it keeps him full so he isn't hungry as soon as he comes home from school.
"I like it, because normally when he comes home he would be dying of hunger," she said.