San Antonio’s School Inequity Rooted in City’s History of Segregation

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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.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Trinity University Urban Studies Professor Christine Drennon.

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.

The cafeteria at Sam Houston High School is filled with educators during A History of Public Education in San Antonio hosted by San Antonio Teach for America. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The cafeteria at Sam Houston High School is filled with educators during A History of Public Education in San Antonio hosted by San Antonio Teach for America. Photo by Scott Ball.

“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.

Economic segration index US Martin Prosperity Institute

Economic segration index US Martin Prosperity Institute

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.”

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.

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.

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.


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16 thoughts on “San Antonio’s School Inequity Rooted in City’s History of Segregation

  1. The US Supreme Court held that municipal race-based zoning efforts were unconstitutional in 1917 (Corrigan v. Buckley); the Court held that private restrictions in deed covenants were unconstitutional and unenforceable in 1948 (Shelley v. Kraemer). Federal redlining only began in 1934 when the Housing Administration was created (now a part of HUD). Were ALL the problems in San Antonio’s schools cemented during this relatively tight window, roughly corresponding to the interwar period? Certainly racism was a factor—SA did develop a lot during that time—but the *root* of the problems with today’s schools? Seems like a stretch.

    Any chance we could see a copy of the Professor’s presentation slides?

    • Income segregated neighborhoods only increased as suburbia grew. Housing developments were bundled together based on price point, ergo maintaining a trend set by earlier decades.

    • And Brown vs Board of education, which finally decided that segregated schools were illegal, wasn’t until 1954, and integration efforts took years after that.

      Which means unless you are pretty young, either you or your parents probably went to a segregated school.

      And while there have been some remarkable success stories of minority students successes, they succeeded in spite of the race-based obstacles before them.

      Lots of poor white people have had struggles too, but white people didn’t struggle because they were white, which makes it different.

  2. It would be interesting to know what the disparities in funding are between the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in San Antonio. Also, are poor white school districts better off than poor minority school districts?

    • That’s a good question. The shorter answer is ‘yes.’ One reason – poor ‘whites’ are often in less economically segregated schools. Also, many poor whites attend poor rural schools – which are faced with many of the challenges of poor urban schools – but are spared some of the challenges (e.g., student mobility) to an extent.

  3. Daniel, when you referenced, “the diverse non-cognitive skills and cultural tendencies these students adapt in response to their circumstances,” what exactly were you talking about? Can you clarify those words?

    • Great question. Non-cognitive skills are the unspoken skills we learn as we grow up and negotiate with our circumstances. Dr. Drennon describes these as how you relate to others, your body language, how you present yourself, how you handle challenges, and so on.

      Some of the education literature uses the variance in these skills across communities to explain the difference in educational outcomes. They argue that students who perform better tend to demonstrate non-cognitive skills essential to long-term success, like conscientiousness, emotional stability, and agreeableness.

      Dr. Drennon argues that this research frequently misses the adaptive value of a variety of non-cognitive skills that don’t normally show up in middle- or upper-income students but are critical to navigating situations of poverty, violence, and lack of community resources. When these skills have no place or value in educational settings, it creates barriers between educators, their students, and their families. So does ignoring a student’s distinctive culture.

      In other words, if standardizing education means one dominant set of non-cognitive skills and cultural tendencies is crucial to success, then those raised with a different set of non-cognitive skills and cultural tendencies adapted to different life circumstances will be at a significant disadvantage. This compounds many of the other disadvantaged low-income communities already face. A number of teaching strategies and school policies, such as culturally-responsive teaching, have been developed to address this challenge.

  4. Wish public officials would pay heed to Dr. Drennon. She knows of which she speaks.

    SAISD has some of the most difficult to educate population of students compared to other districts, yet has less to spend on their students for a variety of reasons. For example, SAISD is the only major district which pays in to the Social Security system. Over $400 per student goes to paying the employer portion, $8,800 less for my daughter’s kindergarten classroom which was severely underfunded even if Social Security was not a factor. Let’s give our students the resources they need!

  5. My elementary classrooms were filled with students learning English. I am Anglo who grew up in a farm town near the border of Mexico in 1940, I was in 1st grade. Nothing was segregated. I helped the teacher since I was a bit ahead of the other students. I can’t even relate to your focus on injustices in schools in U.S.

  6. Thanks for this excellent piece about education and the structural injustice that S.A.’s public education was founded on. Please pursue more reports like this.

  7. It looks like the professor forgot to take into consideration the city’s growth. Many of the districts that are now considered part of San Antonio were nowhere near the San Antonio city limits when they first came into existence. The high school I graduated from was considered a farm school when I was born 40 years ago and now is considered an inner city school. The only reason many other major cities around the country don’t have as many school districts within the city limits is because those cities are land locked by suburban cities and can no longer grow in area covered yet San Antonio continues to annex land around it and inch closer to the county line. If you take the square mileage of San Antonio and compare that to other areas of similar size with a major city in the center, you get just as many school districts.

    • The only reason? So districts like Alamo Heights didn’t redline out poor and minority students well before Brown v. Board or Ed? I think think the growth/sprawl argument only carries you so far. If you want to look at history, you have to look at all aspects.

  8. When discrimination is in the past…..we can always count on liberals to drag it into the present where they can use it to explain their failures.

  9. San Antonio has a long history of racism and low wages.
    Efforts to organize workers is fought viciously by local employers.
    Attempts to even discuss the segregated school system is squashed by politicians beholden to their capitalist masters.
    Good article, my bet it will change nothing. Elected officials locally have no principles.

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