Sofia Rodriguez, 14, works on an installation depicting high school drop out rates in Bexar County at SAY Sí. Credit: Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Jesus Mancha, 16, attends Brackenridge High School, just outside the King William historic district. The high school has not seen the benefits of nearby gentrification, he says. San Antonio Independent School District has invested in an early college program at Brackenridge, and there have been improvements in the academic options, he added, but outside people still perceive it as a troubled school.

“It’s considered a ‘ghetto’ school,’” Mancha said, and that view is hard to overcome. “It’s a community problem,” he explained, and it shows up in the schools.

For his contribution to the SAY Sí show Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal, Mancha and his team created a life-size school bus – rather, the back end of the bus. It’s beat up, and the holes are patched with money. Lights flash in the window, illuminating statistics that show how many students of color end up in prison as opposed to college.

Mancha knows these statistics through personal experience, watching classmates encounter academic and social obstacles as they move through high school. In addition to enrolling in the early college program at Brackenridge, Mancha found a welcome outlet in the arts, a connection proven to increase graduation rates.

Jesus Mancha (center) works with his team on their exhibit for SAY Sí’s show “Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal.” Credit: Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

The National Endowment for the Arts conducted a study of minority and low-income students that showed an 18% difference in dropout rates for those with high (4%) versus low (22%) arts involvement. The students at SAY Sí fare even better – 100% of students engaged in the after school programming at the arts nonprofit graduate from high school.

SAY Sí is a nationally recognized arts organization that provides out-of-school time programming in a variety of art mediums. During the school year SAY Sí enrolls 150-200 students from across the city, with priority going to inner-city and low-income students.

Of those enrolled 55% of the youth are considered low-income, very low-income, or extremely low-income. About 25% come from San Antonio ISD, where SAY Sí is located. Additional districts represented include Alamo Heights, East Central, Edgewood, Harlandale, Judson, Medina Valley, North East, Northside, Schertz-Cibolo-Universal City, South San, and Southwest ISDs. Private and charter schools are represented, as well as homeschool students.

The Stories Seldom Told series is an annual project based on issues that students feel are not discussed enough, but matter to their lives. This year, the issue was inequity in education, something many of the students experience.

“People don’t often ask the kids” about their experience of inequality, SAY Sí Communications Manager Stephen Guzman said.

Before the students dive into these complex issues, their mentors at SAY Sí spend time educating themselves so that they can steer the students toward the issues from a balanced perspective. The goal is a mature and productive conversation.

“We want this to be an informed exhibition,” Guzman said.

State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-San Antonio), Trinity University Associate Professor of sociology and anthropology Christine Drennon, and St. Mary’s University law professor and MALDEF attorney Albert Kauffman spoke to the students on inequity in education. Kauffman represented the Edgewood School District in one of its lawsuits against the State of Texas over unequal school funding. Drennon, who is Trinity’s director of urban studies, has done extensive research on the roots of San Antonio’s inequity.

Students drew from this discussion, their own experiences, and research on issues of inequity in education. Some incorporated individual experiences, like the virtual reality simulation of a day in a special education classroom. Others used large data sets to visualize issues. One exhibit uses colored pencils scattered across a map to illustrate dropout rates for various ethnicities.

The exhibit opens Friday, July 7, at 6 p.m., with a second opening on July 8 at the same time. A show in SAY Sí’s black box theater starts at 7 p.m. both nights. In addition to the channeling the challenging subject matter, Guzman said the students were encouraged to think about immersive installation media.

Andrew Mair-Gonzeles, 17, (left) and Miguel Salazar, 17, show posters for their theater performance at SAY Sí. Credit: Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

The show is interactive. Upon entry, visitors will be assigned a zip code that will determine how they experience each installation. Visitors with a wealthy zip code will be given a flashlight to navigate a labyrinth constructed out of standardized test keys. Visitors from a poorer zip code will be given a glow stick for the same task. Entry and seating in the black box theater will also be designated by assigned zip codes.

Throughout the show, patrons will touch the world of Crissandre Academy, a dystopian educational institution based on student experiences with “zero tolerance” discipline policies in public schools and the “no excuses” academic culture of inner-city charter schools.

Both systems, says student artist Andrew Mair-Gonzalez, 17, aim for greater control over the student body with one goal: graduation. In the students’ vision of the future of education, rigor, punishment, and conformity have supplanted inquiry, innovation, and creativity.

Lockers of fictional Crissandre Academy students stand throughout the exhibit, and patrons are welcome to look through the journals and books inside.

A journal from an interactive exhibit at SAY Sí’s show “Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal.” Credit: Bekah McNeel / Rivard Report

Some of the journals’ content has been informed by conversations the students have had as they discussed the experiences of students in zero-tolerance schools or inner-city charters. One of the most challenging parts of the project, Guzman said, was the internal process by which students had to place themselves on a spectrum of privilege. As uncomfortable as it was for Mancha to place himself at a “ghetto school,” other students experienced discomfort in their relative privilege.

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“How often do young people get to have these conversations in a safe space?” Guzman asked.

Without these kinds of connections, most students at Brackenridge don’t realize how many factors are working against them, Mancha said. His eyes were opened as he connected to students from around the city through SAY Sí. This is also when he realized how the reputation of a school like Brackenridge could hurt him and his peers. He feels motivated to overcome the negative perception and sees programs like the early college high school as a step toward culture change.

“It keeps students at a level where they know they need to exceed expectations,” Mancha said. Still, he knows that “where you went to high school” matters in San Antonio, and some are inclined to distrust those from what’s perceived as the wrong side of town.

The issues confronted by Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal are as much about perception and experience as they are about the policies and operations that weigh on inner-city schools. For students attending those schools, there is little difference.

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.