Urban Fabric: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Families

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Former King William resident Deb Cano started the annual Easter Egg hunt about a decade ago; today Deb Mueller and her family keep it going. Parents drop off a dozen eggs per child ahead of time, to be hidden at Upper Mill Park on for the hunt. Photo courtesy Cherise Rohr Allegrini

Former King William resident Deb Cano started the annual Easter Egg hunt about a decade ago; today Deb Mueller and her family keep it going. Parents drop off a dozen eggs per child ahead of time, to be hidden at Upper Mill Park on for the hunt. Photo courtesy Cherise Rohr Allegrini.

Bekah S. McNeelMost Commonly Believed Myth (MCBM) in San Antonio: people with school-age children can’t live downtown.

I see it at work in the most disheartening and oft-repeated conversation of my adult life:

Acquaintance: So where do you live?

Me: Downtown, in Dignowity Hill.

Acquaintance: That is so cool! What a great area. We would love to live downtown, but, you know…we’ve got kids in school.

This is followed by a sheepish shrug, as though living downtown with school-aged kids were akin to climbing K2 without toes (which, by the way, has been done).

That sheepish shrug, the gesture of the resigned, is what the Urban Land Institute (ULI) seeks to change.

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal

District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal

At a ULI luncheon yesterday, March 27, District One Councilman Diego Bernal opened the discussion frankly.

“If this is going to be the decade of downtown, it has to include our schools,” Bernal said.

Bernal challenged attendees with two questions: What can downtown schools do for us? What can we do for them?

The ambitious goals of SA2020 and the heavy investment of developers like Kit Goldsbury and ULI Chair David Adelman hinge on the ability of downtown San Antonio to attract a broad range of residents.

“When you think about people making choices about where they want to live,” Adelmen told the audience at the Pearl Stables. “Neighborhood schools are a big part of that.”

Desiree Madrid's class at Bonham Academy in Southtown. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Desiree Madrid’s class at Bonham Academy in Southtown. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

No one understands the appeal of choice neighborhoods like those selling the houses. ULI teamed up with the San Antonio Board of Realtors to create a focus group exploring buyers perceptions of downtown. What was keeping them from selling downtown as heavily as they sold Alamo Heights and the Northside?

The focus group data is revealing: When a buyer is new to the city, dependent on the expertise of the real estate professional, most realtors do not describe downtown as “family friendly.” The schools are labeled as “scary” with high dropout rates and low parent-involvement.

A genuine lack of affordable, desirable housing stock further compounds the problem.

IDEA Public Schools' students participate in their small group instruction, a fundamental of IDEA's elementary academic model BetterIDEA. Photo courtesy of IDEA.

IDEA Public Schools’ students participate in small group instruction. Photo courtesy of IDEA.

ULI has enlisted a wide array of partners to engage the challenges. They hope to produce a web-based resource for realtors and home buyers on the many options for public, charter, and private education within a 3-mile radius of Main Plaza. An infill development pilot program aims to have 26 new affordable single family homes in the inner city by 2014.

Adelman is also confident that more and more families are willing to live in dense, urban settings, meaning that the new multi-family structures going up around downtown might not be reserved for pre or post-children families.

Ed Garza took the stage to acknowledge the challenges and successes in the city’s largest school district. One of those issues is income segregation, a harsh reality in San Antonio.

“We are a very segregated city, and SAISD feels that effect, ” Garza said, “We don’t use that as an excuse; it’s a challenge.”

Another problem is scale. Improving one school is monumental enough. Replicating it across 100 schools is herculean. But if the challenge is 50,000 kids deep, so is the opportunity. Improving SAISD will impact more kids in San Antonio than any other initiative ever could.

Currently, bright spots are shining through in the district, and Garza equipped attendees with myth-busting data on the TEA exemplary schools in and around downtown. Internal charters like Bonham Academy and Young Women’s Leadership Academy, stand alone magnet like Fox Tech High School and remarkable programs like the International Baccalaureate at Luther Burbank High School.

Karen Villuendas, Tina Valdez, Ilana Villagran, and Belen Bonilla: college bound and loving it.

YWLA students (from left) Karen Villuendas, Tina Valdez, Ilana Villagran, and Belen Bonilla: college bound and loving it.

Garza believes in downtown and its future, and he’s not alone. “When you have Kit Goldsbury, Graham Weston, Charles Butt, and Red McCombs all investing in downtown, that says something,” Garza said.

One of those investors, Weston, closed the luncheon with an inspirational rally cry for a “city on the rise,” like San Antonio.

He recounted the recruiting losses he had suffered to cities like Austin and Blacksburg, VA (so much so that he eventually opened offices in both cities), and remembered the email that inspired him to invest in the renaissance of San Antonio. In that email, a recruit told Weston that he could not move to San Antonio because it lacked a start-up scene, downtown life, and quality public schools.

“(My goal is) to try to make this place a place my kids would want to move home to,”  he said.

Graham Weston

Graham Weston

That task, he charged, belongs to all of us. Whether we are advocates, innovators, or those with the resources to solve particular problems, we are all part of San Antonio’s future.

“The people we want to move downtown are the people who believe. The people who are doers. The people who want to shape San Antonio,” he said.

Weston’s confidence in capitalism leads him to believe that healthy competition between charter, private, and public schools will only raise the bar for all. If parents show up and demand results, they will get them.

Which brings us back to Councilman Bernal’s questions:

What can our schools do for us? They can become an asset for those who live here already and for those who follow.

What can we do for our schools? We can invest, support, promote and expect the best.


Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.


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14 thoughts on “Urban Fabric: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Families

  1. There’s also my super awesome school The Alameda School for Art + Design for high schoolers who are driven and interested in arts integrated learning! Tuition free.

  2. There is no question that downtown San Antonio will never become a place for families to live without better schools in the downtown area.

    The question is, how to achieve that. There are two choices. The first choice will bring immediate improvements, the second will take generations and likely never succeed.

    The first choice is school choice — allowing parents to take all or a portion of the dollars the state allocates for their child and attend a private or charter school. Downtown needs more charter schools and private schools and the Texas legislature may lift the cap on charter schools this session in Austin. Also under consideration is a Taxpayer Savings Grant bill sponsored by Senator Donna Campbell(SB 1575) and Representative Scott Turner (HB 3497) to allow parents to take a $5,000 grant from the state (which results in a $3,000 savings to the state)and attend any private school. (Average private school tuition in San Antonio elementary schools is less than $5,000). See http://heartland.org/policy-documents/making-texas-public-education-more-efficient-taxpayer-savings-grant-program-0

    As shown in the 22 other states in which school choice options like this are in place, this leads to profound improvements in the educational outcomes of the children in the program, and it helps improve (or at worst, does not harm) the public schools from which these students come. Just look at the data from these states at http://www.edchoice.org/Research/Our-Studies—Reports.aspx.

    The other option is to work through the huge local, state and federal bureaucracy to try improving the public schools in place. People have been trying to do that for generations and little has changed. You could invest millions of dollars and man hours in this effort as others have for 30 or 40 years while downtown continues to decay and thousands of children drop out as they do today in the San Antonio School district.

    Nothing will bar families from moving downtown more than the lack of educational choices they have today. As someone who enjoys the revitalized Pearl Brewery area, but who lives in the Alamo Heights school district, I look forward to the day when middle class and lower income families also have the choice to live downtown instead of fleeing to the better suburban school districts as they are forced to do today — if they have the means.

  3. Great article Bekah. I also think there are not a lot of realtors that are not well versed in downtown. I got email from a friend today and here is what it said, “My husband and I are getting more serious about moving downtown, at least to try it for a year or 2. We contacted our normal realtor, but he said he doesn’t have much experience in the downtown market.”

  4. Bonham Academy is a great program. When the organization Children At Risk (an advocacy group) ranked 116 middle schools across the entire Greater San Antonio area, Bonham ranked #9. But there’s another in-district charter program you’ve overlooked—Austin Academy, ranked #3 on the same list. (Number 2 is YWLA, again an SAISD school.) Austin doesn’t (yet) get the PR that Bonham and YWLA enjoy, but it’s a fantastic institution that turns in impressive results year over year.

    SAISD does indeed have bright spots. You’d be surprised by some of the innovative programs. I’d challenge Jeff on the point of being forced to “flee to better suburban school districts.” Don’t buy the hype. We actually moved to the downtown area from Schertz, and now enjoy an impressive elementary / middle school that out-performs our former suburban school. Surprised? We were, too, once we started doing a little research.

  5. Please put Hawthorne Academy on the list of amazing downtown schools. My son was in parochial school for two years and did not thrive as much as he has at Hawthorne. We have been there 4 years now and see an ever increasing parent presence, a very committed group of teachers and administrators, and a thriving community. It’s another of SAISD’s well-kept secrets!

    • No question about it. SAISD has some good schools. But the key to that positive learning experience was the ability of the parent to CHOOSE. There are many other schools in SAISD that have hundreds of kids who are not learning adequately. There are even kids in otherwise good schools who are not learning and would benefit from a different school.

      A family is not likely to choose to live downtown in the attendance zone of a good elementary school if the middle school their child will eventually be assigned to is low performing. More charter schools and choice would take that negative factor out of the equation when deciding where to live.

      • Yet many MANY families live in downtown (more in Southtown or near North in the Hawthorne catchment area). Currently our Middle School is Bonham (K-8). And while the MS isn’t quite up to par as the elementary, the same factors that made the elementary a quality school are in play for the middle school. So too, will it be with the High School (Brackenridge). We do recognise this issue, but instead of decamping to the suburbs and losing out on all Living Urban has to offer our families, we are working to make the schools where we live worth attending. That said, from my perspective, ALL Texas schools suffer from the same problems – lack of funding and reliance upon tests. I would no more live in AHISD or NEISD than SAISD. The same problems exist: teach to the test.

  6. Everyone talks about Bonham, which is a great school, but one overlooked elementary school just north of downtown (and two blocks away from the new Pearl development) that receives very good ratings and reviews is Hawthorne Academy. It’s a K-8 SAISD charter academy that often flies under the radar when talking about schools in the downtown area. Hawthorne has partnered with Trinity University and serves as a training ground for Trinity grad students seeking their Masters degree in teaching. My family and I recently moved into the Government Hill Historic District (east of Broadway, across from the Pearl) because housing costs were less than Southtown, and we liked Hawthorne just as much as Bonham.

    • Hawthorne is a “Core Knowledge” school. Core Knowledge is an excellent curriculum developed by E.D. Hirsch. I would put my kids there in a second. Unfortunately, as successful as the curriculum is, only a couple of schools in all of San Antonio use it. Alamo Heights used it for a time and then dropped it for no apparent reason.

    • Go Grant! Full disclosure though, you are a Trinity grad! Rock it! And to be fair, Hawthorne Academy is not overlooked, it has been known as exceptional for a good while, but it can fall prey, as can all SAISD schools, to cyclical disengagement of families and teachers.

  7. Tagline correction: the picture from Bonham Academy is of Desiree Madrid, not Christina Medrano.

  8. All of the exemplars mentioned from SAISD operate as internal charters (or magnet) which allows a greater level of curricular autonomy, requires buy-in/commitment of students & their families to the school’s programmatic offerings, and as such have criteria for student “fit” which lead to tailored, successful outcomes. It is not only about the ability of parents to CHOOSE, but also the ability of the teachers and administrators to be trusted to CHOOSE.

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