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. McNeel

Most 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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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.