AISD: a segregated district, then and now
The reasons for the racial divide are as numerous as the ways in which it shapes the student experience
March 26, 2018
Though Leander Thompson’s parents were in and out of jail frequently when he was a kid, he always managed to push himself to succeed in elementary school. When he got to middle school, however, his academic life went downhill when he noticed something about himself.
“Middle school was when I became aware that I was noticeably different,” Thompson said. “It was not until the first day of middle school that I realized I had to officially split from my elementary gang. I went from being a straight-A student to an F student. Not because I was dumb but because I was unhappy.”
Thompson had gone into his honors classes looking for his friends to sit with, but he soon realized that now, his was one of the only African-American faces in the room.
“I had no friends to relate to,” he said. “I felt like everyone looked down on me. Not having class with my friends encouraged me to be late all the time just to walk them to theirs. During passing periods me and my friends would walk around the whole school just so I did not have to be on time. Coming into the magnet program I was already behind because I never got the memo that we were assigned to read a memoir. I had never even heard of doing homework in the summer. When it came to buying materials for big projects, I was late getting them because we did not have a car. Everything in general was more difficult.”
Unfortunately, Thompson’s story is a familiar one across the nation but particularly in Austin.
A tale of two Austins
If one looks at a map of Austin and considers the racial distribution of the city’s population, something becomes starkly apparent: Austin is a segregated city. The west side of I-35 is overwhelmingly white and affluent, while the east side is where most of those living in poverty and people of color reside.
In 2015, researchers Richard Florida and Charlotta Mellander found that while Austin is one of the most rapidly growing urban areas, it is also one of the most economically segregated metropolitan areas in the United States. Additionally, it is the only city in America experiencing both overall population growth and a decline in the percentage of its African-American population.
According to city demographics and projections, African-Americans once made up about 25 percent of Austin’s population, but that number has fallen to 8 percent and will drop further to about 5 percent.
In the past, white people predominantly occupied suburban areas, while minorities lived in the hearts of cities. In Austin currently, however, the distribution is the exact opposite: as Austin gets more expensive, African-American families move out to suburbs while more affluent white citizens move en masse to the downtown area. The black population in Pflugerville has quintupled since 2000, according to census data.
In a University of Texas study, 56 percent of African-Americans who left Austin to move to surrounding suburbs stated that they moved out because the cost of living was too high for them to stay, while 24 percent of respondents said they were unhappy with the quality of education their children were receiving in east Austin’s schools.
“Austin has a horrific student achievement gap,” says Dr. Kevin Foster, a McCallum parent and UT professor specializing in race and education. “Black students are really badly underperforming, and one of the things you see as a result is the exodus of black families from Austin schools. You have parents who are looking at the situation after several years and saying, ‘Forget it, I’m going to go and put my kids in Pflugerville, or Manor.’ They go to other school districts they think are safer for their kids, and where they think they’ll have a better experience.”
This divide hurts the whole city not just individual citizens; the research nonprofit PolicyLink found that in 2012, the Austin-area economy would have received a $21.7 billion boost, a 22 percent increase, if people of color enjoyed the same employment and wage distribution as white residents.
Race and class are tightly intertwined; the median income for black households in Austin is about 40 percent lower than those in white households. Additionally, more than one-third of the children of color living in Travis County live under the poverty line, more than five times the rate of white children living in poverty.
These segregated neighborhoods overwhelmingly result in segregated schools. According to district data, black and Hispanic children make up 90 percent or more of the student population in more than half of schools in Austin; and in 50 schools in the district, 90 percent of students are from low-income households.
Another UT study found that in Austin, schools are segregated by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status and language, a phenomenon the researchers term “triple segregation.” Schools suffering from triple segregation are half as likely to be rated as “exemplary.”
But it’s not just Austin; the link between race and wealth holds true across the country. According to the Federal Reserve, in 2017 the median white family held 13 times as much net wealth as the median black family and 10 times as much as the median Latino family.
Additionally, the rest of the country is similarly segregated by race and socioeconomic status. According to a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, half of black children live in neighborhoods with a poverty rate above 20 percent.
Lower-income neighborhoods have, on average, higher rates of violent crime and weak infrastructure for institutions such as parks and playgrounds, childcare and preschool programs, and extracurricular activities such as clubs and sports teams. Multiple studies have found that children in high-poverty neighborhoods are also less likely to interact on an extended basis with employed adults, causing them to become jaded about the value of education.
According to a study released by Stanford University, the four factors that most affect achievement gaps are racial gaps in income, poverty rates, unemployment rates and educational attainment by parents and other family members. The researchers also explain how many different factors go into achievement gaps, saying that “racial differences in children’s home environments include differences in opportunities for learning at home–differences in the amount of time parents have to read to their children; in children’s access to computers, libraries and museums; in parental investments in tutoring and other educational activities; and differences in parental stress and depression. … High-income and highly-educated parents have, on average, more resources to foster and support their children’s academic skills outside of school.”
Another systematic factor that goes into school segregation is an inequitable school funding system. Past research has shown that standardized test scores reflect more inequality in states, such as Texas, that rely on local property taxes to fund schools. Forty to 60 percent of each school’s budget depends on local funding, which perpetuates a cycle in which wealthier schools attract wealthier parents, who in turn contribute to the wealth of the school, which then becomes even wealthier and attracts more wealthy parents, and the cycle continues. Meanwhile, though schools with low-income students may receive extra government funding, it is still not enough to compensate for the divide.
A history of discrimination
March 22 marks the 90th anniversary of Austin’s infamous Koch and Fowler city plan. The city of Austin adopted this plan in 1928, and it designated an area east of Interstate-35 as Austin’s “Negro district,” establishing most of the city’s segregated facilities there in an effort to push the black population into the area. An area south of the “Negro district” was similarly designated for Hispanic families.
The high school designated for African-American students was the original L. C. Anderson School. Its campus now hosts the Alternative Learning Center.
In the early 1900s, as Austin’s Latino population grew exponentially, AISD established multiple schools for Spanish-speaking children, first and foremost the West Avenue School, which remained in operation until 1945. Superintendent A. N. McCallum, spearheading the school’s opening, responded to protesting parents by saying that the “children were not transferred because they are Mexicans, but because their inability to speak English makes them an impediment to the progress of the English speaking children.” Historians at the Austin History Center have since suggested that the schools likely targeted students based on their Mexican ethnicity, rather than the primary language they spoke. Those with Mexican-sounding surnames were segregated into the schools regardless of what language they spoke. Civil rights lawsuits in the 1970s found that Austin had intentionally discriminated against Hispanic children on the basis of ethnicity, arguing that “a benign motive will not excuse the discriminatory effects of the school board’s actions.”
The AISD school board order that schools be integrated came in August of 1955, but it was not fully implemented across all grade levels until June of 1963. Thirteen black teenagers were the first to integrate Austin’s schools; one enrolled at McCallum, five at Travis, and seven at Austin High. The first student to integrate McCallum was Margie Hendricks, then 15.
Austin’s desegregation order was lifted in 1980; afterwards, the city no longer was obligated to use busing or any other initiatives to proactively promote integration. Some social scientists have argued that rescinding integration court orders prompted many cities across the country to rapidly resegregate.
What segregation means for students and schools
Schools that are segregated by race and income are far more likely to underperform academically as opposed to whiter, wealthier schools, a concept known as the “achievement gap.” For example, in 2017, a third of black and 40 percent of Latino students passed a statewide standardized test, while 80 percent of white students passed that same test. Similarly, 53 percent of white students who took at least one AP class passed the test, opposed to two percent of black students and 33 percent of Hispanic students, according to district data.
AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, instructor Elida Bonet says that one of the harder parts of supporting her students of color is encouraging them to take AP classes.
“If you’re not doing pre-APs and APs, college is going to be really hard,” Bonet said. “We really need to push our students to be in those classes, but then make sure that those classes are welcoming for them because the major complaint that comes out of their mouths is, ‘I’m the only person of color.’ Last year, we did something; we had a student who was the only one in her class. It was pre-AP, and she said, ‘I’m the only one there; nobody talks to me, when they say to work with somebody, nobody asks me to be in their group,’ and I had two other students who were in the same class, but at a different period. So they were like, ‘Why don’t you switch to our class so we could all three work together?’ So we did… and she did pass the class because they had a cohort, other people she could ask for help without feeling dumb.”
Though in many states, districts spend more per pupil on disadvantaged student populations, low-income and minority students are still more likely to have inexperienced teachers and a greater teacher turnover rate. There is a general consensus that poorer school districts must pay more to attract teachers to compensate for reduced school safety, leadership stability and availability of support staff.
“We call it an achievement gap, but the reality is… if you look, there’s a question to be asked as to, ‘Who is given what level of instruction? Where do the most experienced teachers teach school-to-school, and within a school? Who do they teach?’” Dr. Foster said. “There’s a quality of the circumstances surrounding the students that reframe the conversation a little bit.”
A study from the Center for Public Policy Priorities found that black and Latino children in Austin are more likely to attend low-income schools, live in poverty, have fewer teachers with experience and be malnourished. One in three black children and one in four Latino children in Austin live in poverty; meanwhile, five percent of white children and four percent of Asian children do. 61 percent of black and 52 percent of Latino children attend schools with high teacher turnover rates.
Bonet says that many socioeconomic factors beyond students’ control can negatively affect their achievement.
“If you’re hungry, then your brain is just not working well,” she said. “If you don’t have a way to get to school because for some reason they have to be brought to school, but mom and dad are working, and they aren’t off at the time and they’re coming in late, or they’re using the bus, so you are not having consistent transportation. Having to work. That is a huge one that I don’t think we realize even as teachers, the impact that has. We have so many students who work not just to be able to go to the movies and to go for dinner, [but] they’re working because they’re pretty much supporting their entire families. We don’t realize–I don’t think I ever realized until I started working here with the AVID students–I had kids working 40 hours. And they’re not doing it just to buy the fancy shoes, they’re doing it because they’re paying for their car, they’re paying for their phone, they’re paying their insurance, and they’re helping with meals. … Then another part that has influence is if you read as a kid, you develop a love for reading, and even if you don’t love it, at least you read well. But if you’re not a good reader, you pretty much are going to have a really hard time in school.”
An AISD policy allows parent-teacher associations to raise funds for their schools privately, which ends up primarily benefiting high-income, majority-white schools, helping to add even more extracurricular activities, supplemental programs and experienced staffers. Higher-income parents have more time to devote to their school, and often wield more knowledge and influence that they can use to advocate for their children.
Additionally, more affluent parents tend to have children who remain affluent later in life, while children in low-income families tend to remain impoverished. One reason for this rigid divide could be a different level of support: 80 percent of children raised by parents who earned college diplomas report that they were encouraged to attend a four-year college, while only 29 percent of first-generation students say the same.
Bonet reiterates that teachers and administrators need to consider the out-of-school factors that may keep students from succeeding.
“There’s so many tentacles to it; you have to hit it from all these sides,” she said. “Basic food, shelter, because if many of those are missing or not adequate, the student is not well-prepared to come to school. What experiences have they had that we take for granted? I think sometimes we think every parent reads to them, takes them to the museum, takes them to the park, does arts and crafts with them and all these things, but that’s not happening in every home.”
What can be done?
AISD superintendent Dr. Paul Cruz says that the district is aware of the situation and constantly is striving to address it.
“You have to just call it out at the leadership level,” Cruz said. “When [my team and I] meet with principals and our staff members, this is actually what we talk about, and we say, ‘These are the areas where we’re doing well, and we’re proud of that, and here are the areas where we’re not doing well, and we know we need to change it.’ We review data as an administrative team and then make changes that are necessary, and then also resource budget for those changes, whether it’s to bring additional teachers to lower class size, to bring at a different curriculum [or] different methods of instruction.”
Integration benefits all students, not just children of color; instilling the value of diversity promotes critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Ninety-six percent of major employers said in a survey that it is important that their employees be “comfortable working with colleagues, customers and/or clients from diverse cultural backgrounds.”
The benefits of integration affect more than just the education of each individual child; researchers at UC Berkeley found that African-Americans who attend integrated schools make more money as adults, and live longer and healthier lives; they also pass down these benefits to subsequent generations. They also found that white students who attended integrated schools had substantially less racial prejudice and have a tendency to live in integrated neighborhoods as adults.
So is increased integration a priority for the current administration in Washington? The U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, recently ended the Opening Doors, Expanding Opportunities grant program, which was meant to support districts in expanding their socioeconomic diversity. She has also prioritized and promoted school choice, especially charter schools. Experts on education disagree, but past studies have suggested that charter schools intensify existing segregation. One study from Duke University found that more than two-thirds of charter students attend schools that are intensely segregated.
One reason magnet schools can be more segregated is due to a behavior termed “white flight,” where white people, consciously or unconsciously, seek out communities that are predominantly white. Multiple researchers have suggested that white families in majority-black neighborhoods are more likely to enroll their children in private, charter or magnet schools than white families in majority-white neighborhoods, regardless of income.
Magnet programs, however, can also be beneficial in attracting more affluent families to struggling schools. One example of the benefits of magnet programs is Blackshear Elementary School, which once was an African-American-only school. In 2011, less than one percent of the student population was white, and about 98 percent of students were identified as low-income. One year after adding a fine arts magnet program, the percentage of white students increased to 10 percent and that of low-income students dropped 17 percent.
“Students [who] have sort of an interest in specific areas, they can actually pursue those interests in a different school if that particular program is not offered on [their neighborhood] campus,” Cruz said. “We also offer, through our transfer options; we have what we call diversity of choice, we have majority to minority transfers. … Some of those we provide transportation for, some we don’t, so students can attend school where they want to go, and it may not be the school that’s right in their neighborhood.”
Another special program that could attract a larger, more diverse assortment of students is dual-immersion language that teaches children English and another language. These programs have the benefit of aiding ESL, or English as a Second Language, students while still appealing to white, affluent families, as it gives their children a useful lifelong skill. Adding a dual-language program at Becker Elementary boosted enrollment and reduced the number of low-income students by 18 percent.
To help a number of struggling high school campuses, AISD has added a number of Early College High School programs, which allow students to take a number of courses for college credit, thus allowing some students to graduate with an associate’s degree.
In an effort to add more rigorous academic offerings to schools on the east side, the district instituted the Science Academy at LBJ High School in 1985 and the Liberal Arts Academy at the now-closed Johnston High School in 1988. They have since combined into LASA, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, but the goals of the two original schools remain unfulfilled. LBJ-zoned students often do not benefit from having LASA in their district. LASA and LBJ students have different bell schedules, clubs and classes; LASA was originally a magnet program at LBJ, but 10 years ago, LASA was separated into its own school (remaining in the same building). According to district data, only 12 students out of 900 at LBJ are white, compared to LASA’s white student population of 56 percent.
Recognizing this divide, the district has changed the admission system: 20 percent of spots will now be considered using factors such as race, language spoken at home, whether or not parents went to college and socioeconomic status, while 80 percent will remain completely merit-based. Similarly, at the Kealing magnet school, 50 percent of the spots will be awarded to the top candidates overall, while the other 50 percent will be the top candidates from different elementary schools across Austin.
One obstacle to special programs for minority families is a lack of transportation. Provisions banning federal funding for transporting students for “carry[ing] out a plan of racial desegregation” have been included in every education spending bill since 1974. Studies have shown that parents of minorities are more likely to choose magnet schools when transportation is provided; when it is not, they tend to stick with their neighborhood school.
One promising solution that also has a low financial burden to the district is a system of controlled-choice, in which parents rank their top picks for schools in a lottery system, and about half of each school’s seats are reserved for lower-income students and half for higher-income students. This system is more popular among parents than forced citywide busing, as they often prefer for their children to attend schools closer to the home.
Many districts are now focusing on integration that is based on socioeconomic status rather than race. The Supreme Court ruled in 2007 that it is unconstitutional for schools to implement integration efforts on the basis of race. Additionally, while it still often has the same effect as integrating by race, desegregating by income also aids children from white working-class families who may not benefit from desegregation efforts focusing solely on race.
AISD launched a pilot plan for integrating schools in 2016, focusing on adding special programs to attract more affluent families to District 1, which encompasses much of east Austin and includes many of the most segregated schools in Austin.
Another issue to consider is that while more than 50 percent of the public school population consists of students of color, according to the Department of Education, more than 80 percent of teachers are white. The makeup of the faculty should be considered because studies have shown that white teachers are about 30 percent less likely than black teachers to predict that a black student will earn a college degree, and 40 percent less likely to predict that that same student will complete high school.
White teachers also have higher levels in implicit bias when it comes to disciplining students of color. Minority students account for 85 percent of the population of the Alternative Learning School, AISD’s school for students who have struggled with disciplinary infractions. Texas Appleseed, a research nonprofit, found that a student who is suspended in ninth grade is twice as likely to drop out, and dropping out increases the likelihood of a student ending up in prison. This link is known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Studies have shown that having a strong teacher role model in elementary school has a deeply positive, long-lasting effect on students, including reduced likelihood of teen pregnancy and a higher likelihood of earning a college diploma and increased earnings in adulthood. For black students, having a black teacher in elementary school cut dropout rates by 39 percent, and made them 29 percent more likely to express interest in going to college.
“Among teachers, there are not always consistent expectations of students, and sometimes, [there is, let’s] call it a gentle prejudice, perhaps,” Dr. Foster said. “I think it has to do with teacher preparation and teacher training leading to teacher expectations, so I put a lot on teachers, and then we also should put a lot on individual schools. Once schools get a reputation as being this way or that way, it too becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. We know that then in some schools, some kids of certain races are kicked out more than others. The infractions are always discretionary. You have structures that treat kids differently, and when you treat kids differently, lo and behold, kids perform differently.”
One possible reason people of color are less likely to become teachers is the cost of the education necessary for the job; one solution proposed has been state-funded student loan forgiveness and scholarships for prospective teachers of color.
Another potential solution to promoting integration would be to keep low-income families in Austin in the district by promoting affordable housing. One proposed policy is for the city to provide tax incentives to encourage mixed developments–not 0 or 100 percent affordable housing–to prevent the isolation of the wealthy. Another would to be to encourage inclusion rather than exclusionary zoning, which among other regulations sets minimum lot sizes, preventing smaller and more affordable units. Studies have shown that inclusionary zoning policies can help economic desegregation as much as any school policy.
To this end, when AISD recently sold eight pieces of land, the district had each buyer sign a covenant before the sale, promising to make a quarter of the single-family units affordable housing.
There are other solutions to be considered on a more personal scale. The national AVID program is designed to help first-generation, low-income students go to college. Bonet says that it is necessary to support these kids because otherwise, they do not have the encouragement they need to succeed.
“You have somebody who’s looking after you, who’s encouraging you, who, when it’s time to select courses, says, ‘You should be taking pre-AP, you should be doing this, these are the classes you may need for college,’” she said. “[I’m] trying to do the guidance that many times in families where the parents have gone to college, they know, and that’s part of the regular dinner conversation, but here, because a majority of their parents have not gone to college, that’s not part of their conversation.”
Bonet has worked with AVID for four years; before that she worked as a teacher and college counselor, but she says that this job has been the most rewarding for her.
“I’ve been a teacher for a while, and I’ve been in private schools, public and charters; it is here where I have really–and I have felt it before but never like here–that I really feel like what I’m doing is making a difference,” Bonet said. “To realize that one kid that goes to college, you’re not only changing their life, you’re changing the following generations, and you’re even helping their parents, because now they will be able to have a career, and they will be able to support their parents when their parents get older.”
Other programs to help students in this situation include universal early childhood education, which can help close the achievement gap by making up for factors such as less time spent reading in the home, mental health support services, healthcare programs, and nutrition efforts. For example, Austin ISD reduced the Latino dropout rate to a third of what it was five years ago by offering more mental-health and tutoring services.
AISD recently began a program to help give at-risk children positive role models; nine schools participate in the nationwide My Brother’s Keeper initiative, in which chronically absent male students of color are connected with mentors to help improve their attendance and achievement.
There are also programs that educate about implicit bias, which experts recommend all students, teachers and administrators participate in at least once a year. Additionally, AISD recently implemented an African-American Achievement plan, in which at-risk black students perform regular check-ins with principals, and teachers and administrators are encouraged to utilize restorative practices instead of strict discipline.
Bonet says that it is beneficial to both teachers and students to have honest dialogues about race and how they can help.
“I think that we have really had a lot of conversations with faculty,” she said. “We sit around saying, ‘What can we do? How can we help? How do we keep kids in pre-AP and AP?’, because you walk into a pre-AP or AP class, and there’s almost no minorities. They may be one or two. How do you make them feel comfortable? How do you make sure that you’re maybe checking in on them a little more, just to make sure that they’re doing it? Silly things like, ‘You’re in a class, work with a partner,’ well, they don’t have a friend in that class, so nobody asks them, ‘Hey, do you want to work with me?’ I don’t think the other kids are doing that on purpose, saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to work with her,’ but it’s like, ‘I already have a friend here, so I’m going to work with that friend,’ … but I think more and more we’re getting more teachers aware because we’re talking about it, how to reach out to that student to keep them in the classroom, but at the same time, not making them feel like, ‘Oh, you’re the token African-American, or the token Latino.’”
AVID students are required to have a grade of at least 80 percent in regular classes and at least 75 percent in pre-AP classes.
“For a lot of people, that is what’s expected at home,” Bonet said. “The more you expect of a student, the more that student is going to give you. But if all you hear is, all you need is a 70. … I had a student in my second year here tell me ‘You’re the first person who’s told me that a 70 isn’t good enough.’ So where’s the bar? I always say, we all need money to go to college. Seventies are not going to give you money. Not at all.”
Fortunately, Leander Thompson said that he found strong mentors among his teachers, and they helped push him to overcome the challenge of feeling alone in the classroom. He is now a student at Tuskegee University. Thompson urges all teachers to look out for their kids who may be struggling with circumstances beyond their control.
“Get to know your student,” he said. “Adults can help by acknowledging the fact that every child is different. Not every child starts school knowing the same things, or they may be used to learning things a certain way. In the classroom, teachers should strive to make their students feel comfortable. … There’s more to teaching than just teaching, and the older I get I realize this.”
Dr. Foster similarly urges teachers and administrators to do all they can to support those who, for whatever reason, feel systematically discouraged to succeed.
“This is not just a national challenge, it’s also an Austin-specific challenge, but it’s also a challenge that can be addressed,” Foster said. “You have many kids of all backgrounds who have tremendous potential, and it’s up to us as educators to tap into and build upon that potential.”