When Lexa Rijos and Jamie Roadman moved to southeast San Antonio 16 years ago, people warned them that there weren’t any good public schools in the area.
But when they heard a new public Montessori elementary was opening up down the block last year, they eagerly enrolled their 3-year-old son Santiago.
“We have friends whose kids go to Montessori school, and it sounded like a really neat way of teaching,” Roadman said. “It wasn’t something we had set our mind to beforehand, but it sort of fell into our lap and we’ve really enjoyed it.”
Not only was the curriculum enticing, but the school is designed to serve a mix of socioeconomic levels — some kids from middle class families, and some from low income families. For Rijos and Roadman, that has been a valuable benefit. For economically segregated San Antonio, it was something new.
Rijos is a nurse practitioner and Roadman builds string instruments like guitars. In the past, they might have chosen a private preschool for their son, or moved to a school district with a better reputation.
However, specialty schools like Steele Montessori Academy on the city’s southeast side have started attracting more middle class families to the San Antonio Independent School District.
In the last few years, some of those specialized schools have become so popular there’s a risk that the schools will attract wealthier families at the expense of working class families. Even though the vast majority of the district’s students are low income, these high-demand schools are serving more and more middle class students each year.
“I can show you data of my most popular schools of who applies,” said Mohammed Choudhury, the district administrator in charge of enrollment. “If I just let the pool reflect the way the cards fall, then the school would become an island of affluence.”
To prevent this, the district is trying something new: weighing the lottery in five open-enrollment schools to make sure they stay socioeconomically diverse.
Why Economic Integration?
Last year, SAISD hired Choudhury from Dallas ISD to create more innovative schools. He was tasked with creating schools that families would choose over charters and private schools. The district wanted schools that would keep families who could afford to leave. They want new families, and to regain families who have opted out of SAISD schools for charter schools, private schools, and public schools in other districts.
Choudhury agreed, but pushed the district to take things a step further to ensure the schools stay socioeconomically diverse.
“(Economic integration is) not going to happen just naturally, because it hasn’t happened naturally,” Choudhury said. “There’s nothing natural about the neighborhoods, and so in the same way you’ve got to design for equity and access.”
According to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, school choice options, like charter schools and magnet programs, increase racial and economic segregation when they’re unregulated.
Creating socioeconomically diverse schools is not just a feel-good passion project for Choudhury. It’s a strategy to create better schools. At the same time, he recognizes that most of the district’s schools continue to serve mostly low-income students.
“We are a 90 percent plus high-poverty district. Our mission will always be to do high-poverty schools well. And we are doing that in many different places. We need to do it faster, better and scale it.” Choudhury said. “But we have to stop recreating high-poverty schools, because we know from decades of research they’re just harder to turn around and get right.”
The Coleman Report, a national study commissioned by the federal government as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, is the foundation for much of that research.
It found that children who live in poverty, but attend economically diverse schools, have better academic outcomes than children who attend schools where most students are low income. It also found that attending economically diverse schools does not hurt the academic performance of children from wealthier families.
Numerous studies have collaborated those findings in the 50 years since the Coleman Report. For instance, a seven year study published by the Century Foundation in 2010 found that the gap in the average math score of low-income students in Montgomery County, Maryland was cut in half by the end of elementary school when they attended an economically diverse school.
Choudhury believes economic integration will also translate into the high test scores that parents look for at SAISD.
Diversity By Design
When an academically strong school does away with attendance zones, and opens enrollment to families outside the neighborhood — and even outside the district — enrollment becomes competitive. Middle class families have historically gained more spots in the most desirable open enrollment schools.
That same trend has been tracked in Indianapolis and other major cities across the country. In San Antonio, popular magnet programs and specialty schools, like the International School of the Americas at Lee High School in North East ISD, also have a significantly more affluent student body than the high schools where they are housed, and the district as a whole.
While at Dallas ISD, Choudhury helped create an enrollment system that prevented lower income kids from losing out when schools became popular with middle class families. Over the past year, he’s launched a similar system in San Antonio, which he calls diversity by design. It works by placing socioeconomic controls on the lottery for designated schools.
“When you create open-enrollment initiatives, market forces will take over and you need to have regulations in place to ensure that they don’t. And if you want to talk about equity and access, you need to design for equity and access,” Choudhury said.
This year, Choudhury weighed the lottery for five of the district’s specialty schools: Steele, Advanced Learning Academy, CAST Tech High School, and the Mark Twain and Irving dual language academies.
In order to make the system work, Choudhury said economic diversity has to be the goal throughout the entire enrollment process, starting with recruitment.
For instance, after the enrollment office noticed it wasn’t receiving enough applications from low-income families, SAISD conducted bilingual door-to-door marketing in some of the district’s lowest-income neighborhoods..
The applications are in, and the district did what it set out to do: attract a mix of families across income brackets.
The enrollment office then split those applications into geographic and economic categories, flagging the students who meet the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of “economically disadvantaged.” The office then held separate lotteries based on those categories.
At Steele there were four lotteries: one for students in the immediate neighborhood; another for students who live outside the district; a third for low-income students who live in the district; and a fourth for higher income students who live in the district.
Many of the students who live in the immediate neighborhood are low-income, while students who live outside the district are usually higher income than than the average SAISD student.
Of the 456 families that applied for 52 available seats at Steele, 54 percent qualified as economically disadvantaged, while 46 percent did not. Forty-seven percent live outside SAISD.
Choudhury then regulated the lottery to balance out the slight majority of either low income or middle income. (In Steele’s case, middle income had the slight majority).
Because federal criteria are tied to school funding, Choudhury uses the more broad definition of economic disadvantage to run the lottery. That includes a household income of up to about $44,000 a year for a family of four. From there, things get more specific.
Choudhury has taken a detailed look at poverty within the district, using more than income data. Using home ownership rate, single parent homes, educational attainment and income from census information, he created four classifications for census blocks. Census blocks with the highest rate of home ownership, median income, education level, and the lowest percentage single parent household are considered “block one.” Census blocks classified as two, three, and four are progressively worse off.
Choudhury’s goal is to have at least 12 percent of students come from block three and 12 percent from block four.
The lottery process fell just short of that goal at Steele. Only 6 percent of the spots went to block four students. That triggered an “equity audit” in Choudhury’s office.
Steele has a waitlist of families who were not offered a spot in the lottery. During the equity audit, as the district hears back from families who received offers but decided not to enroll (some families got into multiple schools), block four families will be the first let into Steele until balance is achieved.
But diversity is one thing on paper. It’s another thing in the classroom, on the playground, and in the halls at school.
In a city as segregated as San Antonio, economic integration can be an unfamiliar, and at times uncomfortable process. In part 2, we look at how that’s working for families at Steele.