Opinion: AISD Is Perpetuating a Historic Racial Dividing Line
Annika Olson of UT-Austin’s Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis urges AISD to reconsider its School Changes plan for elementary school closures
Schools around the world have closed because of the coronavirus. Schools in Austin were already closing because of racism and ignorance.
In November of last year, Austin Independent School District (AISD) voted to close Metz, Sims, Brooke, and Pease Elementary Schools. Three of these four schools have student bodies that are predominantly Black and Latinx, a reality that reflects their location east of I-35, a racial dividing line in Austin's segregated history.
This history dates back to 1928, when East Avenue, now Interstate 35, divided Austin. The eastern side became the "Negro District" and the only area of the city where Blacks could attend school and access other public services.
Comparing the AISD School Changes plan with the 1928 Master Plan of Austin, we can see the stark segregation that still exists nearly 100 years later. Metz, Sims, and Brooke – along with many other schools on the closure list that are on hold for now – are located in East Austin, an area that historically has been used to isolate minorities. Austin has one of the highest rates of income segregation in the country and one of the highest levels of school segregation in the state. Together, our residential, economic, and school segregation keep Austin as divided today as it was a century ago.
AISD's decision to close schools exacerbates the lasting negative impact these divisions have on children and families. In a divided city, there is an unequal distribution of educational resources, which means disadvantaged youth do not receive the help they need to climb the social ladder and contribute to the region's prosperity. This hurts everyone. Segregation may place a special burden on minority populations, but it also limits general interaction and can suppress the economies of entire regions.
Given this, it is extraordinary that trustees in a starkly segregated Austin decided to close schools before reviewing an equity analysis of the school closures proposal, which was released only after the vote. The analysis found that the district failed to employ intentional strategies to address racism, and that the announcement of the closure plan has had a harmful effect on the academic and socioemotional well-being of students, teachers, and families.
The closure itself is also likely to harm young people already facing challenges – approximately 90-95% of students in the three schools slated to close are socioeconomically disadvantaged. University of Chicago researchers have found that after a school closure, student math scores were negatively affected for four years, reading scores decreased, and absenteeism increased.
This is hardly surprising. Imagine if your own school, or your child's school – full of memories and finger painting and school lunches – was slated to close. What sort of feeling would it evoke? Within AISD, students and families have wept over the loss of community and connections with teachers and other students.
AISD has said it is closing the schools because of underenrollment. But a mountain of research has shown that small schools can be amazing for kids – they exhibit better academic performance, a greater sense of community, fewer behavioral issues, and are especially helpful for low income and minority populations. AISD blames charter schools for taking kids out of the district. To be sure, charter school enrollment, especially for minority students, has continued to rise in recent years. But in making its racially charged school closure decision, AISD is missing the point. In many cases, parents choose charters because they feel that AISD is not providing their child a quality education, has not been transparent in its communications, and is not fostering an inclusive and diverse environment where they feel welcome. The closure decision, and how it was made, hardly allays those fears.
AISD leadership and board of trustees members should reconsider their decision to permanently close schools in the most vulnerable and underresourced area of the city. The cure for Austin's epidemic of harmful school closures is within reach – if district officials will listen to the voices of their community.
Annika Olson is the assistant director of policy research at the Institute for Urban Policy Research & Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.
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