Changing Places

St. Johns and Pickle Elementary at a crossroads

Principal Claudia Santamaria
Principal Claudia Santamaria (Photo By Jana Birchum)

From above, the recently inaugurated Pickle Elementary appears more like a small airport than a school, yet it is barely big enough to hold the expectations within its 2-year-old walls. The school is just the centerpiece of a $14 million complex built in the St. Johns neighborhood in 2001, which also includes a public library, a health center, a public gym, a police substation, and a senior center. Pickle Elementary is designed to be much more than just a new school for a neglected neighborhood. The center, dubbed a "community school," hopes to become a national model for revitalizing blighted neighborhoods.

This is a good place to start. The St. Johns community, in north East Austin, was one of the city's first African-American neighborhoods, and for decades its citizens had to cross the great racial divide, now historically defined by I-35, for most of the social services white Austin took for granted. For years, black activists fought for the city to pay attention to the neighborhood. Finally, the city and the Austin Independent School District built the center, a beautiful facility distinguished by sustainable design elements and artistic flourishes, like plentiful natural light, mosaic patterns imbedded in the walls, and an air-conditioning system that uses captured rainwater. That the sprawling, state-of-the-art facility was placed on Blessing Avenue, previously a favorite haunt of drug dealers and prostitutes, is no accident -- the center also houses the dream of rebirth.

But this elegant, streamlined building of concrete and glass cannot alone provide a solid foundation for St. Johns' children -- that takes hearts and minds. Claudia Santamaria, Pickle's principal, is a community organizer as well as a school administrator, and co-chair of Austin Interfaith, part of a national network of community groups known as the Industrial Areas Foundation. When Santamaria was a bilingual teacher at Zavala Elementary, she was instrumental in organizing the faculty and parents into an "Alliance School," an IAF model for neighborhood self-determination. Zavala was a failing school. Now it has some of the highest attendance rates in the city, teacher turnover is next to nothing, and Zavala has been federally recognized as a "blue ribbon school" for student improvement.

The Alliance Schools are not a one-size-fits-all academic program, but a strategy for getting parents and teachers deeply involved in the school and the community. After trust has been established among parents and teachers, needs are identified and strategies developed to meet them. Pickle Elementary is not yet officially an Alliance school (teachers will vote on that at the end of the year), but the Alliance philosophy has been built into its very foundation. Santamaria hired staff members chosen for their willingness to approach teaching as a form of social activism. "The district's usual approach to fixing problems in failing schools is by instituting one program or another," says Santamaria. "But I can't point to one particular program that has really made a difference. It is the teachers and parents who make a school a failure or success, and the Alliance school framework focuses on developing the critical human element."

When Santamaria was hired, the district told her that the school population, culled from four neighboring elementary schools, would be mostly African-American.

But in the decade or so it took to turn the dream of Pickle into a reality, a dramatic shift occurred in the St. Johns neighborhood, echoing the changing demographics of Texas as a whole. The vast majority of students at Pickle -- 75% -- are Hispanic, most have only been U.S. residents for two years or less, an unknown number of them are undocumented, and very few speak English. (Fifty-eight new students just arrived from Mexico after the winter holidays.) This situation presents a number of challenges for the school, including how to engage parents who fear deportation and how to teach English to students who may not be able to read well in their own language.

But the biggest struggle has to do with the change itself. This new facility, designed to provide the neighborhood with a meeting ground, is now center stage in the struggle for community identity. In St. Johns, two separate cultures struggle to create a school and community that reflect their mutual hopes and desires. All too often, they don't even speak, literally, the same language.

Sweat and Blessing

St. Johns was founded in the 1930s by the Rev. A.K. Black of the Rising Star Baptist Church. Hard times brought many sharecropping black farmers into Austin during the week to clean and cook for white families before returning home on the weekend. Black saw the need for an African-American neighborhood closer to town and began buying up lots in the then-remote St. Johns area and selling them to black families for $50 apiece.

Ethel Sharp, a 63-year-old with knowing eyes and a boisterous laugh, sits in the spare room in the St. Johns Recreation Center that serves as a senior center, enjoying an after-lunch game of cards. She remembers when her grandparents moved from Pflugerville to St. Johns in 1946, when their neighbors still raised chickens and goats, when there was no running water, and you had to walk to what is now 51st Street to catch a bus into town. "I remember going shopping for Sunday dinner," she recalls. "We would start out for the market in our best clothes, ribbons in our hair, the works. But to get to the store, which was on the other side of what is now I-35, we had to cross through wild fields filled with cockleburs. We would come back with burs in our dress, ribbon lost, hair messed up. There was just nothing here at all, except a church and a school."

Listening to Sharp, you get a sense of what St. Johns means to the African-Americans who grew up here. Sharp remembers her great-grandmother as the first person she knew who could read and her great aunt, an indentured servant who stole pages out of books because she couldn't afford to buy any. She talks about the Hendricks family, who still lives in St. Johns, who picked cotton and saved money so that all the children could go to college -- but on Sunday, "You couldn't tell they spent their week in the fields." She talks about the fight to bring paved roads to St. Johns, years after other neighborhoods had them. "There is a lot of sweat embedded in this land," she says emphatically.

Ethel Sharp
Ethel Sharp (Photo By Michael May)

St. Johns began as a close-knit, self-sufficient community, but over time its problems grew. After the civil rights movement and desegregation, bussing spread the neighborhood children across town. As a result, the old elementary school, St. Johns, was closed in 1970 and eventually demolished to make room for a Home Depot in 1994. During the Eighties and early Nineties, St. Johns became less and less associated with self-sufficiency, as gangs, drugs, and prostitutes became a persistent presence.

The St. Johns neighborhood had become just another ghetto. Yet the spirit that turned St. Johns from dirt fields into a thriving neighborhood remained. Many of the same families that helped found the neighborhood -- Hendricks, Brown, Taylor, Chambers -- began to organize to bring a school and community center to St. Johns. Patricia Calhoun, a teacher at Walnut Creek, helped with the effort, and her son Orinthian graduated from Pickle last year. "One of the issues that always came up at the neighborhood association," says Calhoun, "was that we didn't want our children to have to cross the highway to go to school, to go to the library. Virginia Brown and the Rev. Ray Hendricks spearheaded the project, and it was amazing how they mobilized the community. We started registering people to vote and getting community members to City Council meetings to let them know what we wanted. The momentum grew very, very quickly."

Calhoun laughs when she hears that the district expected the school to be majority African-American. "Oh no, I wasn't surprised!" she says. "We didn't build this to be a black school. This is for the neighborhood, and it is here to serve whoever lives here." Calhoun says that many of the original homeowners remain but that a great number of immigrants live in the cheap apartments and hotels that have sprung up nearby.

Everyone has a theory about why the neighborhood changed so quickly. Beulah Cooper, 81 years old, has lived in St. Johns since 1944 and worked her way through college, eventually teaching at St. Johns Elementary. She says that a lot of younger blacks began moving away after the end of segregation. "There was a stigma about coming from St. Johns," she says. "And as the next generation got more prosperous, they moved away to better neighborhoods, for better opportunities."

Some say rising property values priced some older black homeowners out of the neighborhood, and others have lost homes through shady mortgage deals. Santamaria says that some blacks have, in effect, been priced out by Hispanic immigrants. "You would be surprised how much a recent immigrant can make working under-the-table construction jobs for cash," she says. "And immigrants are more willing to squeeze together into one apartment or house. On our roll we sometimes find four last names with the same address."

Some Mexicans stay only for a short time, to raise money before heading home, but many others have put down roots. It is not uncommon for family members to help recent immigrants buy a home in St. Johns, helped along by a city of Austin mortgage program. Sonia Gomez moved to St. Johns from Mexico in 1989 with her husband, who works in construction. "If you are a legal resident, it is not hard to buy a house," she says. "My brother helped pay for the down payment, and the city helped us pay the other half."

Different Cultures, Different Rules

The St. Johns Neighborhood Association still meets weekly at the community center but has recently devolved from an organization making things happen to a forum to vent about what shouldn't have happened. Only eight people turned up at the Dec. 3 meeting. Other than a Hispanic teacher sent by the Pickle administration, all were African-American and most middle-aged or older. The president of the association was absent, so E.M. Taylor, who dubs herself the historian of St. Johns and whose deeply lined face has settled into a permanent scowl, took charge. "If you don't stand up and say something, you lose control of things," she said. "I don't have a problem living with different cultures, but I am a black woman. And black people are allowing other nationalities to take an attitude."

Jerry Bell, the young program specialist at the St. Johns Recreation Center, spoke next. "Every meeting we find ourselves venting and not getting anything done," he said calmly. "I realize this neighborhood is experiencing growing pains. But we need to organize ourselves, set an agenda, and start reaching out to all members of the community."

The St. Johns neighbors who openly complain about the Hispanic influx are few, but they are brazenly outspoken. Some longtime residents, to put it bluntly, are just plain irritated that Mexico has moved in next door. The complaints, justified or not, are many. People sell goods from their yards, violating zoning laws. The number of people sharing houses has eaten up available parking spaces, and some construction workers think little of parking giant diesel trucks on the street and starting them with a roar at the crack of dawn. Some folks drive like they are still in Mexico -- that is, with agility but little regard for traffic signals (this especially irks mothers picking up their children from school). To compound matters, the language barrier often makes it impossible to resolve differences over the back yard fence.

"There needs to be compromise and understanding on both sides," says Adela Mancias, a curriculum coach at Pickle. "The Mexicans bring their whole culture with them. We've had instances of families slaughtering pigs and making chicharrones for a party. They have to realize that this is a different country, that the rules are different here."

Bell is working toward reorganizing the neighborhood association so that it can better ... well ... represent the neighborhood. "We are all, African-Americans and Hispanics, working towards the same goal," he says. "But a lot of the older blacks feel threatened. In their minds, Hispanics are threatening to take away what little they have. And, of course, Mexican-Americans are not going to come to the neighborhood association meetings if they feel threatened -- so these problems never get resolved."

T.A. Vasquez
T.A. Vasquez (Photo By Michael May)

Tensions flared at the school before the first day of class. The administration wanted a dress code -- blue pants and white shirt -- and easily got the 200 signatures needed to implement the policy, mostly from Mexican-American parents accustomed to school uniforms in Mexico. Many black parents, however, were offended by the policy. "It seemed to imply that our elementary-aged children were into gangs," says Calhoun, "which just isn't true. And it was hard because we had already bought new clothes for school."

Other conflicts are more symbolic. The center was opened with much fanfare and a gaggle of official city and AISD guests. Stacey Smith, a fifth-grade bilingual teacher (who is white and not from the neighborhood), says that in some ways the ceremony seemed to imply that the school was a gift from benevolent council members. "The community members, who spent years advocating for the school, barely had a chance to speak," she remembers. "Instead, the powers-that-be spent the time congratulating themselves, as if all it would take to turn around the neighborhood was a nice building."

Then there is the school's name. J.J. ("Jake") Pickle is a former U.S. representative, with little historic or current connection to the neighborhood. "It's baffling to me," says Sharp. "How do you look at our history, with A.K. Black and all the others, and come out with a Pickle? Sure, he is a beloved politician, but he isn't synonymous with St. Johns. There are plenty of black or Hispanic educators that would have been great namesakes. But Pickle?"

Virtually every school event exhibits an undercurrent of this tension. In December, the school attempted to celebrate its diversity with a joint Kwanzaa and Posada event, but some black parents felt slighted. "I volunteered to work on the Kwanzaa event," says Vernell Howard, whose grandson is a Pickle student, "but nobody called me. They need to work harder on involving African-Americans."

The event itself was a festive mix of both cultures. The African-American drummer and storyteller who opened the event was aided by a Spanish translator, and, typically, children of both races alternated between being completely entranced and hopelessly distracted. The Posada, a traditional Mexican Christmas procession, was a noisy blur of candles and Spanish chatter. Smith says that the students themselves seem accustomed to the diversity. "We have a lot of frank discussions about race in the classroom," she says. "And our curriculum includes lots of African-American and Hispanic history. There doesn't seem to be much tension among the kids."

But parental involvement is the key to any successful Alliance school, and Smith acknowledges that the Alliance solidarity has suffered from these early problems. "Once people feel like trust has been broken," she says, "it is hard to get them involved in the process. I am not sure if our good intentions can heal that. We need to actively go out and say, 'We know what the issues are, and we need you to be a part of this.' There hasn't been enough of that."

Special Education

Stroll through Pickle and peer into classrooms, and you notice something curious. The students in most of the classrooms are either all Hispanic or all African-American. This is a new segregation -- based not on skin color but language. Texas students are separated into bilingual or English-speaking classrooms until the fifth grade, at which point the Spanish-speaking children are expected to be thoroughly bilingual. "The kids in my [fifth-grade] classroom help each other translate," says Smith. "It works well and makes me wonder if they shouldn't be integrated earlier."

About half of Pickle's Hispanic students have been in the country for less than three years. Last year, many undocumented parents were afraid to show up for meetings for fear of being deported -- a fear that the administration has worked hard to put to rest. An alarming percentage of the parents are illiterate and unable to help children with simple homework and can't read the school fliers their children bring home. This problem has been addressed somewhat by a bilingual telephone hotline.

Other problems are more intractable. Some parents migrate back and forth from Mexico, causing students to move from school to school or miss semesters altogether. Undocumented students are ineligible for certain health services, like dental care. "We have a lot of students with rotting teeth," says Santamaria. "It is almost impossible to teach children who are hungry and in pain. Health is our number one concern."

The most difficult challenge is language. Teachers are expected to teach children simultaneously both English and the other core subjects, perhaps a reasonable expectation -- if the students are already literate in Spanish. "Most of our students come from rural areas in Mexico," says Mancias. "And in some of these areas, they will only have a teacher in the village a couple days a week. So many of our kids come to us without really being able to read in Spanish."

These problems are compounded by the TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills) test. The TAKS is the new state comprehensive test given once a year to third-graders and up, to measure the success or failure of both the students and the school. Students must pass the test to progress to the next grade, and at the school level, scores are broken down by race as well as class level. If less than 50% of any group fails the test, the school is labeled "low performing." If a school is consistently low performing, it must hold a public hearing to discuss its "action plan," and in the most extreme cases, the district will change the entire administration of the school.

Changing Places

New immigrants are given three years before their test scores count -- at which point they can choose to take the test in either Spanish or English. "I have some kids who could pass the [fifth-grade] test in Spanish," says Smith, "but who are speaking English at a second-grade level. Every day I wonder what is the right thing to do -- build their English skills or teach them how to pass the TAKS." Pickle was rated "acceptable" its first year, with students taking the test in Spanish faring the worst.

Students must pass every TAKS and be English proficient by middle school. Smith says that this pressure can be an impediment to students who are simply at a different stage of development than their peers. "'Leave no child behind' sounds like the 11th Commandment," Smith says, referring to President Bush's slogan for educational accountability. "The attitude is, 'No excuses' -- but the reality is that not all young children learn at the same time. I didn't really start reading myself until the fourth grade."

Mable Shepard, the assistant principal at Pickle, is a black woman who grew up poor in Austin and then graduated at the top of her class from the Leadership Academy, a masters program created by UT in conjunction with AISD. She thinks testing has indeed improved schools in Austin. "I know how important testing is for minority students," she says. "It allows us to see that needs are being met. At the same time, the stress does affect the atmosphere at the school, and both the kids and teachers feel that. Still, I believe that we can solve the problems and move forward as a school."

Not only does Pickle have students arriving weekly from Mexico, but the whole student body was culled from four other elementary schools only a year and a half ago. Students arrived with a wide range of skills. "We have kids from one spectrum to the other," says Mancias. "Some are two years ahead, others two years behind. In a perfect world, we would start transitioning them to English at second grade. The reality is something altogether different. ... Not all children wean at the same time."

All of these issues come back to what is happening at home. This is where the Alliance approach is able to home in on the underlying issues. Last year, a series of "house meetings" between teachers and parents identified a need for ESL instruction for parents. The administration got a grant from the Texas Education Agency, and classes have been full to capacity. "We can see that kids learn English faster when their parents learn with them," says Danita Caudle, a curriculum coach at Pickle. "And if the parents learn English, they can get better jobs. If they have better jobs, they spend more time with the kids. So the benefits of ESL classes just continue to multiply."

Finding Voices

T.A. Vasquez, the parent liaison at Pickle, stands in front of about 75 recent immigrants to St. Johns attending an ESL class. On the blackboard behind her is written, "Power," in Spanish and English. "You have power," says Vasquez in Spanish, "even if you don't have money. It is true that a lot of power lies with money -- so if you want to change things, you need a lot of people." With the ESL classes offering a captive audience of recent immigrants, the school is taking the opportunity to introduce them to the basic concepts of community organizing.

Vasquez, a short, stocky woman with a direct gaze and easy smile, spends her days trying to involve parents in the life of the school. The fact that her position exists at all is a direct result of IAF lobbying on behalf of Alliance schools. This civics lesson is part of what Vasquez calls the "courting stage" that she hopes will eventually lead to the community embracing the Alliance school philosophy. Vasquez is well acquainted with the Alliance school strategy -- in fact, she is a product of it. "I was a parent at Zavala before it was an Alliance school," she says. "I was the kind of parent who was always happy to do whatever was asked of me, but never thought of myself as someone who could be at the table, making decisions.

"One day I got a visit from an Austin Interfaith organizer named Kathleen Davis," she says. "She asked me a lot of questions about what I liked and didn't like about the school. She asked what made me angry in the community. All these personal questions seemed really strange to me at the time. I wasn't sure what was the right answer, and I stalled a bit during that first conversation. But it got me thinking, and we continued to have conversations. Finally, she asked if I would be willing to meet with other parents, and I said, 'Yes.'"

Before long, Vasquez and other parents were visiting the school board to request an on-site medical center for vaccinations, so students and parents wouldn't have to take time off to visit the doctor. Going to the board was a traumatic experience for Vasquez; she was self-conscious about her clothes and worried that no one would take her seriously. It was a long struggle, but the board ultimately agreed to fund the medical center. "That experience really inspired me," she says. "I realized that finding your voice is the first step."

Although it will take time before Pickle parents are fully involved, much of the staff is already committed to the Alliance approach. "The principal really has to be inspired for it to work," says Smith. "It takes time to build relationships, and time is one thing teachers don't have. But Santamaria hired people who are willing to spend hours having conversations with each other, walking the streets, and getting to know the community. But time is still in short supply, so we don't spend days decorating for back-to-school night like at other schools."

Smith says that this approach fosters a more optimistic attitude among the staff. "I'll be frank," she says. "I've worked at other schools in low-income areas where there tends to be a lot of prejudice among the staff. The prevailing attitude is that if we could only just take the children out of their dysfunctional environment, we could work miracles. But you are not going to hear that kind of talk at Pickle. We look at the systemic reasons for poverty, and know that the only way to fix it is to get power."

The Alliance schools' main practical emphasis is on making college achievable for low-income students. At weekly morning meetings, Santamaria discusses with parents the benefits of college, and shows them how it can become a reality. Last year, the school hosted the inauguration of "Kids to College," a statewide IAF program. "We need to show these kids that college can be part of their future," says Shepard. "We take fifth-graders on college tours. We have mentors work one-on-one with kids. We talk to parents about the money available for tuition."

The fact that most of the St. Johns community services are right next door is a community organizer's dream come true. Santamaria meets weekly with the heads of the police station, the rec center, the health center, and the public library. "It is amazing the things we can coordinate together," says Santamaria. "With the medical center here, we can discuss how to meet the health needs of the children, and we can provide the services right here -- without students missing school. The police have been great about providing mentorship to students and educating neighbors about how to fight drug dealing and prostitution. And we work with the rec center and library to offer ESL classes and job training for the community."

Calhoun says that it is not only the presence of the community center and school that has helped the neighborhood, but the process that brought them here. "When I first came here," she says, "kids were confronted with drugs and prostitution, but things have changed dramatically for the better since we mobilized to bring the community center here. We have police officers in the neighborhood now, willing to work with the community. When it comes down to it, everybody in the community wants the same thing -- a safe place to raise their children."

The remaining problem is getting blacks and Hispanics to work together in an organization. Just as the neighborhood association is mostly African-American, almost all of the parents attending Alliance school meetings are Hispanic. But Mancias is optimistic. "If anything can bring people together," she says. "It will be the Alliance. The whole process is geared towards finding common ground, and uniting around those issues. Last year, there was a lot of tension that surrounded the opening of the school, but that is already dissipating. We do need to figure out where we go from here, and make sure that everyone's voices are heard." end story

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