Remembering Anderson: What Not to Do

Lessons learned from desegregation

Anderson High School, 1953
Anderson High School, 1953 (Courtesy of AISD)

There's a mantra often heard within Austin ISD circles: "Johnston won't become another Anderson." Founded in 1938, for decades the original L.C. Anderson High School on Thompson Street in East Austin was the only city high school open to black students. In 1971, it was closed in the course of desegregation: It was not the closure but how it was done that left scars. "Not just the building got closed, but the neighborhood got dissolved," said Pat Forgione. "I can tell you, the black community has never forgiven the district for that."

Joseph Reid, Anderson class of '58 and chairman of the Original L.C. Anderson Alumni Association, saw the damage wrought by a mishandled school closure. As families moved away to be closer to their children's new school, he explained, "It seemed more than a coincidence that businesses in East Austin began to dry up." When the district opened the new Anderson in Northwest Austin in 1973, the only thing it shared with its predecessor was the name. Reid argues the changeover was a district blunder. "There are things that made Johnston Johnston [that] they will want to preserve," he said. "In Anderson, they just locked the doors, like they shut it down for the summer."

The new "Johnston" high school cannot keep its name (TEA ordered that it be changed, as required by state law). However, the history and successes of Johnston will be acknowledged, trophies will be displayed, and it may even keep the old Johnston colors and mascot. But AISD trustee Sam Guzman sees keeping the community engaged as the real test. He suggested the long struggle to keep Johnston open may transfer into goodwill for the new school. "The ones involved through the PTSA and the leadership teams and that came to the meetings understood fully that there needed to be changes," he said.

The district has tried to keep that involvement strong, with a series of site visits, public forums, and focus groups over the summer. But it also sees the value of invested intermediaries, like the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Chamber President Andy Martinez described his role as being "a critical friend to the district ... not just to provide a Hispanic perspective but a business involvement as well. We need an educated work force."

Guzman warns the district must strive to get and keep community involvement beyond the summer, because previously parents "started to believe that their involvement was perfunctory." But an open school in the neighborhood is better than no school, even if the consultation wasn't perfect. He explained, "I would prefer to have a bottom-to-top process rather than top-down, but bottom-up takes a long time."

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