Leaders See Challenges and Find Solutions

leo (1)Guest post from LSAISD Class of 2014 participant Eleonore Lee, with her thoughts on the November class day on Leaders persist and persevere. Eleonore is an adjunct professor who lives in District 1.

Today’s session looked at understanding advocacy and the role it plays today, and understanding the social, political and economic drivers that inform today’s SAISD geography. We began the day with welcomes and introductions to both LSAISD board members & alums that joined us today. It was a pleasure to have them join us, they were able to give us great input over the course of the day. This was followed by small group icebreakers, providing us further opportunity to speak as small groups, to get to know each other and forge bonds.

Let me begin with by far my favorite presentation of the journey. Our final speaker for this session was Dr. Christine Drennon, Urban Studies Professor at Trinity University. By sharing historical and geographic facts, and asking the right questions, we discovered many long-existing problems that one might not realize existed, let alone had so much impact on the current situation. We began by looking at the distribution of resources and how it affects student outcomes. As with any good inquiry (or lesson) we began with many questions:

  • Statistically speaking, is there a specific distribution of resources or are the divisions random?
  • What are the processes that produce the pattern? (looking at history and policy.
  • Is it an equitable distribution?
  • If not, how can we fix this?

Little by little, like peeling an onion, she showed us the many factors – social, historical, geographical and economic – which ultimately affect student outcomes. When presented with these objectives historical, demographic and geographic facts, the issues that divide us seem to stare us in the face, with blatant obviousness.

Looking at how schools are funded, and comparing the effect of federal funds vs local funds, we can determine that school success is not affected by the amount of money awarded it as much as it is affected by the overall health of the community. This implies that a stable, thriving, involved community is what determines favorable student outcome, not money. However, raising up an entire neighborhood from abandonment, neglect and poverty is no easy task. For neighborhoods to raise their social and economic capital, there is the chicken–egg issue: if you improve schools, young professionals might move in, but then how to you initially fund the better schools to attract them? Or if they come fix up houses they can fund the school to get better, but how can you attract a young family to a place with not-so-appealing schools? If one reduces taxes to attract families how do you fund the schools? It seems that the focus should be on strengthening communities overall, which will feed both the schools and the neighborhoods, getting them to grow together. This means trusting each other and acknowledging that we are in this together for the long haul.

I did not know this before today, but San Antonio used to have many more school districts than even today. These were local, neighborhood-based districts. At that time, San Antonio also had restricted neighborhoods, some allowed only whites, others banned people of color and/or Mexican heritage. This divided up the city economically, dividing up housing lots and determining housing size accordingly. This created some neighborhoods that started out and remained wealthy, others with the potential to accrue wealth, that can be gentrified when the economy permits, and others that started humble and are on lots so small that no matter what these houses will never increase in value. As school districts consolidated, they merged strategically using strategic alliances to strengthen themselves (and leaving weaker, less well-funded districts behind). This lack of neighborhood diversity has held some large areas of our city hostage to their history because these neighborhoods will never have enough to bring to the table. Bear in mind that this is only one part, the “local” portion of a perfect storm of historical and economic events, which includes other national issues: the shift to a post industrial economy, a diminishing middle class, standardized tests and defunding of public schools

What can we do when faced with a problem of this magnitude: A whole neighborhood with no chance to raise its value, no way to bring in more income for its schools, or support a thriving community? Just as we face and address issues of electoral redistricting, we need to cast a critical eye on how our school districts are divided. If we are indeed bound by our neighborhoods this issue has to be addressed if we expect to move all of the city’s children forward. We found a way to force our schools to become more racially diverse after Brown v Board of Education. Perhaps, given the urgency of the situation, we could try something similarly drastic again.

We knew coming in to this LSAISD adventure that there was no easy fix for the problems our schools face. Today learned how many different factors affect outcomes in our schools, underscoring that, since all aspects of our community affect our schools, a community partnership is the way to work things out. After this excellent presentation we can look at the many facets of the issue with better clarity and make more objective and efficient progress, because now we have more facts at hand. In the end, we saw that creating schools, as well as a city that is vibrant, safe and thriving, is about our social capital, about community, relationships and local organisations that invest in the community. Are we creative enough to think deeply about the role of the school in our community?

To lay the foundation for the day, our first topic addressed the current state of our Youth in Government class project. Youth in government invites high school students to be involved in leadership and civic engagement to learn about government through experiential learning. Based on the premise that democracy must be learned by each generation, students explore the issues, opportunities and diverse situations that affect our world. At this time students in the program could benefit from our help with one-on-one with presentation skills; advice on how to deal with nervousness; debating tips; advice on how to project your voice and your confidence; help finding clothes.

We also discussed some of the difficulties that this project presents: as much as everyone wants to help, teachers are often already very busy and it is hard to add another task to their already busy schedule. Some groups could not find an available teacher to get started with, or did not receive replies from anyone at the school they planned to work with. If someone already had a contact in or with their school was very helpful, underscoring how much “who you know” makes a difference.

After a short break, Mr. Ray Martinez, spoke to us on Influencing Public Policy, reminding us that citizens should be involved in policy and he gave us a roadmap of how to navigate this terrain.

  • Know What You Want: Clearly identify the problem(s) and which is most important in the hierarchy of issues, which is most likely to pass; Identify what might kill the bill; Know exactly what makes you case compelling; Find solutions.
  • Make Your Case: Gather facts, figures, reports, studies and information to support your position; Provide real life stories & experiences. Using these, show what the impact of current (lack of) guidelines is, how proposed guidelines would improve the situation and what the impact would be if the bill does not pass. (How) Is it currently addressed, are there standards, if so what are they? Talk to people in your community who have the same concerns. Whenever possible, include options out there that are working, and which are not, which have been rejected.
  • Know Who Makes the Decisions: Is this a Local, State or National issue? i.e. do I speak with City Council, the School Board, State Legislature about this?
  • Know Who Can Help: Build a Coalition. Find a representative who shares your concerns. Look for active community and non-profit groups who share your concerns and will support your propositions. Even if they cannot show up or send a representative, they can drop a card to show support.
  • Finishing Up: Once the bill passes, rules need to be written to implement it smoothly. These rules address who will fund it, who implements it, who regulates it, who can answer questions down the road.

While laid out as above it may look simple, this is not easy. It is usually time consuming and sometimes expensive. It was heartwarming that within our group, we all seemed aware that those of us who have the ability to advocate for necessary causes must do so on behalf of our community, which includes people who are perhaps too busy, too shy, too disempowered, or have another reason to be unable to advocate for policy at this time.

By rethinking the issues before us can we reimagine our inner city schools? As Mr. Martinez pointed out, the journey is not easy, but it is worth it. After all, why else are we here making the journey together?