After Harvey, An Opportunity to Learn from the Past in the Classroom

Ruth López Turley

Photo: Flickr user Ryan Stanton.

As the Houston Independent School District (HISD), the largest school district in Texas and seventh-largest in the country, faces the daunting task of reconstructing about 75 of its 280 schools, it would be reasonable to assume that such a massive school renovation and construction project is unprecedented in Houston – but it’s actually not.

In the 1920s, the district embarked on a similarly ambitious project. Historian Karen Benjamin described Houston’s first significant school construction project. In summary:

In 1924, HISD began an ambitious $11M school construction project during a nationwide push for school expansion. It included the renovation of 30 existing buildings and the construction of 50 new buildings. But the 1920’s HISD school board worked closely with the city’s planning commission, which believed that separating neighborhoods by race and class would protect real estate investments. Together, they devised a carefully planned system of neighborhood segregation that determined school locations.

Although school segregation already existed, neighborhood segregation was not as developed. Before the 1924 expansion, HISD had maintained six black schools, one in each of the six wards, and it was common for black and white schools to sit near each other. In the First Ward, for example, Washington Elementary was the black school and Hawthorne Elementary was the white school. But the 1924 school construction project built new black and white schools further apart, and existing schools were moved or even closed in order to fit the segregation plan.

In 1929, the Texas Appellate Court declared this residential segregation unconstitutional, and City Council rejected the planning commission’s racial zoning plan, but it was too late. Construction was almost complete. Furthermore, much more had been spent per pupil for white schools than for black or Hispanic schools. For example, “Mexican School” (later renamed De Zavala) cost $135 per student, compared to the least expensive white school, which cost $250 per student. There were also curricular differences.

Benjamin’s account of Houston’s first significant school construction project is timely. As we face the daunting task of reconstructing a quarter of HISD’s schools, as well as many in surrounding districts, we must consider reconstruction in every sense. Just as the Reconstruction Era of the 1800s attempted to generate more racial justice, the current reconstruction of Houston’s schools must do the same.

The educational inequalities that I observe as an education researcher are not the result of racist individuals but rather racist systems that were put in place by our predecessors. What happened in Houston in the 1920s set in motion a powerful system of separation that continues to this day, and the resulting educational inequalities are devastating.

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For example, the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the largest and longest-running assessment of students, showed that the percentage of HISD fourth graders that scored at or above proficient in Reading was 66 percent for whites but only 18 percent for blacks and Hispanics. This story is consistent across grades, subjects, and assessments. And while some interventions have helped to make improvements, research shows that segregation greatly hinders a school’s ability to recruit and retain effective teachers and administrators, to offer advanced courses, to raise money for special programs, and so on.

The time for reconstruction is now. We are devastated by the need to rebuild so many schools, but Houston has done this before and can do it again. Except this time, our city and district leaders can work together to devise a carefully planned system of integration, one that promotes educational equity. Our current city and district leaders have already been working toward this goal, but they need our support. We all need to support an integrated and more equitable system rather than maintain a system of separation simply because it’s easier and more familiar. Just as our predecessors worked hard to set in motion a powerful and long-lasting system of separation, we can work hard to set in motion a better system that will unite future generations and result in educational equality like we’ve never seen before.

Source: Benjamin, Karen. Forthcoming. Segregation Built to Last: Schools and the Construction of Segregated Housing Patterns in the New South

This post was originally published at Education Week on September 11, 2017. Ruth López Turley is the associate director of research with the Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the director of the Houston Education Research Consortium. 

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