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So far, most San Antonio ISD families affected by school closures plan to stick with the district

Pastor Otis Mitchell walks across the street from his church to Frederick Douglass Elementary on September 27, 2023 for a district meeting on a proposal to close the school.
Camille Phillips
Frederick Douglass Elementary is one of 13 SAISD schools closing at the end of the school year. Two more campuses will close after building renovations are completed.

When San Antonio Independent School District trustees voted in November to close 15 schools and merge or redesign five more, the parents of almost 5,000 students were left with a decision of their own: Do they enroll in the new school assigned to them by the district, apply for another San Antonio ISD school, or leave the district all together?

SAISD created a website to help them navigate their in-district options, and school staff began reaching out to parents to answer any questions. They also asked them to fill out a form recording their choice.

According to district officials, that outreach has borne fruit: the families of three out of four students have told SAISD they plan to stick with the district.

Diane Fernandez, SAISD’s director of enrollment, updated trustees with the results of the outreach at last week’s board meeting.

“Of the 4,652 [students] affected by rightsizing, they have all been contacted,” Fernandez said. “At one campus, we're on round number four of phone calls.”

Although all of the families have been contacted, Fernandez said the families of more than 900 students haven’t filled out a form.

“We're typically getting them on the bus in June, July and August as we're doing our block walking. So, this is a little bit early for them, and we understand,” Fernandez said. “We also understand that it's a very informed choice that they have to make. And so, sometimes the phone calls take five minutes. Sometimes the phone calls take 45 minutes.”

Another 280 students have either already withdrawn from the district or said they aren’t coming back next year.

Out of the more than 3,600 students that said they plan to stick with SAISD next year, Fernandez said 70% accepted the new school assigned to them by the district.

To help start building a new campus culture, schools that are receiving students from the closing schools have hosted get-to-know-you-activities called Blending la Familia. At the board meeting, district staff played a video clip of Douglass Elementary Principal Stephanie Ratliff talking about the visit to their new school, Herff Elementary.

“It's been helpful. And it's been really nice, actually, to see it,” Ratliff said in the video. “We're only a couple streets down. It's not like we're going to the other side of town.”

Fernandez said about 840 students affected by school closures have applied to an SAISD choice school or requested a transfer to a different SAISD neighborhood school. Families who applied to a choice school won’t know if they got in until March 1.

Trustee Ed Garza pointed out that even though only 930 students are technically unaccounted for, another 840 students are also still a bit of a question mark.

We don't know if they will enroll, because they may not get their choice school,” Garza said.

“If you have a family that picks their choice and they don't get into it, do you think that we have enough resources to aggressively target them and those families so that we don't lose them?Board President Christina Martinez asked Fernandez.

Fernandez said SAISD’s redesigned lottery system will hopefully give most families the choice they’re looking for, but plans are in place to follow up with each family individually too.

District officials said progress has also been made toward relocating staff at closing campuses. They said most teachers and principals have accepted positions at other SAISD schools, but there are still a lot of moving parts that have to be accounted for.

Perhaps the biggest unknown is what will happen to the buildings once the schools are closed.

So far, a committee of 14 community members have met once to discuss the issue. District administrators said they’re waiting to make public who’s on the committee until after they decide whether or not they want to include their email addresses on the website.

How SAISD handles the plans for the empty buildings, and how it interacts with families during the final months of the transition, will be pivotal to rebuilding trust. The decision to close so many schools, and the district’s inability to keep schools warm during the cold snap in January, upset many families.

During public comments, one community member asked the board to adopt a resolution promising not to let a charter school use any of the closed campuses. Neil Gabrielson told trustees that the heater failures in January put his already tenuous trust in the district to the test.

A communication breakdown caused SAISD to be unprepared for below freezing temperatures. Boiler pipes froze, forcing the district to cancel classes for two days because officials were unable to keep schools warm enough.

“It's been really difficult to remain a participant and even an advocate of this district given the events of the last four months, but this event made it even harder,” said Gabrielson, who has two children at Lamar Elementary, one of the schools being closed.

“We know that you knew the condition of our schools. You just finished deciding to evict us from 15 of them, based in part on criteria that included facility condition,” Gabrielson added. “And no one that still believes in public schools, as I do, will dispute the ongoing concerns about state funding. There's no question about it. But there are only so many times that you can point the finger at that when a failure of functional leadership at the district level was so blatantly obvious.”

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Education News Desk, including H-E-B Helping Here, Betty Stieren Kelso Foundation and Holly and Alston Beinhorn.

Camille Phillips can be reached at camille@tpr.org or on Instagram at camille.m.phillips. TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.