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Students and staff say their final goodbyes to 13 San Antonio ISD schools

A young girl in a yellow dress poses for a photo under a balloon arch with her school's mascot, a penguin.
Camille Phillips
Dorie Miller Elementary student Brielle Sustaita poses for a photo with her school's penguin mascot before her school's grand finale ceremony on May 23, 2024. Dorie Miller was the first Black American awarded the Navy Cross. The school's motto is 'Once a mariner, always a mariner.'

With less than a week before the end of the school year, 13 campuses in the San Antonio Independent School District were days away from permanent closure.

SAISD trustees voted in November to shutter 15 campuses as part of a rightsizing plan to consolidate schools amid declining enrollment. Two of the 15 schools will be closed later, after space is freed up at schools undergoing renovations.

To mark the end of an era, some of the closing schools held alumni walks or other ceremonies. On Thursday, Dorie Miller Elementary on San Antonio’s near East Side hosted a grand finale.

Current and former students, parents, teachers and principals gathered in front of the school’s small stage to hear speeches and walk the halls of the school for the last time.

A woman sitting in a crowd wipes away a tear.
Camille Phillips
Dorie Miller Elementary parent Alicia Herrera wipes away a tear during the grand finale ceremony celebrating the school's legacy. The campus is one of 15 SAISD schools permanently closing under the district's rightsizing plan.

Alicia Herrera was one of many in the crowd to alternate between cheers and tears during the ceremony. Her daughter Jenna has been at Miller since kindergarten. She would have been back for fifth grade next year if the elementary school wasn’t closing its doors.

“I’m sad,” Herrera said. “I don’t like change, but it’s for the best.”

Herrera said Miller is a tight-knit community with compassionate, hands-on teachers. She said she decided to send her to the district’s recommended school, Smith Elementary, because that’s where Jenna’s special education teacher, Tondra Williams, will be.

“That was the only reason why I agreed to her going to Smith,” Herrera said. “Wherever she goes, that’s where Jenna’s going to be.”

Williams has taught at Miller Elementary for 20 years, and she said saying goodbye will be very hard.

“I've been here my whole teaching career,” Williams said. “A piece of my heart is here. So, I'm very sad. I'm very sad.”

“But the heart of Miller is not the school building, it's the people who've come and gone,” she added. “And we're going to be all scattered, but I think we have a legacy that we will carry with us anywhere we go.”

Tondra Williams’ 25-year-old son, Dominic Williams, attended Dorie Miller Elementary when he was a kid. He said the murals of the school’s namesake made a strong impression on him. He remembers lining up outside the library after P.E. and soaking up the details in his favorite mural, which shows Dorie Miller shooting down Japanese planes during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

A young man with long locs stands in front of a mural of Dorie Miller firing an antiaircraft gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Camille Phillips
Dorie Miller Elementary alumnus Dominic Williams stands in front of his favorite mural of the school's namesake, portraying Miller firing an antiaircraft gun during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“It's a Black guy doing something heroic,” Dominic Williams said. “I hate to say, when I was younger, you [didn’t] see or hear too much about that.”

Miller was born in Waco in 1919. He was serving as a Navy cook in Pearl Harbor when Japan attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. He was the first Black American awarded a Navy Cross for the actions he took to protect his ship during the attack.

According to the school’s website, the elementary school started out as a two-room school in the W.W. White School District. It opened in 1947 to educate Black children in the Lincolnshire neighborhood, and the PTA voted to name it after the war hero during one of their first meetings. W.W. White merged with SAISD in 1950, and the school’s current building opened in 1952.

Curtis Braziel painted the murals throughout the school 15 years ago. He said some teachers originally thought Dominic Williams' favorite mural was too violent.

“Later on, I think they understood that violence of a certain type, world wars and so forth and so on has something to contribute to our country and to other countries who have fought for their rights and freedoms,” Braziel said.

Dominic Williams said learning about Dorie Miller as a young Black kid was powerful.

“It shows me that I could be strong. I can hold my head up high. And especially as an African American man, I see that he did something special. And people recognize him for that,” he said.

After seeing the crowd at the ceremony, Dominic Williams said he knows the school will be remembered for a long time. But he’s worried the school’s namesake will be forgotten.

“I thought the school would make it forever. Past my lifetime for sure, but it's not. And I just I just hope that what's comes next is going to help out teachers around SAISD as well,” Dominic Williams said.

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.