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Fronteras: A vacant Texas school played an important role in integration in the 1950s. Proposed housing development threatens its history.

Wharton, Texas, is located almost 60 miles southwest of Houston.

It was the site of one of the first Little Schools of the 400.

Spanish-speaking preschoolers at Stephen F. Austin Elementary School were taught 400 basic English words to prepare them for the first grade. The program was the precursor for the federal Head Start program.

Courtesy of the Wharton County Historical Commission
Stephen F. Austin Elementary School in Wharton, TX, circa 1954. The school's name was later changed to the Abell Street School and then to Hopper Elementary.

Architect David Bucek, a Wharton native, said the school was ahead of its time.

“Other schools, even schools that had a Little School program, didn't integrate their students until the late `60s or even `70s in many cases,” he said. “In Wharton, they did the right thing.”

The now-vacant building is under threat of development for much needed housing.

Chair of the Wharton County Historical Commission, Patricia Blair, said the developer agreed to preserve the shell of the building and use it for housing. Blair said that’s not enough.

“It would be pitiful, I think, or shame if we were to not be able to tell those stories at the site where these things happened.”

Locals formed a non-profit in 2019 to convert the school into a much needed community education facility, and have worked to relocate the proposed housing to nearby vacant property

Stephen F. Austin school is nominated for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2022 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Preservation Texas has the school on its 2021 List of Most Endangered Places.

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Norma Martinez can be reached at norma@tpr.org and on Twitter at @NormDog1