The South San Antonio Independent School District reopened three schools this week, seven months after a divided board went against the superintendent’s recommendation to take more time to plan.
The families at the schools are happy to be back, but the upheaval created in the process may have lasting consequences.
Workers spent the summer rushing to complete an extensive list of renovations at the schools, with some tasks still being completed. Athens Elementary started the school year with no books or computers in the library.
Standing in the lobby of Athens on the third day of school, Principal Joseph Carranza said there was a lot of work to do and not much time to do it.
“They first wanted to make sure that the classrooms were ready for students at the beginning of the school year, so the library was the last thing. They installed the carpet, painted and now they’re bringing in the new furniture,” Carranza said.
South San’s previous administration closed Athens Elementary and Kazen Middle School two years ago to save money. Carranza said reopening has brought new energy to the community.
“The entry we came into right now is the original school (built in 1947). So this is pretty much the heart of South San Antonio,” Carranza said. “This was the first elementary school in the district.”
While waiting to pick up her children at the end of the school day, Eva Anguiano said two of her kids attended Athens before it closed in 2017 and they’re glad to be back.
“Their dad actually came to school here, so they’re excited to be here,” Anguiano said. “My husband and all of his brothers and cousins all came here.”
Like many of the families waiting for their children, Anguiano was able to walk to Athens to pick up her kids — something that was more difficult to do when they went to Carillo Elementary about a mile away.
“We live literally down the street. It’s way closer,” Anguiano said.
Amanda Villarreal also went to Athens when she was little. As she waited to pick up her baby sister, she said she’s glad the third grader is back in a familiar environment.
“She’s been very, very excited and very honestly happier than we thought coming back, with, you know, not sure if she was going to see the same friends, not sure if she was going to feel as comfortable, obviously, adjusting,” Villarreal said. “But she’s had a really good time, and she loves her teachers and she loves her classmates.”
Athens has about half the enrollment it did before it closed two years ago. The newly reopened middle school and high school also have far fewer students than they did before they closed.
Denise Orosco, executive director of student support services, told board members Wednesday evening that 202 students were enrolled at Athens. Kazen Middle School had 183 students, less than half of the 480 students it served before it closed in 2017.
Around 200 freshmen were zoned to West Campus High School, but over 70% chose to go to South San High School instead, leaving just 56 students at the high school, which is starting out with limited course offerings for freshmen only. West Campus High School served 631 students before it closed in 2007 due to flood damage.
“We will get another big bump in enrollment next week, especially when Northside and Harlandale start, and then again we get more students coming back to us after Labor Day. We have some of our migrant families that return back to us during that week,” Orosco said.
When South San’s board majority voted to reopen the schools last spring, they said it needed to be done right away so they wouldn’t lose more families to charter schools. The district’s enrollment has dropped 11% over the past five years.
Superintendent Alexandro Flores said South San expects to lose another 200 students this year.
Trustee Louis Ybarra read a prepared statement in response to the enrollment numbers, reiterating his concerns about the time and money spent to reopen the previously closed schools.
A district budget committee projected a $6 million price tag to reopen the schools.
“I think (low enrollment) was expected from the get-go and we still went forward with that plan,” said Ybarra, who voted against reopening the schools this year. “What we create in this situation is educational inequity. We have too many resources for too few students in some campuses, and it’s hard to explain that to the parents of the community.”
Gilbert Rodriguez, one of the four board members who wanted to open the schools this year, angrily responded, telling Ybarra he was damaging the district’s reputation by airing negative opinions.
“The decision of the majority of the board is the decision of the board. So I think it’s about time that you get over it, get on board with conducting yourself and this initiative to open our campuses in a positive way,” Rodriguez said.
Trustee Mandy Martinez, who usually doesn’t say a word during meetings, spoke up then to “play peacemaker.” She was the only new member of the board who voted against reopening the schools this year.
Martinez said she wasn’t in favor the rushed opening, but she knows families are happy to be there and now that it's done it’s time to focus on the students.
“The fact of the matter is that those doors have been opened. There are students in them now. There are children there that deserve the best of the best,” Martinez said. “To sit here and blame one side is simply wrong.”
If the board can’t follow that advice they may end up losing control of the district. The Texas Education Agency opened up a new investigation into South San in April in response to how the board handled the re-openings.
In May, the district's state-appointed monitor rebuked trustees for their contentious working relationship and told them they should focus their energy on student learning.