How San Antonio is bringing equality to education

There’s change stirring in San Antonio, and it has the potential to reorganize the educational system as we know it.

The man behind it all is Mohammed Choudhury, who’s making waves as the Chief Innovation Officer of San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD).

SAISD is one of 17 different independent school districts in the San Antonio metro area, and 90% of its 50,000+ students are economically disadvantaged. Having so many districts in one area is “not healthy,” Choudhury asserts, and it’s “exacerbated the city’s notoriously segregated public schools,” reports the CRPE, because for years, “families with means easily [opted] in to more affluent districts and schools.”

After success with diversity programs in Los Angeles and Dallas, Choudhury is now in San Antonio to desegregate the district. And with a concerted organizational effort, he’s designed “controlled choice” public schools to do it.

To start, Choudhury believes that “choice will exacerbate segregation if it’s unregulated.” He’s seen it happen elsewhere, and in San Antonio too, before he got there, as “popular programs were beginning to skew toward enrolling majority affluent and/or white students.”

So on 12 campuses in an innovation zone with district-run charters, the city has created high-demand, specialty schools, and zip codes alone aren’t determining who gets in. When “a school’s demographics are defined by families’ ability to afford rent or homes in certain neighborhoods,” access to high-quality seats goes to “a few winners” – while the majority are left out, Choudhury believes.

Instead, these choice schools are “diverse by design,” with controlled seats assignments organized on either a 50/50 model (where half of the students come from outside neighborhoods) or a priority radii approach (where a 2.5-mile radius preference is set around a school to encircle both public housing and million-dollar homes).

And since disadvantaged families don’t always know about their school choice rights, San Antonio is “simplifying access to enrollment [to] ensure that seats reserved for children on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder get choice opportunities.”

The complexity of the work isn’t lost on Choudhury, but it can bring equality to San Antonio, he says – and any other district – if you:

  • Find locations [that] can specifically pull in both middle-class and historically disadvantaged families.
  • Design an assignment system [that you can control] because, on its own, a “free market” approach will exacerbate segregation and inequities.
  • Prioritize transportation to the greatest extent possible. Choice isn’t choice without transportation, especially for families who are economically disadvantaged.
  • Make marketing and community engagement […] an “air and ground” effort [to hit enrollment targets]. You have to win hearts and minds.

And while explicitly organizing diversity does require oversight, districts who can’t afford a Chief Innovation Officer shouldn’t be discouraged. A Strategic Enrollment Management approach creates equal access for all families, regardless of their resources. Tools can be designed for inclusion, enabling districts to engage every group in their community. And when lotteries are designed to handle complexity – with equal regard to fairness and transparency – diversity by design can be easily controlled.

The effort may seem monumental, but so is the possibility of what can be achieved. “If our children can’t go to school together, they’re not going to learn to live together,” Choudhury reminds us. And since research shows that academic outcomes benefit when diversity is present, we owe it to every child to try.

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