Every weekday morning, Cassandra Hardeman takes her three girls — Aaliyah, Jordan and Quintara — to the red and yellow, single story building that’s home to Sims Elementary School in East Austin. A generation ago, her mom made the walk to Sims and her grandmother before that.
Hardeman said that she wants her daughters to finish their elementary years at Sims, which opened in 1956 and served as a focal point for the east side’s African-American community since. But that is not likely to happen.
Sims will be shut down at the end of the school year under a recent Austin school district plan.
But many parents, community members and former trustees worry the closure represents the loss of yet another historically black school in Austin. They say the move will further erode trust with the city’s African-American community and continue to drive black students out of the district. The enrollment of black students in the Austin district has declined by 44% since 2004, fueled in large part by the gentrification of East Austin, including the neighborhoods around Sims.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Hardeman said of the planned closure. “I have to try to figure out what schools my kids are going to go to and who their teachers will be and I have to explain to them how they are supposed to deal with my kids.”
The district in September released a plan that would have closed 12 schools, but later cut the list to four schools; the board will vote on the plan Nov. 18. The shuttered campuses will be folded into modernized campuses. But black students remain disproportionately affected. Districtwide, the African-American student population sits at 7% of the district, but they make up 16% of students affected by school closures.
Most of them are Sims students, where 41% of those enrolled are black.
Sims has 176 students, less than half of the school’s capacity, and district officials said the facility is outdated. Sims students will relocate to a modernized Norman Elementary School, which is under construction and slated to open in January 2021. (While Norman is being rebuilt, those students are being taught at Sims.)
Despite the promise of a modern campus, parents say they fear the unknown and the loss of historical ties to Sims.
For many parents and former students, Sims is a community, a family. They remember times when the staff would give Christmas gifts and food to students who would otherwise go without. They remember the school as a haven for them.
Gloria Quiroz and her Afro-Latino family have lived within walking distance from Sims since the late 1970s. Her sons, as well as numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, attended the school. Quiroz has long been a part of Sims as a cafeteria monitor and is a familiar face on campus.
“I’ve worked in the school for 25 years,” Quiroz said. “This school means a lot to me and my family. I don’t want to see it closed.”
Closing black schools
This is not the first year historically black schools, like Sims, have been on the chopping block in Austin. It’s a past that has left many members of the city’s African-American community suspicious of the district.
Cheryl Bradley, a former trustee who represented East Austin and whose grandchildren attended Sims, said too many historically black schools — including Rosewood and Campbell elementary schools and the original L.C. Anderson High School — have been targeted for closure in recent years or shut down altogether in past decades.
Jeff Travillion, the Travis County Commissioner who represents the precinct that includes Sims, said the Austin district has struggled to establish trust with the city’s black community since the Supreme Court ordered schools across the country to desegregate in 1954.
“Any action that is taken has to be looked at through the lens of how Austin has operated, really since the Brown versus the Board of Education ruling,” he said. “Brown versus the Board of Education was a very hostile time here. And while integration was basically promised, it did not really happen in the Austin school district until 1971.”
Desegregation brought about the closure of the East Austin’s L.C. Anderson High School, then the touchstone of the city’s black community.
Austin began integrating its high schools in 1955, and 11 years later, the district’s leadership said there no longer would be schools for children of different races. But few families chose to integrate, and some moved to other areas of the city to avoid it. The federal government filed a lawsuit against the school district for failing to properly integrate, prompting the school board to create a desegregation plan that called for the closing L.C. Anderson and busing those students elsewhere.
Some saw the act as retaliation.
“They closed it to punish the African-American community. Make no mistake about that,” Travillion said.
Gentrification in East Austin
For Quiroz, Sims represents community as her neighborhood has changed drastically. Years ago, when her kids were growing up, her block was filled with neighborhood children who congregated in her backyard. Today, far fewer kids call the neighborhood home. The house next to her was sold to a developer who built a two-story house that dwarfs her home.
Parents and community members say the pressures of gentrification are fueling the closures of African-American schools even as growth changes the makeup of the neighborhoods served by Sims, eroding the sense of community that for so long marked the school.
Reedy Spigner, a “Reading Buddy” to one of Hardeman’s daughters at Sims, said there used to be a stronger sense of community there.
The area used to be full of black doctors, black educators and black lawyers, he said. “There was a sense of pride," Spigner said. "It was a tight knit community. We mentored each other and patronized each other’s businesses.”
By the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, Spigner said he started to see the community break apart with people moving to different areas of the city and to suburbs outside of Austin, in search of better opportunities.
That camaraderie has waned in recent years, he said, leading to less of a unified stand among parents seeking to stop the closure.
The lack of affordability, competition from charter schools and the lack of resources at historically black campuses all played a role in the community dwindling in size over time, Bradley said.
“You look at the loss of students and ... something has to change,” Bradley said. “So, I'm not surprised that school closures would be one of the things that would be put on the table.”
Bradley said she recognized a problem with the shifting black population when she was on the school board between 2009 and 2015. She voiced her concerns to district administrators about the declining black student population. But she said she felt like the district didn’t care.
“This is a declining group of kids and no one is even asking why is it declining,” Bradley said. “So, my resolve was, ‘You don’t care.’ If you’re not looking to find out what is happening, to me, that is saying that this is no concern of yours.”
History of Sims
Octogenarian Jeffrey Archer said she remembered her aunt, Mary Jane Sims, for whom the school is named, as a powerful role model who believed strongly in education.
Sims started the first nursery school for black children in Austin at the Greater Mount Zion Baptist Church, Archer said. When the district honored Sims posthumously with an elementary school named after her in 1956, Archer said it was significant. But now the campus will be shuttered.
“This school has been a focus point. It’s been a school where the children in the neighborhood could be educated,” she said. “Let them bus students from the west side to the east side before closing the school.”
For Hardeman, the closure of Sims has her considering leaving the district. She has been getting fliers from nearby charter schools. While she does not want to enroll her kids elsewhere, she’s considering it because she already feels as if they’re being displaced.
“It’s always on the table, but ... Sims has been like a rock for our family,” she said. “A lot of our black families have been here for generations.”