How It Shapes Us

Once Tool to Desegregate, HSPVA Doesn’t Reflect Diversity in Houston School District

Houston Public Media analyzed data obtained from HISD and found that the top three ZIP codes that send students to HSPVA are mostly white, affluent areas.

Willie Alston, Jr., is director, actor and playwright for the
Willie Alston, Jr., is director, actor and playwright for the “Sinister Minister,” a play produced by his community theater group, the Positive Project “Playahz.”

In the atrium of an office building in North Houston, Willie Alston, Jr., recently set up rehearsal for his community theater group.

He launched into the play’s theme song, the “Sinister Minister,” along with the rest of the cast.  Alston is not only an actor, but also stage manager, director and playwright.

He credits his work as an artist today in large part to his experience at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, known as HSPVA. What’s more, he said that the school kept him from dropping out.

“That’s the kind of experience I wish I could do over and over and over again,” Alston said.

But if Alston tried to go back to HSPVA today, it’d be much tougher to get in. 

When he attended in the 1970s, integration and diversity were top goals at the school.

But in 1997, the Houston school board dropped diversity guidelines for magnets. Now the premier fine arts magnet has a very different demographic profile than the district overall. In Houston schools, roughly eight out of every ten students are low-income and brown or black. At HSPVA, almost half the students are white, and just 15 percent low income.

Houston Public Media analyzed the demographics of HISD and its premier arts high school.
Houston Public Media analyzed the demographics of HISD and its premier arts high school. Figures are in percentages. Source: Houston Independent School District.

In fact, Houston Public Media analyzed data obtained from HISD and found that the top three ZIP codes that send students to HSPVA are mostly white, affluent areas, like Meyerland, Montrose and near West University. Other parts of town, like some poor, black neighborhoods in Northeast Houston, send no students to HSPVA.

That’s very different from the original mission, according to former Houston schools superintendent, Billy Reagan. He took over the district when many considered it the largest segregated school system in the country. It faced a federal order to integrate.

“You had black schools, black teachers, white schools, white teachers,” recounted Reagan in an interview. “But the black schools did not have the financial support. They were inferior. So it was truly a major system of segregation and equity. And so we went about dealing with it.”

attended the first day of school in August 2012 at Billy Reagan K-8, named after him.
Former HISD Superintendent Billy Reagan led the district for 12 years and oversaw desegregation. In this photo, he attended the first day of school in August 2012 at Billy Reagan K-8, named after him.

Reagan decided to stop forced busing, which he said wasn’t working. He wanted to experiment with a different kind of school, where kids could pursue their passion. They called them “magnet schools.”

“And we went throughout the whole district working with communities and they chose from a list of magnets that they felt would appeal to their communities and bring students of different races to their schools,” he said.

Reagan, who is white and grew up on a sharecropping farm in East Texas, said that kids had to audition to get a spot at the fine arts school

“But with a strong emphasis that we must have a highly integrated school,” he added.

It drew teenagers like Willie Alston, who was living in Third Ward. He auditioned, got in and later graduated with the first ever senior class in 1974.

“I looked forward to it. I used to hate going to school before HSPVA,” Alston said. “I would be getting up at the crack of dawn … and I’d be practicing different things for different classes and getting ready.”

Another person who later benefited from HSPVA, the former superintendent Reagan said: “Ever hear of a lady named Beyoncé?”

At one of the last concerts of the school year, HSPVA's two mariachi groups put on a moving concert. Jay Aiyer, at Texas Southern University, said that the strength of the mariachi group reflects the investment in the arts in middle school. Several middle schools in Houston have mariachi programs.
At one of the last concerts of the school year, HSPVA’s two mariachi groups put on a moving concert. Jay Aiyer, at Texas Southern University, said that the strength of the mariachi group reflects the investment in the arts in middle school. Several middle schools in Houston have mariachi programs, including its middle school fine arts magnet in Meyerland.

Today the fine arts high school is so competitive it uses auditions and a lottery to assign spots. Even its novice mariachi group sounds professional.

Jay Aiyer, who has studied the issue of magnet schools at Texas Southern University, said that economics – and district priorities – drive the disparity.

“It really is an opportunity gap,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a bias in favor of one demographic group or against a particular demographic group.”

Rather, Aiyer believes, if the district doesn’t fund arts education early on in many schools, then families have to pay for expensive private lessons. That exposure and training helps boost the odds their kids will qualify for HSPVA.

“Arts requires investment. And that investment either happens by the district in elementary and middle school. Or it has to be done on the outside,” Aiyer said.

The majority of families in the Houston district are economically disadvantaged and would struggle to afford that.

In a statement, the district said that it believes “all students deserve and should have equitable access to high-quality schools and academic programs.”

To make sure that happens, HISD is currently reviewing all magnets, which is expected to be completed in January.

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Laura Isensee

Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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