Over the last 20 years, the percentage of Austin Independent School District's African American population has steadily declined — dropping from 18.8 percent in 1993-1994 academic year to 8.7 percent last year, according to data from the Texas Education Agency.
Some are concerned fewer students could lead to more community issues going unnoticed, or at least underserved, as more African-American students and families leave the district.
When the flooding in New Orleans forced Dwayne Hills and his family to relocate to Austin seven years ago, it didn’t take long for him to realize that fewer people here share their African-American roots.
"I remember we were trying to find a supermarket and we went to Fiesta. There were the mariachi bands and I was like, ‘what is going on?’ It was just a total difference to what I was accustomed to.”
That didn’t stop Austin from becoming home for Hill and his family. Now, his two youngest children go to Maplewood elementary, just up the street from that East Side grocery store. He says it’s been a good fit, but he's noticed a change even in the time they’ve been there.
“I could see a decline. There are less classmates that my children have of, you know, African-American,” he says.
At Maplewood, the percentage of black students dropped from 40 percent when the Hills moved to Austin to around 18 percent this year. That reflects a larger trend in the district and its raised concerns in the community.
“If you don’t have a critical mass of students of a certain population or demographic then that could mean there’s less attention given to the issues that that community has,” says Richard Reddick, a professor of higher education at UT who grew up in Austin.
Further complicating matters, it appears to be that the African-American middle class leaving Austin in larger numbers and relocating to other school districts nearby. AISD School Board Member Cheryl Bradley says many of those who stay are opting to go to charter schools.
“When we were having white flight in this city there was a major concern, when there was a flight of the middle class there was a major concern," Bradley says. "But as African-Americans begin to leave the school district and even the city, those conversations and dialogues do not happen.”
Bradley argues that the city has not valued African-Americans who’ve lived here, and that can reverberate in the classroom.
“I think we have labeled African-American children low-achieving for so long, at a point, if you keep whipping someone they’ll cuddle in the corner," Bradley says. "We have labeled them for so long that maybe in some cases they don’t even see their own value.”
UT adolescent psychology professor Dave Yaeger says as the district sees the African American population decline, it could be important to invest in school culture.
“[T]hat promotes a sense of belonging for students of color, especially for African American groups because they might seem like a stigmatized minority,” Yeager says.
Recently the school district started a radio program on the community radio station KAZI to enhance outreach with African American families in the district. We asked AISD for comment on this story a week ago, but, as of deadline, they were not able to make anyone available to talk.