This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.
When you enter SAY Sí’s exhibit “Stories Seldom Told: Less Than Equal,” you’re handed a piece of paper with a ZIP code on it. On Friday night, I was randomly assigned 78263, which put me in the East Central Independent School District.
Visitors gather around “Human Geography” on Friday night during the opening night of SAY Sí’s “Stories Seldom Told: Less than Equal.” The piece presented dropout data, student population and average real estate prices across San Antonio’s school districts and ZIP codes. Ben Olivo / Folo Media
Everything I experienced in the exhibit was determined by the ZIP code I was given.
In SAY Sí’s black box theater, guests with ZIP codes from upscale areas were granted up-front and spacious seating. Those with ZIP codes from low-income areas were directed to enter through the back entrance; they walked through a metal detector and were wanded by a police officer played by Ren Alvarez, 15, a sophomore at Stevens High School.
“It’s a literal way of showing inequity in a city,” SAY Sí media coordinator Stephen Guzman said. “Having two different … experiences … (the students) wanted to show how a lot of times things are out of their control.”
The largest installation was “Scientia Potentia Est,” a paper mache maze where the walls were covered with copies of STAAR standardized tests and answer sheets. Again, ZIP codes determined how certain guests were assisted through the maze. Those from wealthier communities were given a flashlight and correct instructions, while those representing poorer neighborhoods were given a glow stick and wrong directions.
In my case, I wasn’t given any type of light, and I was told the wrong direction to turn as I entered the maze. I hit a dead end and had to wander around the maze. “You’re not allowed to be here! Turn around now,” echoed from the center. When I finally reached it, one of the “cultists,” Ella Wilson, 14, a freshman at Clemens High School, was dressed in what looked like a blue graduation robe and barked the same message to me, in an attempt to push me out.
A literal maze of standardized tests. Visitors had to navigate through the maze and received guidance depending on their assigned ZIP code. Ben Olivo / Folo Media
“When you’re in school you might not necessarily understand the things that are contributing to your situation,” said Kristina “Tia” Moen, 28, a community outreach manager at Green Spaces Alliance of South Texas, said. “But looking back so many years ago, it’s a little more stark and you realize which students were high-income and those who were low.”
“The students have really done their research on the facts and translated those into stories and played them up into this dystopian feeling. They incorporated real life … the here-and-now facts with personal experiences and fictional storytelling.”
I stood next to Moen and watched as she inquired about the fictional “Crissandre Academy,” an educational institution in which only the “best-of-the-best” can get in. Rafael Cordova, 18, who graduated from Jefferson High School, and Andrew Mair-Gonzalez, 17, a senior at East Central High School, posed as the vice principal and a counselor at the academy, respectfully.
“Art is so inefficient, just look around at a majority of these things,” Cordova said pointing at the backend of a plywood school bus. The bus’ windows detailed dropout rates among minorities — the groups mostly affected by educational inequality. The bus was riddled with holes that were patched with fake money and damaged wheels, symbolizing issues in the school system.
Stacks of false, QR-coded dollar bills were stationed in front of the bus. The code — when scanned using a phone app — directs people to a website detailing the 1972 court case San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, which determined that unequal school finance systems are constitutional because education is not a right protected by the United States Constitution.
The largest crowd was assembled in front of “Human Geography,” a piece located at the beginning of the exhibit. Student populations and dropout rates in each school district across San Antonio were projected onto a large wall, along with a color-coded map of 17 school districts in San Antonio. Roads were carefully carved into the wall and colored pencils were fastened into holes drilled in each district. Each pencil represented 20 students who dropped out in that area in the 2015-16 school year.
The color of the pencil represented black, Latino and white student populations in school districts including Northside, San Antonio and Alamo Heights.
SAY Sí students portray students destined to succeed in a performance in the black box theater Friday night. Ben Olivo / Folo Media
But the piece that resonated most with me was one called “Both Ends,” which depicts students born into contrasting income areas. I grew up in a lower-income neighborhood in South Texas and went to an elementary school which was located across the street from housing projects, so this piece hit home.
A flat screen TV and a clean wooden desk were placed opposite to an older boxed television and wooden desk tagged with Sharpie scribbles and drawings. Two videos were displayed on opposite sides of the area, which represented a day in the life of a low-income and high-income student.
The low-income student walks through a rough neighborhood, then sits in a classroom where students are being rowdy and paying no attention to the teacher, who is at his desk playing on his cell phone. Meanwhile, the high-income student drives himself to school and his teachers and fellow classmates are all engaged in classroom activities.
Inga Cotton, 40, a blogger for SA Charter Moms, said parody and satire are important tools to get out the truth. “There are so many times when organizations present themselves a certain way, and if you take it at face value you’re missing out on true meaning.”
“Students understand a lot more than adults give them credit for,” Cotton said. “There’s inequality in schools … even if the data and statistics look good on paper.”