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The race to a big “little” school in Texas 

Activists are rushing to preserve a Texas school that educated Mexican American students during desegregation efforts and later became one of the models for the federal Head Start program.

The big picture: The property that’s home to the Stephen F. Austin/Minnie Mae Hopper Elementary School — one of the last remaining “Little Schools of the 400” — is slated to be redeveloped into a housing complex in Wharton, Texas. 

Flashback: The school was built in the 1930s as part of the New Deal. Its name changed over the years.

  • In 1952, the Saturday Evening Post published a photo showing a Mexican American student sharing a water fountain with a white student in the school, highlighting the region’s desegregation wins.
  • Later, the school joined the experimental “Little School of the 400” — a program developed in Texas by restaurateur Felix Tijerina and the League of United Latin American Citizens during the 1950s. 
  • The project sought to teach Spanish-speaking preschool children 400 basic English words to overcome early language barriers. The idea was a precursor to Head Start.

State of play: David C. Bucek, Jr., of SternBucek Architects, said the school’s inside has been abandoned for a few years, but it’s still essentially watertight.

  • The Wharton Independent School District sold the property in 2020 to Austin, Texas, developer A2J Holdings for redevelopment using an $8.75 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
  • The company says it wants to build 34 new homes in Wharton, a town in need of housing after Hurricane Harvey struck the region in 2017.
  • “I am personally interested in preserving the existing building for adaptive reuse under the terms and budget of the $8.75M grant,” David Bowlin, the company’s chief operations officer, wrote

Yes, but: Local community members, former students, and civil rights advocates have stalled the project by getting a historic designation and asking state officials to get involved.

  • Wharton resident Pat Blair told Axios advocates have formed the nonprofit, Wharton County Heritage Partnership, to save the school and use it for educational purposes instead of housing. 

But, but, but: Bowlin told Axios the school has been saved and he helped ensure that it can never be demolished by getting the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

  • “I made a formal offer to the Wharton County Heritage Partnership to dedicate an entire 4,000 (square foot) school building on the SFA/Hopper Elementary site for their exclusive use for educational and civic purposes for $1 per year.  The offer was declined by the WCHP,” Bowlin said. 

The intrigue: David Vela, who served as acting director of the National Parks Service under former President Donald Trump, was a student at the school.

  • Vela told Axios it’s crucial that the school’s history is preserved, and he hopes officials stop the housing plan.
  • Bridget English, a spokeswoman for the Wharton Independent School District, declined to comment. 

Don’t forget: Activists in Marfa, Texas, are working on getting national recognition for a building once used as a segregated school for Mexican American students, some of who were used as extras in the 1956 movie, “Giant.”

  • Efforts to preserve the Blackwell School in West Texas are part of a movement to save sites connected to the nation’s history of racial segregation and racial terror.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with comment from David Bowlin.

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