Fronteras: A vacant school in Texas played an important role in integration in the 1950s. Proposed real estate development threatens its history.

Wharton, Texas is located nearly 60 miles southwest of Houston.

It was the site of one of the first Small schools of the 400.

Spanish-speaking preschoolers at Stephen F. Austin Elementary School learned 400 basic English words to prepare them for first grade. The program was the precursor to the federal Head Start program.

Courtesy of Wharton County Historical Commission

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Stephen F. Austin Elementary School in Wharton, TX, circa 1954. The school’s name was later changed to Abell Street School, then to Hopper Elementary.

Architect David Bucek, from Wharton, said the school was ahead of its time.

“Other schools, even schools that had a Little School program, didn’t integrate their students until the late 60s or even the 70s in many cases,” he said. “At Wharton, they did the right thing.”

The now vacant building is under threat from much needed housing development.

President of the Wharton County Historical Commission, Patricia Blair, said the developer had agreed to keep the building shell and use it for housing. Blair said that wasn’t enough.

“It would be pitiful, I think, or shameful if we couldn’t tell these stories at the site where these things happened.”

Residents formed a non-profit organization in 2019 to convert the school into a much-needed community education facility and worked to move the proposed accommodation to a nearby vacant property.

The Stephen F. Austin School is appointed for the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2022 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Preservation Texas has school on its 2021 list of most endangered places.

About Michael G. Walter

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