This marked the end of one of the 20th century’s most significant civil-rights battles. Corpus Christi schools soon resegregated. Today, 93 percent of students at Zavala Elementary are Latino, and 95 percent are poor. Roughly two-thirds of its students, meanwhile, are labeled as “at risk of dropping out” based on their achievement levels and disciplinary issues. Most of the extra local funding that came as a result of the Cisneros lawsuit also disappeared over time, compounded by the deep state cuts, which have reduced the overall pool of funding for all of Texas public schools.
Meanwhile, Palacios continued to refine her methods, developing “journals” to detect what her 4-year-olds—who typically can’t yet read or write fluently—learned every day. Students would respond to Palacios’s questions by drawing pictures and telling stories about them, using new concepts and words they’d learned. She also started coaching parents every six weeks, including by modeling lessons on how to teach reading at home, which she said became one of the most effective strategies she’d implemented in her career.
“The hardest part about teaching before I retired was seeing the disintegration of support for public schools,” Palacios said over lunch at a local restaurant, during an all-day training session for preschool teachers she organized in collaboration with the district. “What I’ve seen over time, especially in the last 10 years, [is that] there are so many new, unfunded demands and programs. STEAM [science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics] initiatives, for example, require resources. You can’t talk about granite if the kids haven’t seen granite. You can’t talk about water pressure, water displacement, or buoyancy without water droppers, PVC pipes, or water tables that make up these experiences.”
When touring classrooms in the Corpus Christi district a few years ago as part of a teacher-training initiative, she observed that worksheets had replaced the paint, glitter, and building blocks that once dominated preschool learning spaces.
Despite the retreat from integration efforts and anti-poverty programs by the courts and the government, Palacios still views the legacy of the Cisneros case as crucial progress. “Schools resegregated, but the eyes were open: Separate is not equal.”
These days, as Palacios coaches dozens of teachers in Corpus Christi, she talks to them about the importance of leadership and advocacy, just as much as she talks about teaching practices. Palacios tells them how she created a pre-kindergarten professional association, which, at one point, convinced the school board not to cut the district’s paraprofessional positions. She also hosted a yearly open house in preschools for school-board members and administrators across the district to show them the promise of effective and engaging teaching through sustained funding.
“I know it takes a lot of energy to do all that, but if you’re going to complain about it, it's never going to make a difference,” Palacios said at the end of a long day of coaching teachers. “You’ve got to be in there, be the advocate, and make the changes for the children.”
This article is part of our project "On Teaching," which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.