Tell us a little about the project. Sam Houston High School, an institution in San Antonio’s predominately African-American East Side for 58 years, is under siege. Declining enrollment and poor academic performance plague the school. The San Antonio Independent School District, following a nationwide downsizing trend for inner-city schools, placed the school on its school closure list in 2009. As the school year began, students and staff expected the 2010 academic year would be the last at their beloved “Sam,” as the school is affectionately known. For many, the school is a place of refuge amid the chaos of life at home and the instability in their community. Its closure would reverberate far beyond its halls. Despite being called “the pride of the East Side,” Sam Houston High School failed to meet state academic standards four out of the past five years. The failing school went through five principals in nine years. It also missed federal benchmarks for seven consecutive years, requiring the school to be “restructured.” But armed with a dedicated new principal and a renewed spirit to survive, the school was given the opportunity to turn itself around.
You had amazing access, both to the school and students’ lives outside the classroom. How were you able to pull it off? The initial access was granted by the school, an extremely rare opportunity to tell a story in a much more complete way. I could come and go when I wanted and go almost anywhere I wanted. But that doesn’t necessarily equal storytelling pictures. The biggest challenge was getting the students to understand what I was doing and why. For the most part they were themselves around me. But they are teenagers with a great awareness of their image and they were always aware of my presence and what that meant to some degree— more so than many people I photograph because they felt their school and neighborhood had been portrayed so negatively in the news. I overcame that [issue] by being at the school as much as possible, by putting the time in so they would get used to me. I went to all of the events they invited me to, listened to their stories, and learned about who they are and where they come from.
Sam Houston High School has such a storied history in San Antonio. How did the students and faculty react to the threat of closure? Most people in the community that Sam Houston serves and the alumni, were very upset. The community meeting to voice opposition to the plan drew close to a thousand people. They lined up for five hours to have their moment at the podium. Students had mixed emotions. Two seniors said it best, “I just wanted to graduate from Sam Houston.” There is something very special there [that] I can’t define. It’s more like a big family than academia. I think that’s why they care about it so much. But they’ve got to have the academics to stay open.
You had an inside look at a struggling school. What did you learn while working on the project? The most profound thing I learned was how complicated the lives are for almost every single student outside the school. When close to 90 percent of the students are “economically disadvantaged,” so much comes with that, and [it] has nothing to do with academics. There are a ton of obstacles to even get to the learning process. And the education and learning issues start very early. Somehow the kids pass through, and all of a sudden you’ve got seniors who can barely read. To me, that looks like a fundamental education disaster that started years before the students got to Sam. Now Sam has to deal with it and try to get them to graduate. It’s tough on everyone. Another thing I got to see, since I photograph assignments in other school districts as well, is the discrepancy among school districts. The San Antonio Independent School District has far fewer resources than other districts. It would make me very sad to go to other schools and see the opportunities and resources they have that Sam lacks.
Many of the students have incredibly difficult lives. A teen pregnancy and stabbing are in your story line. But there were many lighter moments. How did you strike that balance? Balance was extremely important and the truth. I laughed and cried many a day at Sam, and so did many of the kids. Their lives are emotional roller coasters and I really wanted to capture that. They are the most exuberant, energetic students I’ve ever been around. But then there was a dark side to many of their lives. While a lot of people think Sam is a dangerous school, it’s not. A lot of the students felt it was a sanctuary, safer and more comforting than their homes.
What’s happened to Sam Houston high school this year? The school board decided to keep Sam open after the community uproar. The school was found to be “academically unacceptable” for the fifth year in a row by the Texas Education Agency. The state could have closed it but didn’t. A ton of money has been poured into creating the New Tech San Antonio High School. Half of the students are attending New Tech while the other half are regular Sam students. The new principal is still there, he’s in his third year.
You went to Sam to tell a story and left as a mentor to student Bria Webb. How did you meet her? I had seen Bria and photographed her during the first week I spent at the school. It was mid-October and homecoming week. She came up to me at the homecoming football game and asked if she could shadow me. It was all Bria after that. Working with Bria has been great for me as a person. She’s an old soul, but she helps keep me feeling young, too. She’s not like an average 18-year-old. She’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, but really focused and goes for what she wants. It’s inspiring to see her go after things with such quiet force. There is a power and ambition about her. She has opened my mind as well, just as a lot of the Sam students did.
Lisa Krantz is a staff photographer at the San Antonio Express-News. She covers everything from hurricanes to NBA Championships, but her true passion is documenting intimate, under-reported stories. She is a three-time NPPA regional Photographer of the Year. In February, Ms. Krantz was awarded third place Newspaper Photographer of the Year by Pictures of the Year International. Her story chronicling a year at Sam Houston High School was awarded second place Issue Reporting Picture Story and named a finalist for the Community Awareness Award in POYi, as well as a runner-up for the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, and a finalist for the ASNE Community Photojournalism Award. The project was part of a portfolio that earned Ms. Krantz the 2010 Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Award for Photojournalism.
A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.