Houston’s three-county region accounts for a quarter of Texas’ population growth

2020 Census data shows how the Houston region has evolved over the last decade

The U.S. Census Bureau has released data from the 2020 Census; however, collecting this data did not come without its challenges. In March 2020, right as households began receiving invitations to participate in the 2020 Census, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the U.S. Census Bureau to cease all in-person operations. Not only did social distancing make it challenging to go door-to-door to follow-up with folks who hadn’t completed the census, but the virus (along with uncertainty around the existence of citizenship-status questions) also hindered Houston’s response rates to the 2020 Census

In an article with Understanding Houston, Frances Valdez, the Executive Director of Houston in Action, wrote, “The census affects how billions of our tax dollars will come back into our communities through federal budgeting allocations over the next decade.” The lower the response rate, the smaller the budgets for services and programs like public education, public transit, housing, and more. Decennial census data allows us to look at the present to understand what the Houston region may need in the future. This data informs redistricting efforts, alerts county officials to which groups are growing or declining, and helps policymakers’ plans to strengthen our region for the road ahead. 

Houston’s three-county region adds one million residents in past decade

The past decade has been a time of growth for both the state of Texas and the Greater Houston region. The population of Texas grew to 29.1 million in 2020 by adding nearly 4 million residents since 2010. Three Houston-area counties — Fort Bend, Harris, Montgomery — accounted for one-fourth of Texas’ population growth.

As for Houston’s three-county region, each one of our three largest counties has also experienced population growth. The population of Harris County — the most populous county in the state — increased to 6.2 million (15.6%) between 2010 and 2020. Fort Bend County is home to 822,800 people and grew 40.6% in the last decade — the fastest growth rate in our three-county region. Montgomery County’s population grew 36.1% since 2010 to 620,400 in 2020.

Population growth consists of two main components: natural increase and net migration. Natural increase refers to the number of births minus deaths in a population, and tends to remain relatively steady over time. Whereas, net migration — the total of the number of individuals who moved into an area minus those who moved out — can have more frequent fluctuations. 

Domestic and international migration drives population growth in Houston’s three-county region

The U.S. Census Bureau distinguishes between domestic and international migration in its migration estimates — domestic migration is any movement within the nation while international migration refers to movement across international borders.

For example, between 2010 and 2020, about 81,900 more residents left Harris County to live somewhere else in the U.S. than moved into Harris County from another U.S. county. (This is the second consecutive decade in which Harris County had negative net domestic migration. Between 2000 and 2010, 72,100 more residents left Harris County to live somewhere else in the country.) 

However, Harris County net-gained 289,400 residents to its population between 2010 and 2020 from more people from overseas moving into the area than leaving it for another country. Much of Fort Bend and Montgomery counties’ population growth comes from domestic migration — historically, people from Harris County moving to a neighboring one.

Population projections for Houston’s three-county region hit the mark

In 2014, the Texas Demographic Center (previously known as State Data Center) made population projections for three different migration scenarios: one, assuming zero net migration (the number of people who move in equals the number of people moving out), another assuming a net migration rate equal to one-half of the rate seen between 2000 and 2010 (0.5 Scenario), and a final scenario assuming the net migration rate will be equal to the rate seen between 2000 and 2010 (1.0 Scenario). 

The 2020 population of Texas is not very different from the projections the Texas Demographic Center made in 2014. Under the 0.5 scenario, they projected that the population of Texas would reach 28.8 million by 2020. Under the 1.0 Scenario, they projected Fort Bend’s population would reach 888,600; under the 0.5 Scenario, they projected Harris County’s population would reach 4,683,874; and Montgomery’s 2020 population is closest to the 1.0 Scenario estimate. 

According to their most recent projections made in 2018, the Texas Demographic Center estimates that by 2030, Fort Bend’s population will nearly double to 1.2 million, Harris County’s will exceed 5.9 million, and Montgomery County’s will reach 831,450.

More than two-thirds of Houston’s three-county region is comprised of People of Color

The past 40 years has been one of transformative change for the three-county Houston region. Not only has our region grown to one of the most populous in the nation, but also the racial/ethnic composition of our residents has diversified. Between 1980 and 2020, each of the four largest racial/ethnic groups increased, however the growth rate of Hispanics and Asian Americans outpaced that of non-Hispanic whites and Black Houstonians, creating a demographic shift in our region from being majority-white to majority-people-of-color. While this mirrors a similar trend happening across the nation and the state of Texas, no other major metropolitan area has witnessed this change more acutely and quickly as Houston, according to Stephen Klineberg, principal investigator of the Houston Area Survey and sociologist at Rice University. Interact with the chart below to see how racial/ethnic composition has changed in our region and Texas by selecting different geographies in the drop-down menu.

In 2020, there were nearly 2.4 million Hispanics/Latinos in Houston’s three-county region (nearly 39% of the region), with 2 million in Harris County alone. In 1980, just 40 years ago, Hispanics comprised 15% of the region’s population. The weight of these figures typically does not faze most Houstonians who have witnessed this significant shift, but to most Americans, these changes are unique. For example, among the 100 most populous counties in the nation, only 12 have a higher percentage of Hispanics than Harris County. More recently, Houston’s Hispanic/Latino community has grown considerably in the last decade. Between 2010 and 2020, the Hispanic/Latino population in the three-county region grew by 26% alone. The number of Latinos grew by 43% in Fort Bend County, 22% in Harris County, and 73% in Montgomery County during the same time period.

More broadly, in Texas, the Hispanic/Latino population grew by nearly 2 million people between 2010 and 2020, increasing its share of the state population from 37.6% to 39.3%. In fact, non-white people made up 95% of all of Texas’ growth in the past 10 years –– and Hispanics alone accounted for half of that growth.

According to recent Census data, the three-county region’s Asian-American population grew by 53% — from 358,000 in 2010 to 548,000 in 2020 — the fastest growth rate in our region. In 2020, Asian Americans comprised 8.9% of the three-county region population compared to 7.0% in 2010 and only 1.8% in 1980. Between 2010 and 2020, the number of Asian Americans grew 84% in Fort Bend County, 38% in Harris County, and 129% in Montgomery County — though Asian Americans comprise less than 4% of Montgomery’s total population.

Fort Bend County has the highest proportion of Asian-American residents in Texas (22%). In Sugar Land, nearly 39% of the population identifies as Asian American. Asian Indians comprise 41% of the Asian-American population in Fort Bend, while Vietnamese Americans account for the largest share in the rest of our region. Read more about the fastest-growing ethnic group in our region here.

Of course, it is difficult to talk about population growth without considering how certain groups are typically displaced from their communities due to changing economic and demographic conditions. For example, the Houston Chronicle reports that historically Black Third Ward has changed significantly in the last decade. In 2020, Black people comprised 45% of the neighborhood — a decline from 71% in 2010. Acres Homes in North Houston saw its Black population fall 12% and its Latino population grow by 65%. Second Ward saw its Latino population decline by 25% while its white population increased 50%. Learn more about the history of these communities in the Chronicle’s report.

Trends today inform Houston’s future

Census data allows us to recognize the trends of the past and plan for the population of the future. The data also represents an opportunity for us to strengthen our region in the places where change and evolution will be necessary. These shifts in our population have implications for our community context, economic opportunity in our region, our education system, and much more, including the process of adding a congressional district to our region and redistricting, which is currently underway. 

As Houston’s three-county region continues to grow, we will continue to analyze and report on the data that affects our communities. Given the pandemic, the Census Bureau is expected to release its first-that-we-know of “experimental” data set that will allow us to delve deeper into the latest trends on a broader range of quality of life issues. Stay tuned for data updates coming in November and early 2022! We invite you to get to know the data, keep up with our mission on social media and discover how you can get involved to help Understanding Houston continue exploring what matters to the Houston area.

A Path Forward: How Arts Education Helps Student Learning and Well-Being

The 2021–22 school year has reamplified public concerns regarding COVID-19’s continued impact on our children, including its toll on their mental and emotional wellbeing as well as lost learning opportunities. Addressing these needs will necessitate holistic, comprehensive approaches that require our community to reexamine children’s educational priorities, needs and resources. While many of these strategies will require further investigation and experimentation, the arts have proven to be remarkably valuable in addressing and strengthening students’ social and emotional learning needs.

As a region with remarkable wealth and an abundance of arts resources, we believe that Houston-area schools should work together with arts organizations and institutions to utilize the arts and address our students’ pressing needs.  

What is Social Emotional Learning?

Defining Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is complicated because the phrase is often employed differently by various stakeholder groups. A classroom teacher may use SEL to refer to social emotional skills like empathy and perseverance. Meanwhile, a parent may think of SEL as a means for promoting positive relationships amongst their children’s peers.

The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as the process through which people (both young and old) acquire knowledge and skills to manage their emotions and feelings, achieve goals, display compassion and empathy for others, cultivate and maintain relationships, make better decisions, and ultimately develop a healthy self-image.

Policymakers have come to recognize the importance of SEL in schools. In the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, i.e., The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Congress added legislation requiring states to broaden their measures of school quality and effectiveness. The vast majority of states have since responded by adopting measures that assess students’ school engagement, school culture and climate, and SEL. While the emphasis on SEL had been gaining steam, the COVID-19 pandemic made its importance all the more apparent.

About one-third of adults in the Houston Metro Area have reported feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge for at least more than half the days of a week since the start of the pandemic, with some groups faring worse than others. As students across Houston continue to experience high rates of anxiety, trauma and depression in light of the pandemic, it is important to address these mental health challenges directly. Latinos for Education recently shared that 46% of Spanish-speaking parents in Houston have seen their children experience mental health struggles and decreased socialization. 

SEL development combats these issues head on. A 2017 study showed that students who received SEL programming tended to handle emotional distress better and experienced less drug usage. Research also shows strong correlations between mental health and academic performance — the same study found that students who received SEL programming averaged 13 percentage points higher than non-SEL peers on academic performance metrics.

These benefits go beyond the individual. A separate 2015 cost-benefit analysis on SEL interventions reported an average of an $11 return on investment for every dollar spent on SEL programming. This type of return on investment can be utilized by the Houston community-at-large to increase economic opportunities, reduce poverty, and improve other outcomes for students.

The Arts Opportunity

There is little consistency in how schools approach teaching SEL concepts to their students. Some campuses integrate SEL into their school improvement and/or strategic plans directly and encourage their teachers to incorporate SEL concepts into existing lesson plans, while others teach SEL concepts entirely separate. Regardless of what approach an individual campus may choose, there is one scientifically proven, yet historically overlooked (and underfunded) avenue for increasing these skills: arts education.

Children grow their skills and behaviors through developmental experiences that allow them to participate in daily life and reflect on how their participation impacts them. These experiences also tend to be the most impactful when they occur in “strong, supportive, and sustained developmental relationships with important adults and peers.” Put another way, students develop skills, habits and behaviors most effectively when they are actively involved in the “doing” of learning, and when they are surrounded by people they care about, like teachers and classmates. 

Communal active learning is at the core of arts education. Any art form, whether it be music, theatre, visual arts, dance, etc., provides students the chance to actively explore new concepts, new skills and new behaviors with their peers. Arts education programming affords students an opportunity to mimic or interpret experts and leaders in an art form, participate as much or as little as they feel comfortable, develop self-discipline through practice and contribute to a collective effort. For instance, a classroom of third graders may mimic their art teacher’s still-life painting and attempt to produce something similar. This act forces the student to think critically about how to produce a similar piece, what materials they may need, and how to move their hands. They may look around and engage nearby students for advice or learn by what others are doing. The process of creating art builds focus and endured concentration, while empowering students to express themselves in ways they normally would not be able to articulate.

A 2019 Rice University study examined the impacts of arts educational experiences on Houston students and also found considerable impacts on their social and emotional outcomes. Students who received access to these arts educational experiences saw substantial increases in their writing achievement, compassion for others, and a reduction in school disciplinary issues. Among elementary school students, this same study saw significant increases in school engagement levels, aspirations for college, and empathy.

Funders and decision-makers often point to a lack of empirical evidence as the reasoning behind not investing in the arts. This study is tangible proof that right here in Houston, arts education is a lever for improving SEL outcomes. Our region has already developed a strong, vibrant and growing infrastructure for supporting this work. The creation of the Houston ISD Fine Arts Department in 2017 has seen the Fine Arts student-teacher ratio drop by over 100 students per teacher and has eliminated 30 Fine Arts deserts at elementary schools across the city. Arts Connect Houston, a collective-impact organization of over 80 partners, including arts and cultural organizations, Houston ISD, funders, and city/government leaders exists to increase equitable access to the arts  in schools across Houston. Since 2019, we have seen partnerships between schools and cultural organizations grow 17% — demonstrating an increase in understanding the impact the arts can have in supporting students, particularly amid an ongoing pandemic. Imagine what that growth could look like, and the subsequent SEL outcomes, if the arts were sufficiently supported.

An arts-rich education in Houston

Margo Hickman, a theatre teacher in Houston noted that when she looks at her students, “so many of them are frustrated. They are angry. The arts allow them to release those feelings.” Margo incorporates Social Emotional Learning through theatre games and meditation. When asked how the arts have impacted her student’s social-emotional learning, she simply added, “The arts have saved people’s lives.”

“So many of the [students] are frustrated. They are angry. The arts allow them to release those feelings.”

– Margo Hickman, Theatre Teacher in Houston

Social Emotional Learning is an important aspect of a child’s development, and the arts provide a proven pathway to grow those skills, but students lack equitable access to these valuable educational experiences. As of 2021, it is estimated that nearly 9,000 elementary school students within Houston ISD do not have access to a full-time certified fine arts teacher at their school. Last year, nearly 40 schools reported no partnerships with any arts and cultural organizations, while others worked with as many as six. Moreover, past studies have shown that students from historically underserved communities are much less likely to engage in arts learning experiences outside of school (while affluent students are twice as likely!), meaning that investments from schools and districts are critical for ensuring that these students have these opportunities. Shaela Sageth, a Houston ISD student planning on pursuing an arts-related degree next fall highlights the disparity in access saying  “Being low-income, school was my only chance to access arts classes and creative tools while growing up. I would have liked to have had these kinds of diverse arts opportunities in my schools.” 

Looking ahead

As our community continues to discuss the best way forward, administrators will face incredible challenges for determining how best to spend scarce resources. As a community, we need to consider holistic, comprehensive approaches that employ the vast resources available in our city to provide all students no matter their neighborhood or school, with the tools they need to successfully navigate the trauma of a global health crisis and prepare them for lifelong success. Arts education is a tried-and-true means for addressing these challenges.

It is up to all of us, now more than ever, to ensure that every child has access to the benefits of an arts-rich education. Our city has already cultivated the necessary tools to implement meaningful change. Despite the horrible crisis we have found ourselves in for the past year and a half, we have also been afforded an incredible opportunity to reevaluate how we educate our students. It is time to invest in the “arts opportunity” and grow and nurture our children’s humanity, sense of community, and perseverance. Doing so will ensure that Houston remains a vibrant and thriving community for years to come.  

 By Michael Sheehy, Deborah Lugo, and Daniel H. Bowen, PhD

Michael Sheehy is the Data + Advocacy manager for Arts Connect Houston. He holds a degree in theatre from the University of Kentucky and an M.P.P. from the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Before coming to Houston, Michael worked as a researcher measuring audience response to COVID-19 and social impact for WolfBrown and El Sistema USA respectively.

Deborah Lugo is the Executive Director for Arts Connect Houston. Through her work, she facilitates strategic alignments and opportunities in order to expand access to arts education for students throughout the Houston ISD. Deborah, originally from Puerto Rico, holds a Master in Public Policy from Princeton University and a Bachelor in Violin Performance from Florida International University. Before her time at Arts Connect, she was the Executive Director of Mercury Chamber Orchestra.

Daniel Bowen, Ph.D. is an associate professor with Texas A&M University’s Department of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development, a research affiliate of Rice University’s Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC), and the co-director of the National Endowment for the Arts-sponsored Arts, Humanities, and Civic Engagement Lab. Dr. Bowen primarily investigates the educational impacts of arts, humanities, and civic engagement learning experiences through experimental and quasi-experimental research methods. 

Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating a rich past, present, and future

As the largest ethnic group in the region, Houston’s Hispanic community has left an indelible impression in our communities — both past and present. From indigenous roots spanning the Americas and those with African ancestry, to early Spanish-speaking settlers and present-day community pillars, Houstonians who identify as Hispanic/Latino have shaped our region in fundamental and invaluable ways.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we’ll explore Houston’s multifaceted Hispanic/Latino community through data, history and what current leaders are doing to keep the community’s legacy thriving throughout our region.

To me, Houston is the most dynamic city for Latinos in Texas. Not only have they been present since the city’s founding, but the community is constantly being strengthened by new arrivals who bring fresh energy, skills and perspectives. Hispanics in Houston introduce vibrant foods, music and cultural scenes. They integrate quickly into the economy and interact daily with other racial and ethnic groups. While many inequalities and challenges persist, this is a place where Latinos come to set roots, to grow, and to thrive.

– Dr. Cecilia Ballí, an anthropologist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies

The Hispanic/Latino population in Houston

Greater Houston is home to one of the nation’s largest Hispanic populations, numbering more than 2.3 million people (38%) throughout the region. 

Hispanics are most likely to live in Harris County, where they comprise 42% of the population. In 1980, only 41 years ago, Hispanics made up only 15% of the county’s population. Both in Greater Houston and throughout the state, the Hispanic population is projected to continue growing. According to the Texas Demographic Center, the Hispanic/Latino1 population in Texas is projected to reach 12.3 million by 2022 — becoming the largest ethnic group in the state. By 2030, the population is expected to reach 14.5 million. Let’s take a look at how the Hispanic/Latino community has shaped —and will continue to shape — the Houston we know and love. 

Houston’s Latino community is diverse

Because the general terms “Hispanic” or ”Latino” are used to describe a group of people who originate from a wide variety of Spanish-speaking or Latin American countries, and who understand their identity in different ways, the diversity within that broad group can often go unnoticed. Houston’s Hispanic/Latino population is not a monolith and can trace its heritage to many different countries and indigenous tribes. 

Moreover, many people whose ancestors identified as Hispanic/Latino, may not describe themselves that way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanic self-identification varies across immigrant generations. Among people who report Hispanic ancestry, almost all the foreign born identify as Hispanic, whereas only half of those who are fourth generation Hispanic/Latino Americans or higher do.

While a majority of Houston’s Hispanic population originates from Mexico, we find incredible diversity among all residents of Hispanic/Latino origin as well as among those with Mexican and Indigenous ancestry. As such, Mexican Texans, also known as “Tejanos,” have a long history in the state and in our region. 

Dr. Jesus Jesse Esparza, an Assistant Professor of History at Texas Southern University, showcases the past and present of Houston’s Mexican American community in his piece La Colonia Mexicana: A History of Mexican Americans in Houston

The end of the Texas Revolution in the mid-1830s marked a significant turning point in Mexican-American settlement in Houston and the booming economy and culture we celebrate today. Areas of early settlement, including Segundo Barrio in the Second Ward and Magnolia Park Neighborhood in the East End, quickly became hotspots for the community to grow. 

Magnolia Park in particular –– named after the beautiful magnolia trees that line the neighborhood –– became the city’s largest Mexican-American community and was given the nickname “Little Mexico.” Mexican-American residents of the Magnolia Barrio, as it was called, worked on dredging the Houston Ship Channel in the early 1910’s. The important role Mexican Americans played in deepening the Channel allowed larger cargo ships to enter the port, which is why the Port of Houston is consistently the largest in the nation (measured by domestic and foreign waterborne tonnage) and contributes an estimated $339 billion in economic value to the state of Texas.

Houston’s Mexican-American population established a variety of social, cultural, religious, and political organizations that advocated for the community and paved the way for its residents to thrive. From the Second Ward came Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the first Mexican-American church in Houston and the first religious institution to offer services in Spanish. This church also ran one of the earliest schools for Mexican-American children in the region and provided food and shelter to those in the community.

From even before Houston’s founding to today, Mexican Americans have been and continue to be the largest Hispanic group in our region, and cultural staples such as civil rights organizations, theatre companies, and art exhibits that were established around the 1980s still exist and thrive in present-day Houston.

“Houston is so blessed with the richness of our Hispanic Heritage and our multifaceted cultures. This vast Texas city of opportunity coupled with warm Texas hospitality, kindness and charm make Houston, in my opinion, the greatest city in the world. Our fusion of flavor, color, music, and art are the spice that makes Houston so desirable and unique.
In one family gathering, which because of our heritage are quite often, we easily represented Cuban, Mexican, Panamanian, Nicaraguan, Argentinean, Costa Rican, Dutch and Spanish cultures—and this is just the beginning. Our people, history, warmth and love are the greatest assets to our city and to our future.”

– Mayte Sera Weitzman, 2021 President and Board Chair, Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston

Houston’s Latino community has supported our economy for decades

The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 established a new immigration policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. This policy change enabled thousands of people from Latin American, Asian, and African countries to move into the Houston region, causing a population boom that has propelled our economy into one of the largest in the nation today. As sociologist Stephen Klineberg has written, “No city has benefited more from immigration than Houston, Texas.” This population boom also paved the way for our metropolitan area to be one of the most ethnically diverse places in the nation and one of only four with a Latino plurality.2 

“As a life-long resident of the greater Houston area, I have seen a tremendous amount of impact from our Latino population. But it hasn’t always been easy for Latinos. Everything I do today, including in my community work around housing and education, is in remembrance of the role models my parents were. They were extremely humble but extremely loving. They worked hard to instill a strong work ethic and to provide for our family and my education. They loved life despite the hardships. My parents are my inspiration, but so many successful Houston Latinos continue to lead the way as well and should absolutely be celebrated. I’m proud of my heritage and culture and aspire to relay that to the younger generation.”

Laura Jaramillo, Greater Houston Community Foundation Board Member

While immigration is central to the story of Houston, some make the mistake of believing that most people of Hispanic origin are recent immigrants or newcomers. In fact, as of 2019, the majority of Hispanic/Latino residents in our region were born in the U.S. (61%). And, about half of Hispanic residents that were born outside the U.S. have been in the country since before the year 2000. Only about 20-26% entered the U.S. in 2010 or after.

Hispanic/Latino workers are integral to Houston’s workforce and economic growth. In addition to participating in the labor force at higher rates than the overall region3, Hispanic workers continue to fill critical workforce gaps in labor-short industries such as agriculture, construction, and healthcare, according to bipartisan research from New American Economy

Latinos comprise 35% of the Houston metro-area labor force, but hold 62% of jobs in construction, extraction and maintenance, 47% in service, and 45% in production and transportation, according to research from the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies (CMAS). These jobs tend to pay less than the regional average and were among the sectors hit the hardest during the pandemic. It is not surprising then that Hispanic households have experienced the highest rates of job and income loss since COVID-19 forced shutdowns.

Educating the region’s future workforce

Educational attainment rates for Latinos as a whole tend to lag that of other groups, despite recent improvements. The share of Latino adults in the region with at least a high school diploma has increased from 44% in 2000 to 63% in 2017. More recent data shows that nearly two-thirds of Latino adults have at least a high school diploma or equivalent in 2019.

There are differences in the levels of education between Latinos who are foreign born versus native born, and even among the foreign born as well. For example, 12% of Hispanic immigrants in the three-county region have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 20% of Hispanic adults born in the U.S. 4 Research from CMAS found that recent Latino immigrants are more likely to be better educated than those who arrived before them. For example, 27% of immigrants who have arrived in the last five years have a bachelor’s degree or higher. For those who have been here for at least 11 years, that drops to less than 10%.

Access to quality education is critical to maintaining a skilled workforce in our knowledge-based economy. However, nationally and locally, Hispanic students are five times more likely to attend a high-poverty school than white students, resulting in very unequal educational experiences. Given the fact that more than 575,000 Hispanic students are enrolled in the three-county region’s public schools (52%), our collective future success depends on the investments we make today. 

The civic and cultural contributions of Houston’s Hispanic/Latino community

Full citizenship is something one possesses as well as what one does. And, they are not mutually exclusive. While certainly not the only way, one of the most fundamental ways to exercise one’s citizenship is to vote. Hispanic voters are increasingly making up a larger share of the Texas electorate. Nearly 17 million adults in Texas were registered to vote in 2020, and the Census Bureau estimates about 30% of those are Hispanic/Latino. About 60% of Hispanic citizens in the Houston Metro Area were registered to vote in the 2020 Presidential election.

“Voting is learned through example, in the family and the community, and as larger numbers of Hispanics feel empowered to go to the polls, our share of the electorate will grow to properly represent our demographic size.”

– Dr. Cecilia Ballí, an anthropologist and Visiting Scholar at the University of Houston’s Center for Mexican American Studies  

Hispanic Houstonians have a strong history in civic leadership, whether leading the third-most-populous county in the nation, working toward educational equity, fighting for social and political justice, to promoting cultural food, music, and arts, their contributions enrich our community. Read about eleven Hispanic community leaders who are making a difference by visiting our Hispanic Heritage Month 2020 blog.

One notable Hispanic leader in the Greater Houston area is Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, a native Colombian who moved to Houston at the age of 15. Judge Hidalgo is the first woman and the first Latina to be elected County Judge and the second to be elected to the Commissioners Court. For some time in 2019 and part of 2020, the Harris County Judge (Lina Hidalgo), Houston Police Chief (Art Acevedo), and Harris County Sheriff (Ed Gonzalez) were all Latino. 

“In 1955, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) Council 60-members purchased a building on an odd-shaped parcel of land that became their “clubhouse” and the de facto national headquarters for LULAC until 1996. This clubhouse served as a launchpad for creating  transformational social programs for Houston’s Hispanic community in education, workforce development and housing.”

– Jesus Davila, Founder at Landing Advisors

Latinos have also played an instrumental part in building Houston’s strong reputation for incredible food and culture. The Original Ninfa’s was started as a small taco stand by Maria Ninfa Rodríguez Laurenzo, a Mexican-American woman, in 1973. “Mama Ninfa” is widely credited with popularizing fajitas among Houstonians. Chefs and restaurateurs, David and Michael Cordúa elevated the profile of Latin American cuisine in Houston through famous establishments like Américas and Churrascos. Irma Galvan and Hugo Ortega, helped put Houston on the culinary map with Irma’s and Hugo’s, Caracol and Xochi. On the art scene, Colombian-American, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, became Houston’s first Latino music director for the Houston Symphony in 2014, and Venezuelan Karina Gonzalez is Houston’s first Latina Principal Ballerina.

In addition to notable leaders, incredible organizations in the region work to preserve the culture, history and language of Hispanic communities, particularly the collaborative effort to establish a major Latino cultural center in our region.

The Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston is a local nonprofit organization that serves the Hispanic community through educational, cultural, and networking activities in collaboration with other Houston organizations and universities to keep the vibrant culture alive. Located in the East End, Talento Bilingüe de Houston is a bilingual, non-profit cultural center that strives to enhance Houston’s Latino arts experience through collaboration, education. and preservation. Not only do they provide workshops and exhibits to enrich the Hispanic/Latino community, but they aim to spread their passions with the rest of the Greater Houston area.

One of the largest cultural organizations in Houston, the Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts, or MECA, still exists today thanks to the vision, passion, and dedication to community and youth of Alice Valdez. Read more about her decades of impact. 

Casa Ramirez Folkart Gallery is not just a gallery. This vibrant shop on 19th Street showcases Mexican and Latin folk and art works, sells books on cooking, culture, and language for children, and is a community pillar for teaching cultural traditions. 

Finally, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston showcases the Latin American Art collection that hosts a vast collection of modern and contemporary art with more than 550 works from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and works by Latino artists in the United States.

Celebrating a rich past, present, and future 

In no uncertain terms, the greater Houston region would not be where it is today without the presence, perspectives and contributions of members from our Hispanic/Latino community. As a vital part of our region’s history and future, Latinos in Houston continue to enrich and better our region in countless ways that we celebrate today. 

Check out special events from Hispanic Houston, Institute of Hispanic Culture of Houston, and attend a free special Fiesta Sinfónica concert at Jones Hall on October 2. Read about the nominees of Mayor Sylvester Turner’s 2021 Hispanic Heritage Awards and hear more from notable leaders themselves. Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

Photo credit: The Heritage Society


1Understanding Houston utilizes the U.S. Census term, “Hispanic,” “Latino” or “Hispanic/Latino” when referring to the overall population. For the purposes of this article, we will use these terms interchangeably depending on the nomenclature used in our cited sources.

2Understanding Houston analysis of the 20 most populous Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA) from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey data. Other MSAs with a Latino plurality include (in descending order): Riverside MSA, Miami MSA, and Los Angeles MSA. Houston-The Woodlands-Sugar Land, TX (MSA) is a region that includes the following counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Fort Bend, Galveston, Harris, Liberty, Montgomery, and Waller.

3Analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey.

4Understanding Houston analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 2019 American Community Survey, 5-year estimates, Public Use Microdata Sample (PUMS) for the population 25 years and older.

COVID-19’s ongoing effect on students in Greater Houston

A data-driven look into how the pandemic has affected students in Greater Houston 

Since March 2020, the world has been coping with the devastating impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many students, the classroom suddenly became the kitchen table. Their teachers were now little squares on a screen. The learning experience that most students were accustomed to had been flipped upside down. 

As the 2021-22 school year approaches and students return to the classroom amidst the fourth wave of COVID-19 infections, the pandemic and its effects are still ongoing. We’re analyzing available data on how COVID-19 has affected Houston-area students to shine a light on the challenges students may continue to face in yet another pandemic-affected school year.

The struggle to adapt to online learning 

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed the way students experience their education. As Houston-area school districts and campuses transitioned to 100% online learning at the start of the pandemic, the need for stable internet and consistent access to technological devices like laptops and tablets became a necessity. 

However, according to research from the Houston Education Research Consortium and RICE University, 20% of families reported that their child(ren) did not have a personal device such as a computer, laptop or tablet to do their schoolwork. The research also suggests that income played a significant role in setting students up for success in the form of access to the required resources to make online learning possible.  

Almost half of the participating households earning less than $20,000 per year reported not having a device or internet for their child(ren) to complete schoolwork, compared to only 4% of families earning over $100,000 per year. 

1 in 5 families

in the Houston area lacked internet access or a digital device for their child(ren) to use to do their schoolwork during the early months of the pandemic.

Source: Gulf Coast Coronavirus (COVID-19) Community Impact Survey

Daniel Potter, Associate Director of the Houston Education Research Consortium, notes how research suggests that the pandemic has pushed a larger proportion of Black and Hispanic students online, which can negatively impact learning. According to his organization’s findings, 70% of Black students and 60% of Hispanic students in the Greater Houston area opted into virtual learning in the 2020-21 school year compared to white students (40%). These are the same students who are more likely to attend high-poverty schools that have fewer resources –– including necessary technology –– to engage all students successfully. 

Parents show anxiety regarding students’ readiness for school

In the Gulf Coast Coronavirus (COVID-19) Community Impact Survey, a majority of surveyed families reported feeling worried that students would not be ready for the 2020-21 school year. Those without access to WiFi worried more –– 67% of families without access to WiFi/Internet and a device for schoolwork expressed concern that their child would not be ready for the upcoming school year, compared to 49% of families with access to WiFi and devices for schoolwork. 

Families that reported having access to WiFi and devices for schoolwork were not as worried about their children being prepared for the school year because they had the necessary resources. In an attempt to close this digital divide, Houston school districts distributed print copies of educational materials to families with limited access to technology to prevent students from falling behind. Additionally, WiFi hotspots purchased by the districts made online learning more accessible to all.

The impacts on student performance

From the cancellation of state standardized testing to the mandatory shift to remote instruction in March 2020, COVID-19 had a huge disruption on students. As schools transitioned into a “hybrid” learning model of virtual and in-person instruction in 2020-21, most campuses and students adapted to the new normal. However, as we begin the second full academic year in the era of COVID-19, the impacts on student learning and performance are beginning to emerge, though there is still much we do not know. 

According to the Kinder Institute for Urban Research at Rice University, in the 2020-21 school year, several districts reported a significant increase in the percentage of students failing at least one course. Their findings also show that failure rates were typically highest for students attending school in the online/virtual setting.

One measurable assessment, the eighth-grade math proficiency exam, is important in assessing student readiness for high school. The results from the Algebra I End-of-Course (EOC) State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) given to students in Spring 2021 show a significant decline in performance compared to 2019. Performance was on an upward trend prior to this decline.

In Spring 2021, 41% of students who took the Algebra I EOC exam met the state standard, compared to 62% in 2019. The proportion of students who met the standard fell 33 percentage points for Hispanic students, 25 points for low-income students, and 21 points for all students combined.

The effects on higher education plans

While the total impact COVID-19 has had on student attrition and graduation rates in the Houston area is still unclear, preliminary research suggests that the pandemic has contributed to students changing their post-secondary education plans. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center supports this survey data. The number of students enrolling in undergraduate higher education in Spring 2021 fell by 727,000 students nationally, or 4.9%, from Spring 2020. For comparison, undergraduate enrollment fell 0.5% between Spring 2019 and Spring 2020. More than 65% of the total undergraduate enrollment decline occurred among community colleges, institutions that are more likely to serve low-income students and students of color. Texas is not immune either.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 43% of Houston adults have canceled their higher education plans with 33% of students reporting they will be taking fewer classes in the fall of 2021. 

Three out of four students who have decided to halt their post-secondary educational plans cite financial constraints as the main reason. Houston already has one of the lower rates of people with postsecondary degrees among peer metros; if this trend continues, it could have widespread implications on the quality of our workforce.

Student mental health affects academic success

It is impossible to discuss COVID-19 without acknowledging its effects on student mental health. From being cut off from one’s peer group and missing out on important milestones like prom, graduation, college visits, etc., to grieving the death of parents and other loved ones, including breadwinners, adolescents are struggling with much more than school. 

Hispanics have the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in the region and the highest rates of employment and income loss. A survey conducted by Latinos for Education found that Latino parents are most concerned with the mental health of their children. Another recent study estimated that nine family members are affected by one person who dies of the coronavirus. Given that Hispanics also make up the majority of students in Houston-area schools, thousands of Hispanic students have experienced the worst impacts of the pandemic, all while still trying to learn.

Research indicates there is a direct link between mental health and academic achievement. It will be impossible to move on from the educational impacts of the pandemic without acknowledging and repairing student mental health, with an emphasis on supporting Hispanic students who have experienced the worst effects.

Looking ahead to 2021-22 with the lessons we’ve learned

COVID-19 has impacted everyone, but not everyone has been affected equally. Research suggests the pandemic has widened pre-existing disparities in academic performance and the pursuit of higher education. However, educators, school administrators and students have learned much since March 2020. We now know which tactics may work better than others, and we have a clearer picture of how students have been affected — and what they need moving forward.

Educating students while trying to keep their teachers, faculty and staff safe during the pandemic is a challenging task that comes with consequences. As we navigate through another COVID school year, we hope to see improvement in overall student performance alongside practices that prioritize the health and well-being of our children and their educators. 

Out and Proud for Science

The first PRIDE was a riot. No glitter, parades or corporations eager to release their brand-new shiny rainbow collections. The Stonewall uprising was ignited by constant police harassment and discrimination toward LGBTQ folx at the time. June 1969 was a turning point to state that we are here, we are queer, and we are not going to stop fighting for our rights. 

In the wise words of Marsha P. Johnson, “No pride for some of us, without liberation for all of us.” Ms. Johnson, a Black transgender woman, and Sylvia Rivera, a Latina trans woman, were among the activists that paved the way back in the late ’70s. Far from seeking recognition from a community that still struggles to embrace and protect trans folx, they used their voice to fight for equity and opened the first shelter to host LGBT youth.

Trans icons Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera at the Christopher Street Liberation Day March, 1973.Photo by Leonard Fink, Courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

Sadly, protecting trans youth is still a pressing issue more than 50 years after Stonewall. Learning LGBTQ history not only helped me understand our current struggles, but also continues inspiring me on a daily basis. I’m proud to honor Marsha and Sylvia’s legacy with my work as an openly queer Brown immigrant scientist.

Fighting for equity and liberation has always been one of my passions. Pride and visibility is not something you are born with. For some people, like me, the path to self-love and acceptance can be filled with fear and shame. I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina and attended medical school with a clear goal in mind – to make an impact on a community level by combining medicine and education, fostering love for science and public health and, hopefully, paving the way for other queer professionals to be themselves. 

After I finished medical school, I was offered the chance to move to Houston to work on HIV research at UTHealth. In the blink of an eye, I had packed my life into two bags and arrived in Texas. Before my trip, I didn’t know what to expect from Houston other than cowboy hats, cacti and NASA. I was pleasantly surprised to find a diverse city that feels like a small town and a queer community that has embraced me as chosen family. The more involved I got in HIV prevention and treatment, the more I understood there was a lot of work to be done in the South and particularly in my newly adopted city.

Understanding HIV prevalence in Houston

June 5, 2021 marks 40 years since the first five cases describing what later became known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and what is now THIV Stage III in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). As of June 2021, 32 million people have died from HIV worldwide – 700,000 in the United States – since the start of the global epidemic, and 38 million people are currently living with HIV. While we have come a long way and made amazing progress since those first diagnoses, challenges still remain in Greater Houston and beyond. 

According to the CDC, of the 37,968 new HIV diagnoses in the United States in 2018, half are in the South. Additionally, eight of the 10 states with the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses are in the South as are nine of the 10 metropolitan areas with the highest rates. Poverty, unemployment and lack of access to medical care are factors that drive the epidemic. Nine out of the 16 states in the South have not expanded Medicaid. Stigma and cultural factors continue playing a key role when it comes to status disclosure, support and access to HIV services. Unfortunately, Houston is no exception to the burden southern urban cities carry. In 2018, there were 27,057 people living with HIV in Houston, and 1,243 Houstonians were newly diagnosed with HIV. Over the past decade, this number has remained steady.

Between 2010 and 2016, a steady increase in HIV prevalence was observed throughout Greater Houston’s three largest counties, with the three-county area registering HIV diagnoses at 1.5 times the national rate. HIV prevalence is highest in Harris County, with rates 2-3 times higher than those in Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. 

It is important to point out the disproportionate HIV incidence rate among Black and Latinx populations. More recent 2018 data show that the rate of Black males in Houston living with an HIV diagnosis is 4.6 times that of white males. The rate of Black females living with an HIV diagnosis is 18.4 times that of white females. 

We need to do far better to bring awareness, education and empowerment to our most affected communities. Bringing community voices to the table is crucial to work together towards the end of the epidemic.

Hope in the form of a daily pill

Though HIV remains prevalent, new effective safe treatments have reduced pill burden to just one small pill a day, and an injectable antiretroviral combination was approved last year. HIV is not a death sentence. 

Moreover, when it comes to HIV prevention, Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) was a game changer to stop HIV transmission. Studies have shown that when taken once daily as directed, PrEP can reduce the risk of HIV transmission from sex by 99%. PrEP is readily available at no cost for people with and without insurance. Raising awareness and uptake among Houston’s at-risk populations is pivotal to end the HIV epidemic.

As PrEP efficacy decreases if not taken daily, novel interventions are on the pipeline to tackle the issue of medication adherence. I had the honor to implement a groundbreaking study in Houston which compared the efficacy of a long-acting injectable agent given every other month to the current daily oral medication for PrEP. The study enrolled 4,570 cisgender men who have sex with men (MSM) and transgender women (TGW) who have sex with men at 43 sites in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, United States, South Africa, Thailand and Vietnam. 

The results of the trial were very promising — the regimen containing long-acting cabotegravir was found to be statistically superior to daily oral medication for PrEP. This medication will hopefully be approved soon and will help those people who find it challenging to take a pill every day. New medications in the works also include subcutaneous injections given every six months, a monthly pill, a transdermal implant and vaginal rings.

Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

It is also important to mention Treatment as Prevention (TasP). One of the most important breakthroughs in the HIV field were the results of various studies that determined that someone who is living with HIV while on medication for more than six months and virally suppressed cannot pass on the virus to others through sex. This concept is known as U=U (Undetectable=Untransmittable). Not only is this a huge step towards establishing a link between HIV treatment and HIV prevention, but also a strong public health message that aims to fight the stigma surrounding HIV.

Proud to work toward a better future

Today, HIV is a manageable chronic disease. People living with HIV can live long, healthy lives thanks to improved antiretroviral treatment. Our HIV prevention toolkit is constantly expanding, fueled by research and community working together. Effective tools like PrEP can prevent HIV transmission when taken as directed. HIV treatment is prevention because U=U (Undetectable=Untransmittable). New, exciting breakthrough prevention and treatment medicines and strategies are in the pipeline. An HIV vaccine no longer sounds fictitious. We are living in an exciting time as we can be the generation that will end the HIV epidemic.

Although much has been accomplished since the first brick flew at Stonewall, we will not be truly victorious until we properly address the underlying systemic health disparities that leave some people behind. We need to do our work to tackle the roots of racism, poverty, stigma, homophobia, transphobia, homelessness and health inequity. We need to continue involving our communities as there is nothing for them without them. We need to do better, be better. At the end of day, repeat Marsha’s words as a mantra, “No pride for some of us, without liberation for all of us.”

Caring for Teachers is Caring for Students

After a year of teaching and living through a pandemic, educator mental health is at risk and yet, at the same time, we desperately need to avoid further school disruptions. Teacher burnout and turnover — already cause for concern long before pandemic life — have increased. An additional 11 percent of teachers say they may leave the classroom even though they weren’t planning to do so before. As it is, 40-50% of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years, and 40% of teachers in Houston’s three-county region have fewer than five years of experience, which affects student achievement.

Teachers are often told to put their own oxygen masks on first. They’re encouraged to “take care of themselves,” get more sleep, take deep breaths. Mindfulness training and toolkits have recently gained attention as promising school-based interventions to address the burnout cascade, but most mindfulness approaches reflect a primarily solitary practice aimed at individual growth. These strategies, while well-intended, can feel dismissive to teachers. It’s as if we are telling a sick person to just “get better.” Educators’ burnout symptoms are due to much larger, systemic and cultural problems. 

Many teachers talk to us about the relational gaps they experience in schools: the stress of loneliness, isolation, and toxic adult cultures. Relationship problems cannot be solved by any individual’s actions alone. It requires comprehensive approaches that involve every adult.

FuelEd is a non-profit organization deeply devoted to educator social-emotional skills and wellbeing. But we rarely use the term “educator self-care” — because it’s kind of a misnomer. On a neurobiological level, what society traditionally thinks of as self-care simply isn’t possible without first receiving care in relationships. Over the course of our development as social creatures, humans go on a journey from being almost completely regulated by others, as is the case with a hungry, crying infant who needs the constant care of an adult; to being co-regulated, where we get help from another person as we attempt to regulate ourselves. Over time, through repeated experiences of being calmed and cared for through relationships, we humans develop the brain structures and skills for self-regulation, self-care, and resilience in the face of stress. 

Care from others precedes self-care. So, solving the teacher stress crisis is less a matter of asking teachers to put on their own oxygen masks, but rather ensuring every teacher has someone who can help put an oxygen mask on with them. 

Our vision? The whole educator

FuelEd is a professional learning organization that provides teachers, principals and district leaders with training in the science of relationships as well as support to grow their own social and emotional competencies. We assist educators in doing the “inner work” of exploring their triggers, attachment styles and early childhood experiences, while also learning the science of attachment and trauma, and key skills to build secure relationships. 

This therapeutic deep dive into self-awareness is most poignantly represented by our “mindful storytelling” circle, where small groups of educators share their “attachment stories.” Educators take turns recounting memories from early childhood relationships, exploring the hurt caused by parents/caregivers who didn’t meet their needs, and unpacking how these formative experiences influence their relationships today, in school and out. You can hear a pin drop as educators take the risk to share, and listen, with sincere intent and deep respect for one anothers’ stories.  

At the conclusion of the training, educators learn to build a peer-support network: a protocol we call “stewardship” where educators are paired and instructed to meet weekly for an hour. Week after week, one educator shows up ready to listen deeply, and the other shows up ready to share real problems from their professional or personal lives, with honesty and vulnerability. The relationship skills from the training provides the foundational building blocks needed to support, and receive support, from fellow educators. Educators’ newfound self-awareness serves as a starting point to go deeper into themselves. What results is a mutually beneficial giving-and-receiving of care. It’s a repeated and reliable experience of co-regulation: helping educators move from stress to calm with the support of a caring relationship. 

One year later, our educators were asked, “Since engaging with FuelEd, have you experienced an increase in the following [self-care] behaviors?” Here is what we’ve found.

Educators’ self-care, self-regulation and resilience grew through relationships that took them deeper into self-awareness through being known, seen and loved. Reaching out helps us reach in. This is especially true in times of crisis and transition. Researcher Dr. Liesel Ebersohn believes “flocking”—huddling up and sticking together, like a flock of birds — might be a way of coping with stress that is more adaptive than the other more commonly known stress responses of flight, fight or freeze. This is exactly what educators in our studies have done: used relationships as self-care, as a way to regulate themselves.

“There’s no other time in my week where I have an hour to speak uninterrupted about something of emotional weight. It’s a pressure release valve. It’s good for my mental health and makes me more conscious in my relationships—particularly with my kids. This inspired me to go to therapy …. to move away from survival, to look at myself as a human being, not just a teacher. This helped me to take care of myself.” -Educator

Without an emphasis on restoring educator resilience through relationship, isolation and “flight” from the field may occur. 

Caring for teachers is caring for students

Being cared for by others helps educators care for themselves, but being seen by others also helps educators change how they see themselves and their students. Our intervention grows educators’ theory of mind, an important social-cognitive skill that involves the ability to think about thoughts, emotions and beliefs — both your own and others — and to plan social responses based on the internal worlds of others. Theory of mind involves thinking about thinking, but it also refers to the ability to understand that other people’s thoughts and beliefs may be different from your own and to consider the factors that led to those mental states. 

It appears that the experience of unpacking their own history and trauma may enable educators to develop compassion, sensitivity, and responsiveness to students and their trauma. When educators understand that their past shapes and influences who they are, they begin to understand that others’ pasts similarly shape who they are and how they show up. The research team at FuelEd developed the term “storysight” to describe this capacity to understand others through the lens of their own story. 

“Reflecting on my own background and life …has helped me understand myself and be more empathetic with others. I’ve been nice with myself and gentler with myself. I feel like I have more of a handle on that [so now] I’ve been doing that with my own students. Giving them a break. Letting them mess up. Now, I feel like I react to what the child needs, not what I need. I have a greater rapport with the kids this year. You’re seeing more to a child than what you normally would see.”

When asked what, if any, changes educators experienced in the following areas, one year after their training, here is what we found.

These changes to teachers’ relationship behaviors are significant, as multitudes of studies have shown the ways strong teacher-student relationships promote higher academic achievement, greater social competence, and fewer behavioral problems in students. Clearly, taking care of teachers is taking care of students. 

How to change a system?

Even more exciting is the way that investing in teachers’ wellbeing through collective care can create a ripple effect that shifts policies and practices within schools and district systems

In 2015, Principal Sarah Guererro was charged by the superintendent of Spring Branch Independent School District to turn her school around, academically. After she and her leadership team at Northbrook Middle School attended a FuelEd training, they committed to setting up an essential practice that would create more time and space for listening to staff. They already had weekly teacher meetings for discussing student progress, but additional check-ins were set in motion to help leadership gain awareness of teachers’ feelings, needs and perspectives. Educators were invited to share whatever they wished — be it an issue with classroom management or personal issues at home. According to Brian Jaffe, the school’s Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Support Specialist, “Because I had that safe space to feel valued by my principal, I was able to provide that for my teachers, and the teachers were then able to create the same safety for students. We saw this ripple out to create an entire ecosystem of support.”

As Northbrook Middle School became a community where adults felt safe and valued, educators began to connect more with students and as a result, learned a lot more about them. Suddenly, there was an overabundance of information and awareness about the high levels of trauma and social-emotional needs within the student body. To solve this, the team created a referral system whereby those closest to the ground—teachers and students—could quickly and easily submit a student’s name to the school support team who then provided a similar “check in” for the student.

By being responsive and timely, and addressing concerns big and small, trust was built in this systematic practice that helped all students and staff feel safe and seen. Over the course of five years, the school witnessed significant improvements: 67% reduction of out of school placement, in which a student is located to an alternative schooling environment in order to meet their unique needs; staff retention went from 57% to 80-90%; and a 21% increase in student achievement on STAAR.

The Anatomy of Change

As this story demonstrates, teaching, learning and leading in schools is an interpersonal endeavor and therefore, traditional school achievement outcomes such as teacher retention and student achievement are deeply intertwined with personal and interpersonal dynamics on a school campus. The table below illuminates what FuelEd is discovering to be the anatomy of this complex and dynamic change process:

What can we do, now?

The truth is, our educational system’s current issues related to educator stress are not new. Teaching is a highly stressful profession and it’s not just because of large class sizes or pressures of state testing. The emotional lives of educators and associated burnout-related fatigue are affected by their vicarious exposure to students’ trauma. Add to this: like students, teachers and principals also have their own experiences with trauma, which shape their thoughts, feelings and behavior in relationships. Our bodies keep a record of experiences in our lives where safety was lost, so any unprocessed trauma can be triggered in the classroom, regardless of whether it happened 20 years or 20 days ago. And though these reactions can be driven by protective instincts, they can also exhaust educators emotionally and damage relationships in equal measure. Call it a job hazard for teachers whose careers are built on emotional regulation, and whose effectiveness is grounded in their ability to build healthy relationships.

The need is real and recognized by educators who tell us how much they value trauma-informed adult SEL and wellness work—but educators also express strong tensions about not having time or space to engage regularly. Creating and incentivizing feasible systems where educators both give and receive care, as a routine part of the profession, would represent an innovative approach to the problem of teacher stress and burnout. 

Here are some ideas for how you can get started:

  • Build a stewardship system in schools. Consider building a low-stress, low-cost peer support system at your school or district. The ROI is huge in terms of self-regulation and stress release. Capacity and skill building for staff in empathic communication is a critical prerequisite to ensure safety and effectiveness of the system, so be sure to secure necessary professional development.
  • Provide counseling for educators. Counseling is an intensive relational experience of being safe, seen and soothed. FuelEd has provided over 12,000 counseling sessions to teachers since 2012. We have found that when school districts actively promote, normalize, and create pathways for attending therapy, many teachers engage, and experience powerful impacts on their well-being and careers. 
  • Expand the definition of trauma-informed to include educator trauma. Our childhoods shape who we are. Educators cannot address students’ social-emotional needs nor be “trauma-informed” if they have not processed their own trauma and social-emotional needs. Fortunately, secure relationships that help us reflect on our past heal trauma. If we can shift the definition of trauma-informed practice to include educator trauma, school climates can become places where students and adults alike can heal and thrive.

Educator care is not a flash in the pan. It’s not one-time professional development, it’s not a worksheet, it’s not a daily meditation nor a sudsy soak in the tub. Building individuals means building communities, and vice versa. And so, the very best thing we can do for our children, and the adults who serve them, is to make schools into places where secure relationships and adult development happen every day in the regular course of work. Places where educators are accepted for who they are and encouraged for who they can become. So they can do the very same thing for our children. 

About the Authors

Megan Marcus is the Founder of FuelEd. She holds a B.A. in Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley, a Masters degree in Psychology from Pepperdine University, and a Masters in Education, Policy, and Management from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. In 2017, Megan was named an Ashoka Fellow, “a leading social entrepreneur [recognized] to have  innovative solutions to social problems and the potential to change patterns across society.

Dr. Kelley Munger is the Director of Research & Development at FuelEd. She holds a BA in English from Auburn University, an MA in Teaching from Lee University, and an MA in Counseling Psychology from Covenant Seminary. She completed her PhD in Early Intervention and Special Education at the University of Oregon in 2019. Kelley is a researcher and licensed therapist working in the areas of trauma, adult attachment, special education, and human development. 

How community gardens support the fight against food insecurity in Greater Houston

Houston ranks among the top 50 cities with the highest obesity rates in the U.S., with 34% of Houston children now struggling with obesity. At the same time, Feeding America reports that Harris County has the second-highest number of food insecure individuals across all US counties, with 869,000 individuals not knowing when or where their next meal is coming from.

The single largest predictor of an individual’s health is the community in which they live. People who live in low-income areas with low access to fresh food struggle to secure nutritious options and are more likely to suffer from disproportionately high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases. Today, children in low-income communities are more likely to confront an obesity epidemic — one that afflicts 13.9% of low-income children in the nation, and many lack access to safe, outdoor spaces to congregate and play

How COVID-19 exacerbates food insecurity in Houston

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing food insecurity, disproportionately affecting low- and moderate-income households, while also introducing food insecurity to individuals who had never before experienced barriers to food access.

Food insecurity in the region peaked in November 2020 with nearly 30% of Houston-area households with children reported experiencing food insecurity. Though that rate has fallen to 22% as of March 1, 2021, some communities still feel the burden at disproportionately high rates. One-third of Black households with children and 25% of Hispanic households with children report continued food insecurity, compared to 11% of white households with children. Changing health landscapes and heightened food insecurity have demonstrated a surging need for inclusive, community-driven food interventions.

Understanding the challenges facing community gardens in Houston

Urban Harvest leads holistic interventions that combine neighborhood revitalization, community development, healthy food production, preservation of greenspace, and ecological stewardship that contributes to biodiversity. Community gardens provide affordable and accessible healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods with limited access to fresh foods.

Since 2018, Urban Harvest has transitioned from building gardens to sustaining gardens in response to the needs of the gardens we serve. We set out to identify how we can better support community gardens to be more sustainable. Working with the 140 affiliate gardens in our network, we discovered five key elements that well-established, successful gardens share: they meet monthly as a group; they develop a clear leadership team that makes decisions for the garden; they inform gardeners of what goes on day to day; they build a large base of active gardens; and, they offer consistent events and programming.

However, our deep-dive also revealed disparities within our affiliate garden network. We learned that gardens in under-resourced (socially vulnerable and/or low-income, low-access) communities experience heightened challenges to becoming sustainable. Importantly, gardens in under-resourced communities make-up a significant part of the network: 54%, or 73 distinct sites.

These disparities have been heightened by COVID-19 and the recent winter storm. Key findings from our recent COVID-19 needs assessment revealed that due to the pandemic, under-resourced gardens have too few gardeners, and rate their volunteer needs a 5.8 on a scale of 1 (lowest need) to 6 (highest need). Even higher-resourced gardens rated their volunteer needs 4.5. Other top needs among under-resourced gardeners include compost, fertilizer and mulch. And, finally, almost 30% of surveyed gardens reported that their gardens have become less well-established.

Community gardens help under-resourced Houston-area neighborhoods

Community gardens are assets for any neighborhood, but represent unique opportunities in otherwise under-resourced communities in particular. Successful gardens can build community power through placemaking of safe, outdoor spaces; creating opportunities to connect with neighbors and community members from different backgrounds; preserving greenspace; and offering affordable, healthy food. In 2020 alone, our community gardens resulted in 225,000 pounds of produce (resulting in about 190,000 meals), of which 136,000 pounds were donated, and our gardens served more than 260 customers through Mobile Markets. But, as we have seen, community gardens depend on the community to survive and thrive, particularly in times of disaster. The results combat food insecurity, offer opportunities for physical activity, and promote resident health.

The Great She-cession: How COVID-19 is impacting women in the workforce

America is facing an unprecedented exodus of women from the workforce. The hard-fought gains women have made over the past 40 years are at risk of being wiped out by the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of March 2021, more than 1.8 million women have left the workforce since the pandemic started. While this number is an improvement over the initial 4.2 million women who dropped out of the job market last April, so many women have left the labor force that the current participation rate has fallen to 56.1%, a level not seen since the late 1980s. 

Compared to men, women initially left the workforce in disproportionately higher numbers and their return to the job market has been slower. The graph below shows that using February 2020 as a baseline for both sexes, women have lagged men in their ability to regain their pre-pandemic employment levels. This disproportionate collapse in women’s labor participation has led some to call this the first “she-session.”

Like everything related to COVID-19, the effects of the pandemic on working women varied among different groups. On average, women of color experienced greater hardships than all other workers, including white women. Comparing the experiences of Black, Hispanic and white women, Hispanic women had the highest unemployment rate — 20.1% — in April 2020, at the peak of the crisis. However, since then, Black women have found their recovery to be slower than the other groups.

20.1% unemployment
At the peak of the pandemic in April 2020, Hispanic women had the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Working mothers of young children also have been hit especially hard. As daycares closed and school became virtual, mothers found themselves taking on an even greater share of domestic responsibilities. According to a McKinsey report, 23% of working women with kids under the age of 10 have considered leaving the workforce altogether.

While there is some evidence that women are beginning to find their way back into the labor force, it is important to realize that, like many other inequities the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted in our society, it didn’t create this problem. It simply magnified it. The truth is that growth in women’s labor force participation has stalled since the early 2000s. It began to decline after the Great Recession, mimicking trends in men’s participation rate. Interestingly, this phenomenon isn’t replicated in other advanced economies around the world. The proportion of women in the U.S. labor force has declined since 2000 — the only country among five major OECD countries with that trend.

“23% of working women with kids under the age of 10 have considered leaving the workforce altogether.”

Societal expectations

Even before COVID-19, women performed an unequal share of the domestic responsibilities in opposite-sex-headed households, even as the amount of time men spend on housework has increased over the last 50 years. In 2018, 9.6 million females gave family and home responsibilities as their reason for not participating in the labor force, compared to just 1 million men. This is hardly surprising. When families start looking at the high costs of child care and the lower wages of women, it seems to make the most economic sense. But these individual “forgone” conclusions are predicated on structural failures.

The gender pay gap

Equal Pay Day for 2021 was March 24. This date symbolizes how much longer a woman would need to work to earn the same amount the average man did in 2020 alone. Meaning, because women earn less, on average, than men, they must work an additional 82 days to earn as much as an average man did in one year. For Black women, that symbolic day would be in August, and not until October for Hispanic women. We see these inequities at both the national and local levels. In 2017, women in Montgomery County made $20,000 less than men and women in Fort Bend County made $15,000 less. Harris County had a smaller but still significant gender pay gap of $7,500.

According to a study by the National Women’s Law Center, a woman starting her career today stands to lose $406,280 over a 40-year period compared to her male counterpart. This earning gap spans all jobs, no matter what career a woman choses. The same study found the gender wage gap in 98% of occupations. As Megan Rapinoe, the U.S. Women’s Soccer star, said in her testimony on Capitol Hill: “One cannot simply outperform inequality.” It is a truly pervasive problem, but it is hardly a new one. In fact, in 25 years, the gender pay gap has only shrunk 8 cents. At this rate, we can hope to close the gap by 2059. While this isn’t a problem exclusive to the U.S., other countries have made much better progress toward ending it.

Besides being paid less for the same work, women are also overrepresented in jobs with lower wages. While there are many underlying causes for this, one of the largest contributors is discrimination. According to a report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, occupations with more men tend to pay better regardless of skill or education level. These trends are especially more pronounced for women of color. The implication for this being that even working full time, these women face higher rates of poverty. The negative effects extend beyond women and hurt the next generation. According to a study from the Pew Research Center, single mothers are almost twice as likely as single fathers to be living below the poverty line.

a woman starting her career today stands to lose $406,280 over a 40-year period compared to her male counterpart

Structural obstacles to increasing women’s workforce participation

COVID-19 has shown that, for all the advancements women have made in the workforce, the main impediment to gender equality is the structural barriers they face. COVID-19 further loosened the tenuous grip that kept many women in the workforce. 

We have seen minimal gains in pay equity in the past quarter-century. The pay gap is a fundamental problem women faced before the pandemic, one they’ll continue to face throughout its duration, and even when it’s over. Research suggests that one of the most effective ways to close the pay gap is to help women achieve entry into the higher-paying, male-dominated fields, as women have an outsized representation in lower-paying jobs.

Another roadblock for many women is lack of maternity leave. Research finds that mothers offered paid maternity leave were more likely to return to work after the birth of a child both in the short- and long-term. The study found a 20 percent reduction in the number of women who left their jobs in the first year after giving birth and up to a 50 percent reduction after five years. In addition to helping women stay in the workforce, evidence suggests that paid family leave provides myriad benefits to the child, which can have a positive influence on their future. 

Oftentimes for women, the problem of finding affordable child care becomes almost insurmountable. In Texas, child care often costs more than college tuition, and parents don’t have 18 years to save for it. Even before the pandemic, child care in Texas was facing a tipping point. It is estimated that U.S. businesses lose roughly $4.4 billion a year because of lost productivity due gaps in child care. 

Change, while not cheap, is necessary. Significant investments that support families will help all women, mothers, fathers, and children live up to their fullest potential and thrive by improving educational outcomes, time for family bonding, and allow both women and parents to “show up” fully in their professional lives.

“In Texas, child care costs more than college tuition, and parents don’t have 18 years to save for it.”

Women are integral to our collective prosperity

Our ability to recover from the current economic crisis depends on women re-entering the workforce. Our ability to find new levels of economic growth depends on women being able to find economic success equal to men. A study often cited by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen estimates that “increasing the female participation rate to that of men would raise our gross domestic product by five percent.” McKinsey estimates that gender parity would add 19% to GDP by 2025. If we don’t want the economic fallout of COVID-19 to become permanent, we must support women and encourage their return to the workforce. Our collective prosperity depends on it.

The Costliest Problem We Know How to Fix

In Houston, Black and Hispanic students on average lag between 3.0 and 3.6 years behind white students, as if they were absent for a quarter of their K-12 schooling.1 Pause here, re-read the previous sentence, and let that sink in for a moment.

This problem is compounded by the fact that the groups that lag behind make up a majority of our student population. In Texas, Blacks and Hispanics represent two-thirds of public-school students.2 In Houston Independent School District (HISD), Blacks and Hispanics are about 84% of the student population.3 Lagging groups are the largest and fastest-growing.

These academic achievement gaps are extremely costly to everyone. Nationally, the gaps, which average two to three years of schooling, greatly hinder economic growth and suppress earnings and tax revenue. A 2009 report by McKinsey & Company estimated that gaps in U.S. educational achievement had affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s up to that point.4 More recent estimates suggest that closing gaps would increase GDP by $551 billion and increase local, state and federal tax revenues by $198 billion annually.5 With these returns, we can justify investing significant resources in closing achievement gaps.

“Gaps in U.S. educational achievement affected GDP more severely than all recessions from the 1970s through 2009.”

How the education gap formed in Houston

Where do we begin? I say we start with the root cause. Ten years of data from over 4,000 school districts, and about 430 million test scores, reveal that the strongest predictor of academic achievement gaps is school segregation — specifically, the racial concentration of poverty in schools.6 

Among public school students nationwide, 45% of Black students and 45% of Hispanic students attend a high-poverty school (with 75% or more students in poverty), compared to only 8% of white students.7 In HISD, 76% of Black students and 80% of Hispanic students attend high-poverty schools, compared to 14% of white students.8 At both the national and local level (within HISD), Black and Hispanic students are more than five times more likely to attend a high-poverty school than white students, resulting in very different educational experiences.

Everything is harder in high-poverty schools, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. Despite the heroic efforts of many educators, community leaders, and philanthropists, most high-poverty schools struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers and administrators, tend to offer fewer advanced courses and fine arts, students have more disciplinary actions, and English learners take longer to become proficient — along with other examples. It even costs more per-pupil to educate a poor student in a high-poverty school than it does to educate a similar student in a low-poverty school.9

It’s time to dismantle the racial concentration of poverty in schools and close academic achievement gaps. It’s not enough to send more resources to Black and Brown high-poverty schools while continuing to maintain a system of segregation. Although additional resources can be helpful, this approach ultimately does not address the root cause and is not sustainable in the long run.The racial concentration of poverty in schools is the result of economic and racial segregation in neighborhoods that produce segregated, neighborhood schools. We maintain this system through personal and policy choice. 

How Houston can close performance gaps in education

Closing academic performance gaps requires a systemic approach — one that moves beyond individual actions, such as how hard students work, how well teachers teach, or how much parents care about their children’s education. These factors matter, of course, but they don’t explain academic performance gaps. A systemic approach addresses the underlying systems that determine the types of educational experiences students will have.

A systemic approach has two components. First, we must acknowledge — and learn from — our region’s history. The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors. Historian Karen Benjamin documented that, during a massive school expansion program in 1924, the newly created HISD school board worked closely with the city’s planning commission to develop a racialized zoning system in order to protect real estate interests.10 This powerful coalition determined where 50 new school buildings would be located. Although schools were already segregated by race, Black schools and white schools previously were located in the same neighborhoods, with one Black school in each of Houston’s six wards. However, during this expansion, new school sites were selected to create segregated neighborhoods, and schools that did not fit the master plan of racialized zoning were closed, neglected, or moved. In 1929, a Texas Appellate Court declared this unconstitutional and the City Council rejected the commission’s zoning plan, but school construction was almost complete and the damage was done, setting in motion a powerful system that persists almost 100 years later.

The second component of a systemic approach requires careful coordination across local, state, and federal levels. This is challenging but definitely feasible, especially now. At the federal level, efforts are already underway to promote school integration, including the Strength in Diversity Act, the Economic Fair Housing Act, and changes in Title I funding to encourage integration. At the state level, more can be done to increase funding for our most disadvantaged students (and improve the distribution of that funding), to improve accountability for closing gaps, and perhaps even to introduce accountability for integration. At the local level, district controlled-choice programs and inter-district agreements can be developed to promote integration and close gaps.

“The educational inequities described here did not develop by chance but rather by careful planning by our predecessors.”

If we want to undo the racialized system we inherited from our predecessors, we must implement the same methods they used to set it up. Rather than approaching housing and education as separate domains, we must recreate a coalition of education and housing leaders, including community stakeholders from all racial groups and neighborhoods, to dismantle the system of racialized zoning that continues to harm our students, our economy, and our democracy. The work of the coalition should be grounded in the needs and solutions of community members, activists, and practitioners, and incorporate the leadership and voices of individuals with lived experience.

The Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) and the Kinder Institute for Urban Research (KIUR) at Rice University are poised to help convene and support such a coalition, with long-standing relationships with numerous city and county housing and transportation organizations and HERC’s 11 Houston-area school district partners. In addition, KIUR’s Urban Data Platform, a secure data repository of geocoded data for the Houston metropolitan area, can inform the coalition’s work by providing access to hundreds of datasets about Houston’s demographics, housing, education, health, transportation, etc.

We know this systemic approach is effective and powerful because it worked and lasted nearly 100 years. Houston is ready to dismantle concentrated poverty in our schools and close the academic performance gaps that have plagued us far too long.


1Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford University. 2021. “Exploring Educational Opportunity in Houston ISD, TX.” Retrieved from https://edopportunity.org/ 

2 Texas Education Agency. 2020. Enrollment in Texas public schools, 2019-20. (Document No. GE20 601 12). Retrieved from https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/enroll_2019-20.pdf 

3Houston Independent School District. 2021. “2020-2021 Facts and Figures.” Retrieved from https://www.houstonisd.org/site/handlers/filedownload.ashx?moduleinstanceid=48525&dataid=317279&FileName=2020-2021_FactsFigures.pdf 

4Auguste, Byron G. et al. 2009. “The economic cost of the US education gap,” McKinsey & Company. Retrieved from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-and-social-sector/our-insights/the-economic-cost-of-the-us-education-gap 

5Lynch, Robert G. and Patrick Oakford. 2014. “The Economic Benefits of Closing Educational Achievement Gaps,” Center for American Progress. Retrieved from https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/race/reports/2014/11/10/100577/the-economic-benefits-of-closing-educational-achievement-gaps/ 

6Matheny et al. 2021. “Uneven Progress: Recent Trends in Academic Performance Among U.S. School Districts,” Educational Opportunity Project at Stanford. Retrieved from https://edopportunity.org/papers/seda%20district%20trends%20paper.pdf 

7National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_clb.pdf 

8Houston Education Research Consortium analysis of HISD data.

9Taylor et al. 2021. “A Study on Geographic Education Cost Variations and School District Transportation Costs,” TEA Contract #4077. Retrieved from https://tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/hb3-transportation-report.pdf 

10Benjamin, Karen.  Segregation Built to Last: Schools and Housing in the New South. Forthcoming.