Turning The Corner

Ilana Panich-Linsman, KUT News

It was still dark the morning of Halloween 2013 when hundreds of families in Onion Creek, a neighborhood in South East Austin, woke up to rising water in their homes.

Bene Jacobs and her family survived the flood by taking refuge on their neighbor's roof.

She remembers that morning clearly.

Bene and her partner Lawrence waded through the waters with their three children in tow. Ten-year-old Isaac was in Lawrence's arms. Isaac was born with special needs. His wheelchair would have been swept by the fast moving waters. Alyssa was five at the time and Acelee, a toddler.

KUT News

Welcome to Dove Springs. 

Driving through the neighborhood, you may not realize you’re in the same city that’s home to Franklin Barbeque, Barton Springs or the Continental Club. Five miles down I-35 from the Texas Capitol lies a modest residential area in the city’s southeast corner, one of the last neighborhoods many Austin residents pass as they head to the airport. 

It’s also one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods with a history of gangs and drugs, poverty, teen pregnancy and obesity.

But it's a neighborhood filled with hardworking parents, multi-generational families and cultural diversity. There’s always been a lot of pride, but recently, residents are giving the neighborhood a voice. They’re advocating for better services, organizing events and this fall, they’ll elect a city council member to specifically represent their district.

Sam Ortega/KUT

Mendez Middle School lies in the heart of Dove Springs. It’s the only middle school in the neighborhood – so if you grow up in the area, it’s more than likely you’ve walked these halls.

Students here deal with lots of challenges. For one, more students at Mendez have at least one parent in jail than any other school in the district. Nearly 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most students are being raised by just one parent. Others are undocumented – or their parents are.

Bryan Winter for KUT News

This article is part of KUT's yearlong series Turning the Corner, taking a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.

Ron Gonzales loves numbers. It makes sense: he used to be a math teacher before he became a principal. His love of hard data is obvious when you enter Mendez Middle School, where he has been the principal for the past four years.  One of the first things you see is a bulletin board with each grade’s daily attendance rate. Next to it, he posts how much money the school lost due to absences that day.

“For example, yesterday we had 23 sixth graders and we also know lose $45 per scholar per day, so we lost $1,035 just for grade six," Gonzales says, pointing to the bulletin board.

Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT

Dove Springs in Southeast Austin is just six miles from downtown – what many real estate agents consider a prime location. But the area is also one of the poorest parts of Austin. And for decades, it's had a less than desirable reputation.

Despite all that, change is coming to Dove Springs – with some believing they're witnessing the beginning of gentrification.

The area has traditionally been filled with low-income renters, many who are recent immigrants and don't speak English. Data may still point to those facts. But on the ground, the neighborhood is going through what many believe is a fast transformation.

flickr.com/dongkwan

This article is part of KUT's yearlong series Turning the Corner, taking a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.

In the 2012-2013 school year, the Austin school district reported 303 student pregnancies districtwide. 22 of those pregnancies were middle school students.

Despite its location in the neighborhood with the highest rate of teen pregnancy in Travis County, none of them were at Mendez Middle School. So what happened? 

For the past seven months KUT has focused on the Dove Springs neighborhood in southeast Austin. We’ve been looking at issues facing this largely poor, immigrant community: access to healthcare, educational issues, affordable housing – and how organizations and individuals are trying to bring change.

In October, we went to a boxing ring at Mendez Middle School. An after-school program there is teaching the kids boxing as a way to provide some structure after classes let out.

We went back to the ring recently – and found quite a few things had changed. 

Joy Diaz, KUT News

When you think about the word “homeless,” what comes to mind?

Homelessness can include a person who lacks housing. But it is also includes people in transitional housing. That's where Lydia Huerta, her husband and their three kids found themselves after they lost their home to flooding October 31.

Huerta says she "never really felt panic" until she lost her home. 

Kate McGee, KUT News

Since August of last year, KUT has been looking at the Dove Springs neighborhood in Southeast Austin in its Turning the Corner series. It’s a neighborhood trying to rise above the challenges of poverty – and one common theme that’s been repeated by residents is that they feel ignored.

Cynthia Valadez used to live in the Dove Springs neighborhood.

“That was the one area of Travis County and the City of Austin that failed to get the clinics, the offices, the grocery stores, the doctor’s offices," Valadez says. "Anything that’s health related didn’t go there. You couldn’t do anything in that community."

Jon Shapley for KUT News

This article is part of KUT's year-long series called Turning the Corner, which takes a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. Listen to those stories here.

In low-income neighborhoods around Austin, 87 percent of children entering kindergarten are considered unprepared for school, which means many of them lack basic literacy skills. At Mendez Middle School in Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, that struggle is obvious. Last year, less than half of Mendez sixth graders passed the state standardized test for reading. 

Jon Shapley for KUT News

This article is part of KUT's year-long series called Turning the Corner, which takes a look at Austin's Dove Springs neighborhood. For decades, the neighborhood has had a negative reputation. Now, many community members are trying to change the perception of the 78744 zip code. 

KUT is documenting those efforts, the people trying to make a difference, the setbacks they face and how they work to overcome them. Listen to more stories here.

Dove Springs is the only neighborhood in Austin where you can find a parole office – one of the reasons more parolees end up in Southeast Austin than any other neighborhood.

Jon Shapley for KUT News

The mostly uninhabited neighborhood of Onion Creek in southeast Austin has experienced some growth. But it’s growth the few neighbors who are back do not welcome.

Mold and mildew is growing in many of the homes that were left uninhabited after last year’s floods, which could create health problems for those living in Onion Creek.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

  Chronic absenteeism is a common problem among low-income schools; Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood is no exception. The neighborhood has the largest concentration of high absenteeism students in the city – and teachers say there are some students who miss up to 40 days of school in one semester.

But many students aren’t skipping class to avoid schoolwork. Some lack transportation; others are dealing with health issues. Still, other have responsibilities like raising siblings or working to support their families.

Isay Medrano is one of those students.

Spencer Selvidge for KUT News

Damaris Covarrubias lives in Dove Springs, with her entire extended family. It is a huge family. So large in fact, that Damaris has never stopped to actually count how many there are.

“Okay, my grandparents, I think they had 9 kids. Cousins? I think there’s like 30 or 40 of us. Including the little ones? I don’t know. And now every cousin’s having babies so it keeps on growing and growing,” Covarrubias admits. 

The vast majority of her cousins have become parents while they were still in their teens, and that’s pretty typical for Dove Springs.

Joy Diaz, KUT News

In Southeast Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, crime is a constant.

Ever since an uptick in crime in the 1990s, police have maintained a visible presence in the neighborhood – and residents of Dove Springs haven’t always had a favorable view of the Austin Police Department.

There was a time when the department’s relationship with Dove Springs was especially strained. During the summer of 2005, APD Officer Julie Schroeder shot and killed 18 year-old Dove Springs native Daniel Rocha.

A re-enactment video created by the department in investigating Rocha’s death is set on Pleasant Valley Road – one of Dove Springs’ main thoroughfares.

Connie Gonzaes, Facebook

As people are gearing up for Thanksgiving, many families impacted by last month’s flooding are still trying to put their lives back together.The floods severely damaged more than 600 homes and many of those people still don’t have a permanent place to stay.

But residents came together Sunday night to provide some flood victims with a Thanksgiving dinner and a place to escape the cold temperatures, if only for a few hours.

The event was organized by Dove Springs resident Robert Kibbie and Pastor Richard Villarreal with The Springs Community Church. Overall, 120 meals were served. Volunteers also delivered 60 meals to people who were not able to attend the actual event.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

This year, KUT News is chronicling the challenges and changes affecting Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood in a series called “Turning the Corner.”

These stories have taken on added urgency in the aftermath of Austin’s Halloween floods, where flooding directly affected many Dove Springs residents. 

Bene Jacobs’ morning routine hasn’t changed that much. She still gets up before 6 a.m., before it’s light outside.

In the darkness, at her cousin’s house in Del Valle, Bene struggles to find her way into the room where her children sleep. “Still learning all the light switches,” she whispers.

Roy Varney for KUT News

For the first time in five years, southeast Austin’s Langford Elementary School has a free book program.

Langford, where 65 percent of the students are learning English as a second language, is able to relaunch its Reading is Fundamental program with help from a neighborhood church.

Richard Villarreal is the lead pastor at Springs Community Church. He approached Langford principal Dounna Poth last spring and asked how his church could help the school. 

Flickr user trebomb, http://flic.kr/ps/dmXZU

Update: This week, Blockbuster Video announced it is closing its 300 remaining retail stores. It’s a bitter end for the rental chain, founded in Dallas, which once had 9,000 stores.

Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood contains two of the city’s three final Blockbuster stores. And unlike the company as a whole, those stores are thriving.

In the story below, KUT examines how forces behind the chain’s closure – the Internet and the rise of streaming video – are the same forces that have kept Dove Spring’s Blockbuster stores open for years.

Original story (Oct. 4): When was the last time you rented something from a Blockbuster Video?

Austin City Council member Laura Morrison’s recollection probably speaks for most of us. “My memory doesn’t go that far these days,” she says.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

The floods last Thursday in Onion Creek and Dove Springs damaged or destroyed more than 1,000 homes, displacing families – many of them with children. 

Bene Jacobs, her partner Lawrence, and their three children are one such family. They were rescued from the roof of her neighbor's home.

“My five year old was holding my 16 month old on top of the roof," she says.

While her family is okay, her home has been condemned.

“All of the walls are buckled and the tree fell on top of the roof so they said it’s no longer safe to enter the premise, so it’s fenced off," she says.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

Residents and teachers at Perez Elementary say little information was distributed to residents immediately after flooding in Austin's Onion Creek and Dove Springs neighborhoods last week, leaving some residents confused and unsure where to turn — especially those who don't speak English.

When Pompilio Perez left his home in Dove Springs to go to work at 5 a.m. last Thursday morning. It was raining, but there was no sign of flooding. Thirty minutes later he couldn’t even drive down his own street where his wife, Ana, and his three children were at home. Ana Perez and her kids were rescued from their roof and, by Saturday, they had returned. At that point, she says, they hadn’t received any help.

Kate McGee, KUT News

The student orchestra at Mendez Middle School has 15 new musical instruments, thanks to a large donation from Fidelity Investments’ new Austin location. The company surprised orchestra students during a special assembly Wednesday with $20,000 worth of violins, violas, saxophones and other instruments.

Jeffrey Hall, the school’s orchestra director, applied for the gift last year.  For the past four years, he’s built an orchestra program that now consists of 65 sixth, seventh and eighth graders.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

Donna Spencer and Iliana Gilman work with Austin Travis County Integral Care, the agency that provides mental health services for low-income residents in the area. They recently walked through the site of Integral Care’s soon-to-open $2.4 million facility, inside what used to be a Wal-Mart and a Sam’s Club.

It’s in the southeast Austin neighborhood of Dove Springs. This low-income, majority Latino neighborhood is getting its first mental health care facility. It’s in large part because of a federal initiative, the Medicaid 1115 waiver program, that funds experimental clinics like this one. It will offer mental health care and substance abuse treatment, along with routine primary care.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon, KUT News

In Austin’s Dove Springs neighborhood, it’s no secret: the middle school there – Mendez Middle School – has challenges. Before last year, Mendez was rated academically unacceptable and faced the struggles found in many low income schools: low test scores, little parental involvement, and chronic absenteeism.

In many cases, the burden of maintaining order at Mendez falls on the shoulders of teachers. Many start their day corralling kids inside the building and greeting them at the front door.

Out of a population of 24,000, who will be the one person to represent Dove Springs?

Last November, Austin voters agreed to adopt a geographic form of city government: one mayor and 10 districts with one council member each.

Advocates for geographic representation argue the old way left large parts of Austin unrepresented. The seven members of the current Austin City Council all live north of Lady Bird Lake, and close to the city’s core.

Filipa Rodrigues/KUT

The Dove Springs neighborhood in southeast Austin runs from Ben White to William Cannon, bound by Montopolis and Pleasant Valley on the east, and Interstate 35 on the west. One of the issues affecting Dove Springs is its appearance. Piles of trash, broken fences and overgrown weeds and grass contribute to its visual blight. 

Ron Potts is at the wheel.

“We’re going down Stassney, because normally Stassney is pretty horrible in my vision.” He works for the City of Austin’s Code Compliance office, the guys that enforce the city’s codes and regulations.

A Tipping Point for Health Care in Dove Springs?

Aug 30, 2013
Filipa Rodrigues for KUT News

The Dove Springs neighborhood in southeast Austin runs from Ben White to William Cannon, bound by Montopolis and Pleasant Valley on the east, and Interstate 35 on the west.

Filipa Rodrigues, KUT News

The Dove Springs neighborhood in southeast Austin runs from Ben White to William Cannon, bound by Montopolis and Pleasant Valley on the east, and Interstate 35 on the west. After the Bergstrom Air Force Base closed in the 1990's, it became a community marked by juvenile gang violence, drugs and poverty. While some of that crime has dissipated, Dove Springs still has one of the highest reported crime rates in Travis County. And two-thirds of the neighborhood population is Hispanic, making it one of the most rapidly growing immigrant neighborhoods in Austin.