Having a positive impact on chronic issues like homelessness can feel hopelessly daunting. But as a student group in San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD)’s Advanced Learning Academy (ALA) inventoried 400 items collected in its winter clothing drive, the meaning behind the innovative school’s commitment to personal and social awareness started to feel tangible.

“Wow, this is really going to make a difference for people,” one student told ALA Assistant Principal David Nungaray, who helped start the service group.

Calling themselves the “Downtown Doers,” members of the student-driven organization have taken ALA’s interdisciplinary and exploratory learning models into the real world. The group’s 26 members – ranging from 6th to 10th graders – decided to take on homelessness because they saw it as a serious issue in the area surrounding their Fox Tech campus.

The Downtown Doers are one of 34 youth service organizations in San Antonio awarded a combined $250,000 in grants as part of Silver & Black Give Back’s 2016 Team Up Challenge.

Culminating weeks of organization and work, several students in the group joined teacher Rachel Jackson Tuesday to distribute some of their donations at Maverick Park.

While the clothing drive was a major milestone for the new organization, a number of unique networking opportunities have encouraged the group to shift its gaze toward broader research, policy, and advocacy aims this spring.

Following a mixer hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, students walked away with partnerships and tips on fundraising and organizing. Later in the semester they discussed policies related to homelessness with Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1).

Advanced Learning Academy students pull out scarves and blankets to give out to San Antonio's homeless population.
Advanced Learning Academy students give scarves and blankets to some of San Antonio’s homeless population. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

“The fact that people my age want to benefit the community and that we really can with this organization has inspired me most,” one ALA student wrote in a reflection assignment at school after the experience.

As opposed to simply doling out community service hours to put on a college application, Nungaray said the project has charged students with the complex aspects of envisioning and driving toward social change. In the process, students develop more traditional skills in subjects like English, math, and art.

“This project in particular lets kids see the whole gamut of what’s possible in really unique ways, which is actually why I think it lends so well to our school because of the model we have,” Nungaray told the Rivard Report.

Created this year in partnership with City Education Partners (CEP) and Trinity University, ALA harnesses Trinity professors and masters students to implement the world-class education systems of countries like Finland, Germany, and Japan. The school’s unconventional model aims at empowering students with agency over their learning, providing real-world applications, and cultivating an understanding of knowledge as something to be created rather than absorbed.

Donations from Advanced Learning Academy winter clothing drive are given out at Maverick Park.
Donations from Advanced Learning Academy winter clothing drive are given out at Maverick Park. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Instead of forming the organization based on cut-and-dry structures and measurable objectives, Nungaray and Jackson manage the group with a few “key cornerstones” in mind, but let students drive everything else.

It’s the same bottom-up strategy that undergirds the curriculum of many classes at ALA, including two spring courses on community service and leadership.

With homelessness affecting children more than any other age group – many of whom attend urban schools like ALA – Nungaray said the focus on homelessness is particularly apt.

“There’s no way by looking at somebody necessarily that you can tell whether they’re homeless or not,” he said. “(Homeless students) still show up every day, they eat breakfast, they do work.”

In the spring, the Downtown Doers will discuss developing a formal partnership with Haven for Hope and organizing a trip to Austin to learn how other cities have addressed problems surrounding homelessness.

“It’s limitless because the kids are doing the work of understanding the issue deeply,” Nungaray said, “of thinking of creative solutions to address various issues, and then getting close to the work and getting the people for whom this is their life’s work.”

Daniel Kleifgen graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor’s degree in English and philosophy. A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., he came to San Antonio in 2013 as a Teach For America corps member.