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Bekah S. McNeel

Ask about the bright spots in San Antonio’s inner city schools, and you’re going to hear a common refrain: Bonham Academy. It’s popularity is so widely acknowledged, leaders in the district hardly make note anymore. “Well, of course there’s Bonham,” they say, as though it can be taken for granted that the school is a raving success.

Imagine: an inner city public school with a waiting list of anxious parents who live outside the school’s geographic boundaries, but want their young child to start school here.

SAISD District Map (draft). Click for larger image.
SAISD District Map (draft). Click for larger image.

Bonham Academy is an in-district charter in the San Antonio Independent School District, which serves more than 54,000 students. That means Bonham still functions as a tuition-free, neighborhood school, and is held accountable to district academic standards. Their charter status, however, obtained in 2007, requires the school to offer innovative alternatives to standard curriculum.

The charter status also opens enrollment to students who would not be slated to attend the school based on their address, a boon to schools struggling to achieve full enrollment in the urban core. Neighborhood kids do not have to fight for a spot, but open places are assigned by lottery to applicants outside the school’s boundaries.

In the case of K-8 Bonham Academy, the charter was given for innovative curriculum in science, fine arts, and a dual-language program offered to all students, and required of students outside their feeder pattern.

“Dual-language programs require a long-term commitment on behalf of the teacher, the student, and the parents,” said Cristina Medrano, who teaches second grade in the program and was awarded an SAISD Foundation Excellence Grant for two years in a row.

Children in dual-language programs often lag behind in basic subjects for a couple of year, because they are learning them in Spanish. However, as the years pass, the rigor of the programs close the gap, and students move into high school bilingual and testing competitively in all subjects. This is the case at Bonham Academy as well, said Medrano, who taught kindergarten before moving up to second grade. She now teaches many of the same children she had as kindergarteners, and the progress leaves her impressed.

I had the opportunity to be wowed myself as a trio of Medrano’s spritely students demonstrated their language skills with perfect pronunciation and diction. After a recital of their favorite things, I put them on the spot, asking, ¿Cuál es tu libro favorito? 

Without missing a beat, the girls answered my question in complete sentences. One said Little House on the Prairie, two said James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. For those not acquainted with the reading tastes of elementary school kids, these choices bode well for a lifetime love of reading.

Christina Medrano's class. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual
Christina Medrano’s class. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual

“I’m passionate about the program because I like what I see,” Medrano said, “But we also know that the program is not for every one. We want the kids to like school.” She goes on to explain if a student reaches second or third grade and has not found his or her footing in the program, they give them the option of switching to the English-only track.

Love of learning also is evident in the eighth grade Language Arts class of Nathan Busse, a campus favorite who walks to school each morning. His classroom environment is lively and engaging. The students are out of their desks and chattering at the blackboard. Listening in, I realize they are discussing appositives, the topic of the day. Busse asks for an example of a sentence using an appositive phrase. He moves around the room offering help and reading good work out loud. The answers are far from bland or forced. One sentence comes off particularly well.

“Hello Kitty, a popular cat who has no mouth, drives girls crazy,” he reads. The student author beams. The rest of the kids giggle, and go back to work.

This engaging environment will no doubt take them beyond appositive phrases and into high school with a desire to learn and thrive.

Angela Martinez and her wildly popular Book Share.
Angela Martinez and her wildly popular Book Share. Photos by Bekah McNeel.

Parent Angela Martinez pointed out a small bookshelf in Busse’s class, a Book Share station where donated books are free to interested young readers. A larger version of age appropriate material sits in the hall of the elementary school building. The biggest challenge to what Martinez calls her “pet project:” keeping the shelves full. The kids have turned out to be voracious readers.

It only takes about 30 seconds of being on campus to realize the secret to the success of Bonham Academy: the parents. This can partially be attributed to the cohort of families coming from The Circle School, where parents are expected to play a hands-on role in children’s school experience. A recent informal survey counted more than f 30 Circle School alumni. Every wall bears some testament to the involvement of parents at Bonham Academy, especially in the sciences and fine arts.

For the science pillar, Bonham teachers and parents capitalize on relevance. Hands-on science is everywhere on campus. Gardens and planters grow food for the campus Slow Foods program. Students experience the joy of superintending the process from seed to harvest.

Wildlife at Bonham.
Wildlife. More than just the 4th grade boy.

Behind the playground (funded by Friends of Bonham, a parent-led fundraising mechanism), is a garden deemed by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat where kids can interact with native flora and fauna. A rain water harvest system is in place along the side of the building as well, thanks to one particularly passionate parent.

The fine arts pillar of the charter is also well established. The walls are plastered with visual arts and theater rehearsal schedules, mostly because fifteen years ago a group of concerned parents saw the inevitable demise of funding for arts programs. So they banded together to create Art Smart, a funding mechanism that brings in two teachers from Southwest School of Art for one hour per grade level per week, Jump Start once day per semester, and the Spring Arts Festival.  To maintain their yearly budget of around $24,000, the parents get creative, and the community joins them. A grant from the King William Association is a major contributor to the effort.

It is money well-spent.

Art Smart also funds the Ballet Folklorico program at Bonham, headed by the former director of the company Ballet Regional Mexicano, Ricardo Muñoz. The program has exploded from an after school club to part of the physical education curriculum, and last year they had 120 elementary students performing in the SAISD Holiday Dance Extravaganza, an honor usually reserved for high-schoolers.

Ricardo Muñoz
Ricardo Muñoz

“Dance incorporates the whole body,” said Muñoz, who also uses dance to demonstrate geometry.

Recently Bonham participated in the UIL theater competition, and a student came home with the Best Actress honor, while other performers earned honorable mentions and a “superior” rating in the Ensemble Cast category. This sort of honor in fine arts is not common for inner city schools, but it has obviously enthused the student life. The theater departments next production, James and the Giant Peach, sent obvious ripples through the reading habits of the kids. Or at least the second graders.

Bonham’s energetic theater teacher, Holly Clifford, does all of this without a stage on campus. Productions are at the mercy of available stage space wherever they can borrow it, which means last-minute scrambles and two-show runs at the end of months of hard work.

A new theater was part of the plans for  the proposed campus additions, but after a frustrating debacle wherein SAISD, Bonham Academy parents, and the Emily Edwards Endowment found themselves in a stalemate over the acquisition and future of the Alfred Giles house at 114 Cedar Street, those plans are stalled and in jeopardy.

“It’s really hard to get SAISD to understand the importance of this program,” said Celia Mendoza, the Middle School Parent Coordinator, “But it’s one of the most successful programs in the district.”

It’s not beyond hope, however, as the Bonham parents are still on the case, prodding the district to “think outside the box,” according to Martinez and Mendoza. Both parents attribute much of their success so far to Principal Patricia Ortiz, an open-minded administrator who capitalizes on the energy of parents to make the school a better place. Now, they hope that the district will take the same approach.

That raises the central question for anyone surprised to learn of highly successful academic programs at work in inner city schools: can they be replicated, and if so, is it happening?

**This is the first in an occasional series of stories on the Rivard Report examining successful schools, programs and academic initiatives in inner city schools. You can suggest a story topic by writing hello@rivardreport.com**

Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey. She is one of the founding members of Read the Change, a web-based philanthropy and frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

Advice to a Divided School Board: Look South for the Next Superintendent February 2013

H-E-B Recognizes Exceptional Educators with Surprise Cash Rewards February 2013

Rep. Mike Villarreal: Don’t Let Our Kids Tune-Out Education February 2013

Amid a Host of Parents, a Catholic School Thrives January 2013

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.