Bonham science teacher Jason Siptak (left) shows Kalvan Nance (center) and Preston Robertson (right) look for bio indicators of healthy aquatic ecosystems; dragon fly, dobson fly and other larvae at Bamberger Ranch. Courtesy photo.

Jason Siptak’s middle school science lab leaves a lot to be desired, from an amenities standpoint. There’s only one sink, making lab cleanup a challenge. There’s no storage, making it hard to store the equipment for those labs. Siptak is one of the teachers at Bonham Academy currently housed in on-site portables that will be replaced by the new 25,709 sq ft building opening May 8 in Southtown.

But that hasn’t stopped the veteran teacher from building a science program robust and energized enough to send a team of young scientists to the Alamo Regional Science & Engineering Fair in February. It was the first time the academy participated in the event, competing against widely recognized programs like the Young Women’s Leadership AcademyJohn Jay Science and Engineering Academy and KIPP. His 6th-8th graders brought home a 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade recognition, signaling great things for the future of the Bonham program.

In addition to a fully equipped black box theater, and other arts and general classrooms, the new building will house two science classrooms and a computer lab. Each science room will provide the necessary storage and amenities for the labs. However, that’s not the growth Siptak is most excited about. He’s never been too worried about the facilities.

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“We still do all the labs we’re expected to do. I just have to make it work,” Siptak said.

As America celebrates Teacher Appreciation Week May 4-8, Siptak serves as an example of the many teachers around the country who make the most out of little, and stretch their commitment to their students over the gaps in budgets and resources.

His excitement for next year has more to do with building the science fair into his classroom culture and engaging the community. He plans to integrate the science fair’s online reporting system early, so that students are comfortable with the procedures when the science fair comes around. He mentored all of the competitors himself this year, but next year he plans to draw from the neighborhood for mentors.

Bonham science teacher Jason Siptak in his classroom. Photo by Bekah McNeel.
Bonham science teacher Jason Siptak in his classroom. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Siptak’s no-excuses mentality is shared by his colleagues at Bonham Academy. In fact he attributes the drive to enter students in the science fair to the examples of his co-workers. Students compete in history fairs, UIL competitions, and other competitions that encourage teachers and students to go above and beyond the curriculum.

“I love my co-workers. I work with a stellar group of teachers,” Siptak said. “I’m following their lead.”

That sort of stimulating, challenging professional environment is part of what makes Bonham Academy appealing to both teachers and prospective parents. Supportive administration allows teachers to excel at their jobs, and inspire confidence and enthusiasm across the entire school culture. A virtuous cycle develops, and the kids reap the benefits.

Because Bonham is an academy, the kids marinate in that environment from kindergarten through 8th grade.

“Keeping them here is really good,” Siptak said.

"This is John Ortiz, a very enthusiastic 6th grader at Bonham Elementary who loves everything science –and everything school for that matter. Sometimes, I look to students like this for a "recharge." Their spirit is so positive, that on the days I wonder how I've lasted 15 years, their smile grounds me instantly and just makes everything okay." -- Jason Siptak
“This is John Ortiz, a very enthusiastic 6th grader at Bonham (Academy) who loves everything science –and everything school for that matter. Sometimes, I look to students like this for a “recharge.” Their spirit is so positive, that on the days I wonder how I’ve lasted 15 years, their smile grounds me instantly and just makes everything okay.” — Jason Siptak

He laments the middle school malaise of other campuses, where disillusioned 8th graders have negative effects on impressionable 6th graders in a culture where dozens of disparate elementary schools feed into one giant middle school. Students who come from highly mobile homes end up leaving the school’s zipcodes, or coming in mid-year. Siptak remembers how difficult it was to build any sort of learning culture.

In the academy model, students have a consistent school culture through 8th grade, long enough to give them a solid academic foundation to succeed in high school and beyond. At Bonham the classes are small and many of the middle school students had the same teachers in elementary school. The camaraderie and shared values are evident.

The consistent pipeline also helps motivate teachers, according to Siptak. Rather than feeling that they have inherited the results of another system’s dysfunction, teachers take ownership of student engagement and performance. When there are system wide problems, they can be addressed in house. Morale stays high.

“I don’t see the negativity here at all,” Siptak said.

The school also enjoys substantial community support. Friends of Bonham enthusiastically backed the young scientists’ participation in the Alamo Regional Science Fair, just as they have stepped in to enable many other enrichment opportunities.

Students are study food webs and species interactions by using a dichotomous key to identify prey found in animal pellets. Photo courtesy of Jason Siptak.
Students study food webs and species interactions by using a dichotomous key to identify prey found in animal pellets. Photo courtesy of Jason Siptak.

The culture and support at Bonham Academy encourages passionate teachers like Jason Siptak to dream.

What do you get when teachers dream?

Siptak wants to build on the vegetable garden growing between the portables to educate kids on sustainable agriculture and food sourcing. He wants them to raise chickens, grow rooftop gardens, and perhaps even have a farmer’s market stand one day. He wants them to jump out of their text books and see how biological and ecological systems are part of everyday life and commerce.

“I’ve been interested in teaching the importance of leaving a small footprint,” Siptak said.

For that, he says, he can start close to home. The San Antonio River is a living laboratory for his classes as they learn about water conservation.

Siptak has already led a field trip on which the students tested water quality in the San Antonio River near the zoo, King William, and the acequia at Mission Espada. To really do something with that project he needs more data, and he hopes that his students will help him build a database that is a true resource for conservation. This means more field trips, which do require more resources.

Those resources will be well spent in Siptak’s middle school science program, where equipment and amenities come second to excitement and experiences.

*Featured/top image: Bonham science teacher Jason Siptak (left) shows Kalvan Nance (center) and Preston Robertson (right) look for bio indicators of healthy aquatic ecosystems; dragon fly, dobson fly and other larvae at Bamberger Ranch. Courtesy photo.

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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.