Bekah S. McNeel

What if we told you that there was a school in downtown San Antonio that had 343 acres of park space, a dozen historical structures chronicling the history of the city, a science lab that rotated through cutting edge exhibits, and an art studio? What if we told you that it was tuition free? What if we told you there were two such schools?

Hawthorne Academy and Lamar Elementary School are located in the heart of the Pearl/Museum Reach boom. Hawthorne, an internal charter school adjacent to the Pearl, has gained district-wide acclaim as one of the best schools in the city. Lamar, a quiet gem nestled in Mahncke Park, is practically next door to the San Antonio Botanical Gardens. In the rules of real estate, these schools are clear winners. Both are in the San Antonio Independent School District.

But location without creativity is wasted. It is the collaboration of teachers and community members that really opens up the city to their students. Both schools have strong community advocates, and too many institutional partners to mention in the space of this article. Both have found a way to say “yes” to the sometimes chaotic blessing of community involvement.

The Library at Hawthorne Academy
The Library at Hawthorne Academy. Photo(s) by Bekah McNeel.

Pita Rodriguez, principal of Hawthorne Academy, traces the history of community involvement back to a longstanding partnership with Trinity University. From there the innovation only grew when Hawthorne gained charter status in 2002, implemented Core Knowledge curriculum, and added the middle school.

Momentum built as Hawthorne gained the reputation as a school willing to try new and bold ideas. Soon people were knocking on the door. Cliff Waller was one of those.

“He walked in and I literally ran into him,” Rodriguez said, remembering the auspicious day.

Waller was there wondering what he could do for his neighborhood school. Rodriguez welcomed his involvement and soon the River Road community, as well as St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and Waller’s Rotary Club were involved in promoting math and science. Waller personally sponsors a summer science academy.

This led Egyptologist Dina Saad of ARCE to invest in the school as well, specializing the math and science focus to young women, who are underrepresented in the fields.

As Hawthorne students prepare for UIL competition, their volunteer coaches are remarkably diverse. Most are not affiliated with the school in any obligatory way. They come from a variety of backgrounds – everything from Wall Street to professional musicians.

Bonnye Cavazos and Pita Rodriguez at Hawthorne Academy
Bonnye Cavazos and Pita Rodriguez at Hawthorne Academy

The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects Center at the Pearl and the Southwest School of Art have partnered with students to produce some of the most inspiring student art on display in San Antonio and provide the fine arts pillar of the school’s charter.

All of this giving can be overwhelming, logistically, and many schools simply do not feel that they have the human resources to coordinate the extra-campus programs. Librarian Bonnye Cavazos is responsible for many of the “yes” answers at Hawthorne. She and other members of the faculty work tirelessly to bring enrichment programs to the kids.

“Every individual who works here goes beyond the call of duty,” said Rodriguez.

One of these partnerships that requires heavy buy-in and yields rich rewards is with the Brackenridge Park Conservancy. Leilah Powell, the conservancy’s executive director, approached Hawthorne administrators with a creative program to utilize the park as a multi-disciplinary learning site. Fourth and fifth graders take part in an archaeology program, culminating in a dig in the park. Middle school students use the park to learn about the human and natural resources that shape civilization. The park is their lab.

Student Architecture Project at Hawthorne Academy
Student Architecture Project at Hawthorne Academy

Hawthorne is not the only school to say “yes” to Brackenridge Park Conservancy and other community partners. Lamar Elementary School sits less than two miles north on Broadway.

On my way to visit Lamar, I stopped at a Mahncke Park stop sign and watched the Lamar first graders walking single file with faculty escorts on their way to their monthly field trip to the Witte Museum. That’s right: monthly.

Lamar Elementary
Lamar Elementary

Later, they’ll have their monthly art-intensive lesson around the corner at Inspire Community Fine Arts Center. Then just one block over to the Botanical Gardens for science lessons. The list goes on as the single file lines of youngsters snake all over the neighborhood.

“We are in a very unique location,” says Sharon Robinson, Principal of Lamar Elementary.

Location has helped, but one of the schools most important programs, Slow Foods, owes it success to involved parents like Susan Riggs and Chef Michael Sohocki of Restaurant Gwendolyn. The program encourages kids to treat nature as a classroom, a principle echoed by a pop-up outdoor “lab” the students use to get their hands in the dirt of science.

Like other progressive extra-campus programs, Slow Foods has recently taken an important step, aligning to the TEKS. This allows the same programs that most effectively engage kids to simultaneously contribute to their mastery of topics necessary to pass the STAAR. Refusing to lose their impact to the demands of “teaching to the test,” many teachers are striking a balance between state standards and a love of learning.

As a Lamar parent, Sohocki found his niche for involvement, just as other parents have done, including parents who work at Paloma Blanca, farther north on Broadway in Alamo Heights. The restaurant has agreed to donate a portion of its proceeds on designated dates to the school.

Churches and summer camps also have taken the open door atmosphere to heart.  Grace Fellowship has a regular peanut butter distribution operation in one of Lamar’s vacant classrooms. First Baptist has provided scholarships for Lamar students to attend Stillwater Sports Camp in the summer.

Kindergarten students show off their counting skills for Lamar Elementary Principal Sharon Robinson.
Kindergarten students show off their counting skills for Lamar Elementary Principal Sharon Robinson.

Lamar has one added bonus that will only strengthen its appeal for neighborhood kids of the increasingly middle class Mahncke Park: small classes. Some of Lamar’s classes are as small as eight students, and only a handful reach capacity at 14-15 for lower grades and 20-22 for upper grades. While this is not intentional on the part of the administration, it gives teachers the ability to meet the individual needs of students. Kids struggling in upper grades often find help from former teachers, who remain invested in them as they grow. For kids, that familiarity and understanding can be crucial.

It is no surprise that Hawthorne is bursting at the seams and expanding into a new building, a bond item championed by community members invested in its success.

What is surprising is that Lamar is not experiencing similar influxes.

Counselor Kim Aston attributes this to the long standing “bad rap” that SAISD has had, though they are fighting hard to change that as they welcome the community to check out the good things within their red brick walls. Lamar has a notably low rate of discipline referrals, thanks to the tight-knit, attentive atmosphere.

The depth of community involvement at Lamar is demonstrated by a telling twist on a school-year tradition. Every fall Lamar hosts a “Meet the Parent/Meet the Partner” night to give teachers, students, families, and institutional leaders a chance to share goals, concerns, and otherwise get to know one another.

Students hunt for Easter Eggs under the sprawling oaks of Lamar Elementary.
Students hunt for Easter Eggs under the sprawling oaks of Lamar Elementary.

Whether gaining steam or quietly nurturing their small classes, both Hawthorne and Lamar correctly answer the two questions that will make or break the public schools of inner city San Antonio: First, will the community knock on the door and ask how they can help? And then, will school leaders have the vision and fortitude to welcome them inside?

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.

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Bekah McNeel

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