Gabi Santoro and Josh Ober, City Year Corps Members at Sam Houston. Photo by Susan Varghese.
Susan Varghese

Rake in hand and standing over a mound of gravel (a future bocce pit), Sam Houston High School junior, Dallas Ross proudly asserts, “I feel like 17 years on this earth has been pretty good, but it’s my turn to give back.”

Ross is one of the young leaders of Sam Houston High School’s and City Year’s Team Up Challenge. The annual challenge is sponsored by the Spurs Silver and Black Give Back Foundation and is presented to San Antonio schools to help improve the community and engage students. Students pick from five topics to focus their projects: arts and culture, education, environment, health and wellness or uniformed services.

Twenty local teams, including one from Sam Houston, are semi-finalists and have received $2,500 for their proposed projects. They’re now competing for one of the five slots to win an additional $20,000. Online voting closes on Monday, April 8. Anyone can cast a vote for the Sam Houston Team Up project or other creative school projects at the Team Up website.

Sam Houston students’ multi-stage project is called the “Junk Yarten,” which aims to make the school’s courtyard eco-friendly and inviting. It will be a garden of repurposed scrap metal turned into art, a community garden, student murals, a bocce ball pit, and benches. The space also will be used as an outdoor classroom.

Alfred Mireles and Jack Schneider.  Photo by Susan Varghese.
Alfred Mireles and Jack Schneider. Photo by Susan Varghese.

City Year Corps Member, Jack Schneider, 22, headed the project. City Year is an education focused non-profit that places young people across the country in inner city schools as a tutors and mentors – in an effort to reverse the drop out crisis.

Schneider, who has worked on gardens and farms before, brainstormed with students Dallas Ross and Alfred Mireles, who wrote a proposal to receive the initial grant. This started the ECOreps Club, an effort to make students at the high school more environmentally conscious; as a result, there are recycling bins popping up around the school.

Mireles, an 18-year-old senior, got involved in the project to make an impact in the community.

“I decided I wanted something different,” he said. “I wanted to make a (positive) change and peoples’ view of Sam Houston. That it’s a ‘bad school … that nobody cares.’  It’s not true. There are a lot of people who do care.”

Mireles can often be found making intricate mini-sculptures out of aluminum foil or paper. So, it was no surprise that Mireles was making the junk art sculpture in the courtyard. “The theme of my sculpture is transformation. You can turn what people see as an eyesore to something beautiful.”

The project focused on the idea of reusing and recycling, but Schneider notes that it’s really about maximizing the potential of an item or space, or even a human being.

Gabi Santoro and Josh Ober, City Year Corps Members at Sam Houston.  Photo by Susan Varghese.
Gabi Santoro and Josh Ober, City Year Corps Members at Sam Houston. Photo by Susan Varghese.

“This ties into our work at Sam Houston,” he said. “We’re transforming this space that was completely underutilized and had no purpose. We’re using material that was considered ‘junk’ that we’ve picked up from the streets. Not only are we cleaning the streets – but we’re making use out of something that was just sitting there. Lastly, it ties into the work we do with our students. We’re making full use out of that human capital – the creative minds of all the ECOreps.”

Sam Houston High School is in the footprint of the Eastside Promise Neighborhood (EPN). The U.S. Department of Education awarded United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County a coveted Promise Neighborhood planning grant in 2010 as a part of a five-year community revitalization plan.  City Year is one of the organizations EPN collaborates with, along with the City of San Antonio, San Antonio Independent School District, the San Antonio Housing Authority, Family Service Association, the P-16 Council, CINOW, and local leaders.

While these partnerships seek to improve the East Side, the Team Up Challenge, a separate grant, allows students to take charge of their own community and improve their school. This supports service-based learning and, students note, leadership skills.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Ross said. “(After we’re done) we’re going to be the ones saying, ‘Man, I did that.’ We’re going to have ownership and responsibility of it.”

According to a report from the Coalition for Community Schools, titled, “Community-based learning,” studies show that using work-based learning strategies “promotes selection of challenging classes, improves attendance, and reduces dropout rates. High risk students who enrolled in work-based learning in career academies were less likely to be chronically absent from school than students in a randomly assigned control group.”

The work has been ongoing; in December, the teams took part in community beautification through cleaning up the debris and garbage along East Houston Street. It resulted in 27 full trash bags and necessary scrap metal for a junk garden sculpture. Recycling bins, spray-painted with designs by Sam students, have also been set up around the school.  Most recently, the students have had a clean up with the San Antonio Rampage, have been raking and shoveling gravel and debris three days a week and prepping the mural.

[Video: See Sam Houston Team Up at work with the Rampage]

There are 19 other San Antonio schools competing for the Team Up $20,000 prize. Neighboring middle school, Davis, is also working on a courtyard beautification project. If awarded the grand prize, Davis and Sam Houston will team up to extend the project in the area around the schools and transform the vacant lot.

Ross, who has big plans for college and traveling the world, added, “Sometimes, kids in San Antonio need inspiration and that little push. [They think] because they’re living on the East Side, that community service doesn’t matter – it’s all about trying to be this or that, what they see on TV. It’s not. That’s one thing everyone should be able to do – give back.”

Susan Varghese is a freelance writer and native New Yorker. Being a Corps Member with City Year, an education-focused non-profit, currently takes up most of her time and is usually the source of her inspiration — along with an extra large coffee. Susan is the blogger and photographer for Sam Houston High School’s Team Up Challenge. 

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Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org