Bekah S. McNeel

“What do you think of your teacher winning $5,000?” Judy Geelhoed, Executive Director of the SAISD Foundation, asks the students in Sarah Powell and Oralia Lopez’s first-grade classes.

The room erupted into pint-sized pandemonium as students cheered their teacher. The grant, awarded by the SAISD Foundation will be used to purchase sketchbooks for every student at Briscoe Academy, pre-K through 5th grade.

Oralia Lopez and Sarah Powell talk to the press along with their excited 1st graders at Briscoe Academy.

Earlier during a news conference in the Briscoe Academy library, SAISD Foundation board members announced the awarding of 39 innovation grants, to be delivered in surprise visits to different campus classrooms. More than $109,000 will be distributed to teachers and campuses demonstrating bold, innovative ideas.

“Our mission aligns with the mission of the district,” said SAISD Foundation Chairman Carri Baker Wells. SAISD seeks to become a model urban school district and the foundation supports that effort by recognizing “innovative teaching and teaching excellence,” Wells said.

Toward that goal, the foundation awards its innovation grants. The $5,000 awarded to Briscoe recognizes the school’s commitment to arts education, a proven difference-maker in the development and success of children. Briscoe students, armed with their trusty sketchbooks, will participate in a highly collaborative relationship with the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) and S.M.A.R.T.

SAISD Foundation Board members Kim Harle, Carri Baker Wells, Bob Rivard, Brandon Logan, and Javier Leal.
SAISD Foundation Board members Kim Harle, Carri Baker Wells, Bob Rivard, Brandon Logan, and Javier Leal.

Under the leadership of Katie Erickson, SAMA partnerships have augmented art, history, social studies, and math education throughout the city. Her team is meeting with Briscoe teachers to develop an art-intensive program, based on the school’s commitment to bring the arts back into the lives of elementary school kids.

Art appreciation and hands-on art class are among the many creative studies that has been eliminated from resource-starved Texas public schools, considered “non-essential” by too many policy makers and budget cutters.

The innovation grants and the program at the Briscoe help reverse that. Already Briscoe teachers have utilized the SAMA on the Go program, which brings art and artifacts into the classroom. In the coming school year they will take their relationship to the next level with frequent visits to the museum, free of charge. Teachers will continue to incorporate art into the school day as well.

“All our curriculum is designed to go with what the teachers are teaching in their classroom,” Erickson said.

The sketchbooks will follow the students wherever they go, and the intention is that they will keep the same book throughout elementary school to look back and see their own growth. Because Briscoe’s art emphasis is allowing SAMA to delve deeper with the students, the 5th grade curriculum will incorporate a very special Museum Literacy program that teaches student about curatorial and research skills that will open up a world of educational resources. Many adults don’t even appreciate the fact that museums are reservoirs of actual information and knowledge, not just life-size dioramas and famous paintings.

The partnership with S.M.A.R.T. (Supporting Multiple Arts Resources Together) will not only expose students to the world of galleries and working artists and architects, it will also illuminate the importance of art in their own neighborhood, the vital role it plays in their community.

Andy Benavides, Yvette Benavides, Briscoe Academy Principal Lanore Cantu, and Katie Erickson.
Andy Benavides, Yvette Benavides, Briscoe Academy Principal Lanore Cantu, and Katie Erickson.

Artists Andy and Yvette Benavides have made it their mission to demonstrate the many facets of what art can do. From their S. Flores gallery space, 1906 gallery, they have been involved in every part of art making, from inspiration all the way to showcasing.

“We have 20 years in the community,” Andy Benavides said. In that time they have been connecting to artists, galleries, and arts organizations along S. Flores, seeking out the makings of an arts district. “We realized we have it!”

S. Flores is indeed home to many working artists and galleries, supporting it’s own Second Saturday event. Imagine a more indie First Friday, without the vendors. Bringing kids into the fabric of a cultural district will provide the support and wider worldview that can inspire would-be-forgotten kids to succeed.

Andy Benavides sees himself as one of those kids who was saved by art. A “C”-student, he would not have been tracked for success if art had not been a viable path. He grew up in an era when the arts were still part of SAISD programming. Now, his concern is for those kids like himself whose potential doesn’t fit the mold of standardized testing.

“There are a couple of generations of little geniuses that we’ve pushed off to the side,” Benavides said.

Giving kids that tool for learning, can give them the confidence and communication skills they need to succeed in other areas. Not all creative people go on to be gallery artists. Many of them go on to be CEO’s. And creativity may be the only way they find access to the subject matter.

“Art is a language,” Yvette Benavides said, “you have to start young.”

As working artists, business people, and community activists, Andy and Yvette Benavides are the ideal ambassadors for the impact of the arts.

“Where as an artist my medium was painting, now it has become community,” Andy Benavides said.

The SAISD Foundation, San Antonio Museum of Art, S.M.A.R.T., and some very dedicated teachers and administrators are all teaming up to bring the students of Briscoe Academy into that community, and insure that they achieve fluency in whatever language they need to thrive.

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.