Bekah S. McNeel

For those familiar with SAY Sí, it will come as no surprise that the local after-school arts program has found itself in the national spotlight this week.

At a Tuesday press conference, SAY Sí and the Wallace Foundation introduced the public to Something to Say, a new report on effective after-school programs in the United States.

“We had carte blanche to start our research anywhere in the United States, and we chose to start at SAY Sí,” said Denise Montgomery, project director for the Wallace Foundation study.

Retention rates from middle school to high school initially drew Montgomery and her team to SAY Sí – any after-school program that holds onto its students as they near adulthood has to be doing something right. Once they began digging, however, they found that SAY Sí Executive and Artistic Director Jon Hinojosa and his team are doing a lot of things right.

SAY Sí Executive and Artistic Director Jon Hinojosa poses for a photo in his office, which has a tendency to look more like an art studio. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
SAY Sí Executive and Artistic Director Jon Hinojosa poses for a photo in his office, which has a tendency to look more like an art studio. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

“This is a 133 page report, and SAY Sí is all over it,” Montgomery said.

The report begins with an unusual methodology: a market analysis of ‘tweens and teens as consumers of out-of-school time (OST) programs. What are they looking for in OST programs? Researchers interviewed leading experts and arts organizations and compared their programs to the market research findings. The comparison revealed a close alignment of supply and demand: successful programs meet the needs and desires of the students they serve.

The report culminates in 10 principles for effective, high-quality OST arts programs. The goal is to empower other programs to replicate the success stories of SAY Sí and the others profiled in Something to Say.

Principle #1: Instructors are professional, practicing artists, and are valued with compensation for their expertise and investment in their professional development.

Photo courtesy of SAY Sí, located at 1518 S Alamo St.
Photo courtesy of SAY Sí, located at 1518 S Alamo St.

From the executive director on down, SAY Sí employs artists and experts. When they started 20 years ago with 12 students from Brackenridge High School, Founder Mike Schroeder was responding to the sweeping cuts to fine arts programs in public schools. Working with the King William Association, SAY Sí’s goal was to give a creative outlet to students who were passionate about art. The resources available allowed for a visual arts program, staffed by professional artists like Hinojosa.

Whenever SAY Sí branches into another artistic field, they hire the appropriate staff. Visual artists were not asked to develop the theater arts program. Cinema experts were not asked to launch the forthcoming gaming design program. SAY Sí staff members are not expected to be generically “artistic,” they are encouraged to share their craft with students.

Principle #2: Executive directors have a public commitment to high-quality arts programs that is supported by sustained action.

Hinojosa’s energy and initiative is hard to miss. For 20 years he has labored to expand and refine the offerings of SAY Sí. He conducts informal in-house research to figure out where the programming should go next, hires professional staff and pursues funding opportunities through partnerships and grants. Once in a while, he installs shelving.

Yes, shelving. Every inch of the SAY Sí facility reflects a commitment to professionalism and quality control. (If you’ve never seen shelving installed by an aesthetically particular person, you’ve never seen shelving realize its full potential.)

Principle #3: Arts program take place in dedicated, inspiring, welcoming spaces and affirm the value of arts and artists.

Each arm of SAY Sí has dedicated space tailored to the needs of the artists working in it. The gallery and studio space available to the visual arts students is top-notch. ALAS, the theater arts program, has an in-house black box theater. MAS, the media arts studio, is fully outfitted with banks of wide screens and film equipment. When a student enters these spaces, they are given the best, not left overs or hand-me-downs from “more important” programs. It’s clear to students: the arts are worth the investment, and artists need the tools of their trade.

Photo courtesy of SAY Sí.
High school students mentor middle school students in the MAS program. Photo courtesy of SAY Sí.

Principle #4: There is a culture of high expectations, respect for creative expression and affirmation of youth participants as artists.

This might be most evident in WAM, the middle school program. Middle school students committed to the year-round Saturday program are mentored by high school juniors and seniors in visual and media arts.

While the young artists develop skills and ambition, their mentors are being treated as working artists and professionals. Meanwhile the bond between the age groups strengthens the entire SAY Sí community culture.

Principle #5: Programs cultivate high-quality public events with real audiences.

When SAY Sí alum and board member Pablo Veliz decided to pursue a career in the arts, he knew it would sound “absurd” to his family and peers. No one in Veliz’s family had been to college, much less for a liberal arts degrees like communication. But Veliz had something very substantial to back up his ambition: he used profits from his SAY Sí art sales to pay for his first two years at UTSA.

SAY Sí encourages students to take an entrepreneurial approach to their work. Their galleries are commercial galleries, and there are plenty of red dots on the wall, indicating sold works. ALAS students perform their work, and MAS students make films that they enter in competitions. The arts hold value … why not showcase it?

Principle #6: Positive relationships with adult mentors and peers foster a sense of belonging and acceptance.

At the press conference, student after student spoke about the sense of belonging they felt at SAY Sí. Each had a story of finding his or her place as they found their voices with adults who saw their potential. For inner city populations, these role models and secure adult relationships can be key to the long-term social development of students as they enter adulthood themselves.

photo courtesy of SAY Sí
Students learn in a professional studio environment at SAY Sí. Photo courtesy of SAY Sí

Principle #7: Youth participants actively shape programs and assume meaningful leadership roles.

Everything about the Wallace Foundation research showed that students are aware of their own needs, and are able to make that known. The best programs take advantage of this communicative market to shape their product.

Another way to put it: successful programs listen to what their students have to say. As their name indicates, that is exactly what happens at SAY Sí.

Everything about SAY Sí is designed to give the students a voice. Hinojosa and the instructors listen to their interests and involve them in the formation and evaluation of programming.  This approach has shaped SAY Sí’s offerings. For instance, instead of a more commercial graphic design program, students and instructors have invested in a gaming design program that will teach students how to code among other technologic skills.

Principle #8: Programs focus on hands-on skill building using current equipment and technology.

In a funding climate where the arts are perceived as frilly privileges, artists and program directors have begun speaking out to promote creative development. Hinojosa asserts that the arts are not the antithesis to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In fact, for many students, the arts are their access point to STEM.

Photo courtesy of SAY Sí.
State of the art technology engages students in the media arts lab at SAY Sí. Photo courtesy of SAY Sí.

For a creative learner, it’s not just that they need time to paint. Creative learners need that space to develop the skills that will help them in math, science, writing, and history. A hands-on learning environment gives students many of the skills to hone their craft, but also the critical thinking skills to take back into the classroom and thrive in their studies and future careers.

Principle #9: Programs strategically engage key stakeholders to create a network of support for both youth participants and the programs.

One key stakeholder was abundantly present at the press conference. The City of San Antonio and SA2020 believe in SAY Sí. It’s not hard to see why, either. With a 100% graduation rate, SAY Sí is doing it’s part to turn the tide on drop out rates, foster the arts, and produce the kind of young, energetic citizens that inspire a city.

Council members Shirley Gonzalez (District 5) and Ron Nirenberg (District 8) were on hand at the press conference to congratulate SAY Sí, and Mayor Julian Castro sent his congratulations via video.

Principle #10: Programs provide a physically and emotionally safe place for youth.

The SAY Sí facilities on S. Alamo might be the happiest atmosphere in town. Open spaces, bright colors, orderly studios and of course, art everywhere.

Behind each piece of art is a student with a story to tell. When students have the ability to tell their own story, they exercise agency. Agency is what will allow them to take control of their futures.

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.