Bekah S. McNeel

For a person without school age children, I find myself at a lot of school fundraiser galas. auctions, banquets. You can tell a lot about a school by its fundraiser. At the gala for my salt-of-the-earth alma mater the stars of Duck Dynasty were this year’s guest speakers. Meanwhile, at my husband’s well-heeled homecoming banquet, the party favors are champagne flutes.

As I looked around the walls of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Montessori School Fall Fete, I was impressed that they got so many local artists to donate works to the fundraiser. Paula Owen, Waddy Armstrong, Andy Benavides, Scott Martin, Laura Mijangos, even a work by the late Alberto Mijangos, to name but a few of the works lining the walls of the Pearl Studio in late September.

"Wall Flower" by Laura Mijangos for auction at St. Paul's Fall Fete
“Wall Flower” by Laura Mijangos for auction at St. Paul’s Fall Fundraiser. Photos by Bekah McNeel.

I had known that the school had longstanding ties to the art world of San Antonio. The school’s founding headmistress, Kay Karcher Mijangos, was married to the late Alberto Mijangos, and is stepmother to Laura. But as I moved around the room, I began to spot some the artists themselves, which was even more surprising.

So I asked Andy and Yvette Benavides, artists and owners of 1906 Gallery, what brought them to the event, aside from seeing Andy’s  Dia de los Muertos Bunny Sugar Mask hanging on the wall in person. Given the popularity of “Hola Bunny,” I found it hard to believe that they were just there to enjoy the novelty of it.

“Our son goes here,” Andy Benavides said.

It turned out that was what had brought Scott Martin and several other artists out as well. Their kids attend St. Paul’s, and so they were there supporting the school by buying raffle tickets and bidding on the items spread out on tables beneath their own artworks.

Andy and Yvette Benavides, local artists and St. Paul's Monstessori School parents
Andy and Yvette Benavides, local artists and St. Paul’s Monstessori School parents.

The affinity local artists feel for the school is not coincidental. Montessori allows children to discover the language that opens up the world for them. For many, that is art. Because of this, visual artists, poets, musicians, and dancers are drawn to Montessori schools for their children. They remember what it was like to watch the world open up under the artistic lens.

For St. Paul’s art teacher, Kate Terrell, it was crucial. Until she found the art room, she was the kind of student who could have easily been lost in a sea of testing and memory drills.  “I felt kind of blind,” she said.

When Terrell found the art room in her own school, her outlook changed, and that’s what she wants to give the children of St. Paul’s.

While local artists, like the Benavides family, are striving to bring that language back into public schools through enrichment programs, they have chosen to put their own children into an environment where they will be immersed.

In the Montessori curriculum art is not an isolated subject. It’s not kept in the boundaries of a paint-splattered art room on the edge of campus. Art is portable.

“It can be incorporated into everything,” said Jennifer Davie, the new headmistress of St. Paul’s. She recently stated to fill the role of Karcher Mijangos, who retired at the end of the 2012-2013 school year.

Collected sketches by the students at St. Paul's Montessori School. Designed and printed by  Jon & Léo Lee
Collected sketches by the students at St. Paul’s Montessori School. Designed and printed by Jon & Léo Lee.

Art is incorporated into math, science, language, and more. So is music. Children who might otherwise struggle with the more linear subjects have the option of artistic expression to process what they are learning. Meanwhile, their lives are enriched by drawing connections between the subjects. No need to be labeled as a “math/science person” or an “English/arts person.”

The students are exposed to the subjects in a way that reflects real life, rather than rigid compartmentalization. Their artistic bent might be the key to their success in the sciences – creativity is not always about making something that will hang on the wall.

“The beauty of art in Montessori is that it’s about the process, not the product,” said Davie.

That principle will be even more fleshed out when Terrell moves into a proper art room in the new building recently renovated on campus. On-going projects will have a place to live, while kids learn about processes and techniques that require the extra space.

Scott Martin with his piece "Red" at the St. Paul's Fall Fete. Martin is a St. Paul's Montessori School Parent
Scott Martin with his piece “Red” at the St. Paul’s Fall Fete. Martin is a St. Paul’s Montessori School Parent.

Meanwhile, however, easels remain available to the children in the classrooms and other areas on campus as a resource for working through the various educational concepts they encounter throughout the day. Some things just don’t fit within the lines on a sheet of notebook paper.

One area where art brings information to life is the natural sciences. The students keep their sketchbooks handy, a la John James Audubon. They incorporate fallen leaves and found flora into their art and use it to explore principles of science.

Art and music at St. Paul’s become a forum for learning to work together, to think broadly, and to be good stewards of their resources. Terrell believes that the art studio will be a place where children learn about the order and discipline. Contrary to the popular stereotype of Montessori schools as places where children are running free splattered with paint and leaves in their hair, bringing order to one’s world is a high value at St. Paul’s.

“Then they’re free – because they know where things are – within that order,” said Terrell.

Talking to Terrell and Davie, it’s obvious why the children of artists feel so at home at St. Paul’s. They go to school everyday and hear the same language they hear at home, and see the relevance and importance of their parent’s work. For a community wishing to foster the arts, schools like St. Paul’s are an incubator for the future.

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.

Related Stories:

‘Diplomas Now’ Champions Burbank Students Through Graduation

Rey Saldaña’s Journey Home: South San to Stanford and Back

Local School’s Anti-Dropout Program Makes it to the Small Screen

Burbank’s Best and Brightest Learn to Think Globally

Pre-K 4 SA Aims High with City’s Smallest Students

A 20-Year Look At Texas’ Budget For Our Children: Invest In Texas Kids. It Matters.

Pre-K is OK 4 SA: City’s Kids Big Winners on a Night They Slept Through Vote Count

Education Summit Highlights Importance of Communication and Parent Involvement

Hello, Círculos: ArteKids Books Bring Spanish, Fine Art to Youngest Readers

Scholarships and Jobs: Toyota and Alamo Colleges Strike Deal

Understanding the School Choice Debate: A Primer

Urban Fabric: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Families

All-Girl College Prep Turning Heads in San Antonio, Producing Tomorrow’s Leaders

Avatar photo

Bekah McNeel

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