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San Antonio School of Inquiry and Creativity grapples with teaching at-risk kids and meeting federal standards

Pulling off a busy stretch of San Pedro into the small parking lot of the San Antonio School for Inquiry and Creativity feels more like arriving at a doctor’s office. But the teenagers milling about the lobby and lounging on plush couches in between classes make the strip-mall school seem vibrant. San Antonio School, as it is known, is housed in a two-story, brown-brick and mirrored-glass office building surrounded by used car lots, gas stations, and ‘60s-era churches. A charter school and its own district, San Antonio School caters mainly to at-risk students who have fallen through the cracks in large traditional schools because of behavior problems, low academic achievement, or home issues. It is one of roughly 40 San Antonio-area alternative charter schools that have cropped up to fit varying student needs.

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San Antonio School’s creativity-based mission helps excite students about learning, although some still lag in core subjects. “If we can get the desire for art into the rest of the subjects, we’ll be successful,” says information-technology teacher Samuel Espurvoa. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

“Every school fills a niche,” superintendent and principal Debbie DeLeon says. As you walk through mural-painted hallways from the violin and piano studios to the math lab, it appears teachers and administrators make the school’s creativity-based mission a priority. Students with a history of fighting in the traditional school setting are now handed bass guitars and drumsticks. Teenage mothers are encouraged to document their personal experience through black-and-white photography. Upstairs, in a recently acquired wing, there are plans for a hip-hop production studio and a film-appreciation screening theater.

“If we can get the desire for art into the rest of the subjects, we’ll be successful,” says San Antonio School’s information-technology teacher, Samuel Espurvoa.

While San Antonio School, which received its state charter in 2001, serves as a creative haven for at-risk students, it has struggled to meet state and federal standards. For the two years the school has been accountable to the Texas Education Agency’s Academic Excellence Indicator System, it has scored “Academically Unacceptable.” The ignominious label signifies a school’s inability to meet state standardized-testing baselines: 50 percent of students passing in language arts and social studies, 35 percent in math, and 25 percent in science. Of 39 San Antonio charter schools, San Antonio School is one of five that has fallen below the standard requirement.

“The state doesn’t look at us as the top-notch school that we want to be,” DeLeon reluctantly concedes. Inconsistent attendance and flux in enrollment due to issues such as teen pregnancy, family illness, and financial hardship have led to low test scores and graduation rates. Although DeLeon says students achieve higher test scores after transferring to the small San Antonio School than at their former school, “we can’t all the time get them up on level, so they don’t pass the test,” she says.

Yet, San Antonio School students demonstrate interest in their art-based assignments. “It’s unfortunate that the state says you’re low performing just because of standardized test scores,” Espurvoa says. In the hallway, excited students surround Espurvoa. “We have to download this onto the PC!” yells a tall Latina. “But how do I transfer this onto the disk?” asks her impatient classmate.

UTSA Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies Felecia Briscoe says the low-performing label is symptomatic of the stringent federal No Child Left Behind Act that evaluates schools primarily on testing performance. “Unless they change the guidelines and status of `alternative charter schools`, they will always fall into this label.”

Although alternative schools provide a choice for frustrated parents and at-risk students, Briscoe is nervous about the academic trend. “We’re experimenting on the most vulnerable population of students,” she says.

After a school receives an Academically Unacceptable rating for two consecutive years, the TEA usually orders a school restructuring plan that involves a public hearing, an on-site investigation into school-district operations, and a management team that assumes the duties of district trustees. “Traditionally, the agency gives charter schools more time to turn around because they’re serving at-risk students,” says TEA spokesperson Suzanne Marchman. “They’re trying. The methodology in traditional schools doesn’t work for this population of students.”

San Antonio School has had some success with its experiment. Within the year-and-a-half she has been superintendent, DeLeon has increased teacher retention to 80 percent, compared to the school’s early days when there was almost complete staff turnover. The number of graduates has increased from four students to 27.

DeLeon attributes the gains to the $250,000 reconstruction grant San Antonio School received this year. One of five high schools and two charter schools in Texas to receive the coveted grant, San Antonio School has used the money to stock student resources such as computers and textbooks. “It’s not an overnight thing,” says Vice Principal and science teacher Shawn White. “We need to build up the faculty and resources and the state sees we are working towards that.”

The small size of San Antonio School has helped allowed teachers to give students more individualized attention. “At other schools students are just numbers,” says White of traditional high schools that enroll as many as 3,000 students. At San Antonio School, teachers and staff know almost all of the 200 kindergarten through high school students by name. The student-body president says he quit fighting with others four years ago when he arrived at San Antonio School because there are fewer distractions and antagonistic students and more personalized attention. Briscoe agrees that smaller schools are more successful. “Research shows that schools with about 500 students are the best size,” she says. At smaller schools, students perform better academically, have a sense of belonging, and vandalism and behavior problems decrease.

Funding these expensive upstart charter schools can be risky for the state. After experimental schools propose their concept to the state and receive funding, one of two things usually happens: The schools either fail and are shut down by the state, or are successful and can become private schools. “People that set this up want to make money. If it works, they go private and essentially the state is funding a start-up,” says Briscoe.

This segue into privatization could end up excluding students many alternative schools claim to reach. Says Briscoe, “I worry about that.” For most new alternative schools, the pressing concern is not of financial gain, but survival. In an educational system overflowing with parental options and the pressure of high-stakes testing, charter schools like San Antonio School tenaciously stick to their mission and keep trying.

By Melanie Lu Sharpe



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