Creativity at Ground Zero

Don Cudd, or “Hoss the Boss,” as listeners of his online radio program know him, is a Corpus Christi-based burnt-out journalist and educator who has settled into being an internet DJ after a string of false starts and odd jobs. He delivered newspapers for the Corpus Christi Caller-Times before tangling with his employers over questionable delivery practices and an attempt to form a paper-throwers guild. He was hired as a writing tutor at Del Mar College, but clashed again — this time over policies that forced students to use a writing center that administrators and faculty said were entirely unnecessary. And this lifelong liberal got sick of volunteering for the Democratic Party because he didn’t see enough brown faces, that and the fact that nobody came onboard for his man, Dennis Kucinich. But what really broke him was his brief stint as a high school teacher in Falls Church, Va., which resulted in a doctor’s note excusing him from class. “Officially speaking, I am too crazy to teach,” he writes on his website.

The former coffin salesman and follower of Ghandi’s philosophy blames a 60-hour workweek for leaving him so physically and emotionally spent that his duties went unfulfilled. Like every other teacher he knew, Cudd was expected to do everything from planning classes to organizing extra curricular activities, all while keeping up with new technology and looking out for troubled students. “As an educator I realized I was being asked to do too much, and I could not be the kind of teacher I’d been trained to be,” he said.

To ask why cities like San Antonio rank at the bottom of U.S. cities in terms of literacy — The Daily Beast ranked the city 54 out of 55 of “America’s Smartest Cities,” based in part on book sales and advanced degrees per capita, for instance (See “Is our children learning,” November 3, 2010) — public education seems a reasonable place to start, with typically anemic arts programs, stretched teachers, and more budget cuts on the way. Serious cuts — in spite of Texas already being dead last among U.S. states in our public education investment.

Maryellen Mills heads the Gateway to College Program for San Antonio College, which allows at-risk students to finish work for their high school diplomas while embarking on their associates degrees at SAC. Mills has generally good things to say about Texas education, but concedes things were better in the ’90s. “When my kids were in public elementary and middle schools they got a wonderful education. In addition to solid academics, they had music and art and phys ed, and were encouraged to find a sport they liked in middle school. Cuts in funding have starved those arts and PE programs out of many of our schools. That leaves fewer opportunities for kids to learn about themselves and the world in creative and kinesthetic ways. And for some kids, that’s soul crushing.”

In Texas, arts programs are funded by property taxes. Attempts to create a Robin Hood system that spreads school revenue around more equitably have been slowly dismantled by the Texas Legislature. Richer districts have more coming in to fund their arts programs, while poorer districts will require supplemental funding from within — if they can find it. But curriculum choices are also a huge factor when it comes to inspiring the largely Mexican-American student body that fills these low-income schools.

“Let’s set the record straight. When most people, educators, say ‘low income students,’ it’s a euphemism for Mexican-American students,” said Christine Granados, author of Brides and Sinners in El Chucho, which won her the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award in 2006. “We all know and see that the Mexican-American population is growing in Texas and throughout the United States. As a matter of record and fact, Mexican-Americans are at the bottom of the wage-earning scale and are considered low income, poor, or whatever it is we’re calling the non-middle class nowadays.”

Educators are having a difficult time reaching these students, Granados insists, because they are not giving them the proper reading materials. “These students are not seeing themselves or their lives, their parents, or their ancestors’ contributions to this country in the literature and the textbooks they are reading in the schools they attend. … Is it any wonder so many Latinos are failing and are not engaged in learning? They are disconnected, not because they are dumb, but because there is nothing that validates who they are or where they come from in their readings.”

Her assertion is supported not only by her own experience (she was raised in El Paso, yet didn’t read a single Mexican-American author until she was a sophomore in college), but in recent actions by the Texas State Board of Education, whose members so recently endeavored to remove all references to the iconic labor organizer Cesár Chávez from state textbooks.

These days the internet DJ Cudd advises kids to drop out of public school, which he feels is a broken institution. The man who found his elementary and junior high schools to be “typically depressing and stifling for all” offers to tutor kids for five dollars a pop and preaches homeschooling as a way to escape the imploding educational morass.

But as bad as public education may be, unless you are like Colin Wilson or Orson Welles — in other words, a drop-out with genius qualities likely to produce maverick works of rogue philosophy or world-renowned cinema by age 25 — you probably need to stay in school. These days opportunities are much harder to come by without considerable schooling. Though dropouts have existed as long as there has been compulsory secondary education, the job market has changed in ways that limit opportunity for those without more intellectual grounding. “As our economy becomes more and more based on knowledge and technology, job opportunities for dropouts are few and far between,” Mills said. “Even what we generally regard as blue collar trades — plumbers or mechanics, for instance — must be able to handle evolving materials and technologies used in their work.”

Cudd’s homeschooling campaign also bears sour notes for those in lower income brackets. “For most working-class parents, home schooling is not an option, and neither is driving your kid to another school outside your district,” says Macarena Hernandez, managing director of Centro Victoria at the University of Houston-Victoria in Texas. So for most students, there are few options.

“When I taught high school, I realized that there was a significant number of students that were kind of ignored by the system. … It’s been said many times that schools focus on the top 10 percent of the kids and the 10 percent at the bottom of the GPA scale. But then there is about 80 percent of the population that doesn’t really get any meaningful attention,” Hernandez said. “If a student has a teacher, coach, or administrator — someone who is invested in them — asking about their SAT scores or where they are applying for college, this student will not only have a more positive high school experience, this student also has a better chance of not falling through the cracks.”

Hernandez, a former journalist who in recent years has had the distinct honor of being bad-mouthed by Bill O’Reilly and plagiarized by a New York Times reporter while she was working for the San Antonio Express-News, said the answer lies in developing a genuine connection with the kids, connections that don’t often happen in public schools.

But she also agrees with Granados concerning the importance of regional literature. “Obviously there are universal truths to literature that transcend ethnic labels, but when you don’t grow up associating last names like García, Treviño, and Rodriguez with books, then, by omission, you don’t see how rich your own background is.”

Trey Moody, a San Antonio-bred author of the poetry collection Climate Reply who now teaches at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, went to the more affluent Winston Churchill High School in NEISD “where it seems my math courses and playing football contributed the most to my writing process. The hours spent practicing these subjects manifested as concrete results, and this work ethic has translated more than anything to my writing process, which includes extensive reading, writing many failed attempts, and battling bouts of creative laziness.”

Though he benefited much from a well-funded school district, this advocate of the Socratic Method was never a “young, aspiring artist in San Antonio.” He offers some advice to students still trapped in the land of burnt-out educators and slashed school funding: “Take it upon yourself to thoroughly investigate your interests. I didn’t learn the value in discovering for myself — new writers, artists, musicians, etc. — until later in college. And I can’t help but think that finding these new directions early on would help in fostering certain passions at a young age. While teachers are no doubt invaluable, self-teaching is too underrated.”

Mills, who is passionate about the role of community colleges in transforming the economy and culture of a state, feels that the students that she helps are “orchids rather than dandelions.” They cannot thrive anywhere, but when they bloom they do so in extraordinary ways.

One of these “orchids” — a 17-year-old who threatened to quit school rather than endure another year of bullying, teachers that he couldn’t stand, and girls who gave him problems — wanted to be a novelist when he entered the Gateway Program. He read all the Hammett, Chandler, and zombie apocalypse books he could. Now that he is busy getting his grades on track and his future in order, he sees everything clearer, and with much more focus. He no longer wants to be a novelist. He wants to join the army. •

Related story: When one Cultura isn't Enough: A Love Story by Leticia Medina

Arts space-share solution

As school district officials around the state eye budget proposals and brace themselves for deep cuts, some unsavory choices lie ahead, including whether to consolidate campuses and close schools.

In the past, State Senator Florence Shapiro, a Republican of Plano and head of the Senate Education Committee, has called for districts to forge deals with local charter schools in exchange for letting them use vacant district buildings. A recent partnership between SAISD and the Henry Ford Academy’s Alameda School for Art and Design shows one option districts may have when faced with shuttered schools or further-shrinking arts programs.

In 2009, after SAISD consolidated and closed six campuses to lower costs, the district teamed up with the local charter school in an effort to expand arts education. The art and design school moved last year into the vacant SAISD building on Arbor Place, formerly Bowie Elementary School. In return, the charter school agreed to pay for upkeep and maintenance costs while giving the district access to its roughly $4-million art and design curriculum.

“It really is a one-of-a-kind partnership,” Alameda superintendent and principal Jeffrey Flores said. “It really is a win-win for us and, I think, for the district.”

SAISD has now started a pilot program using the Alameda curriculum with Jefferson High School’s art magnet students, using some of Alameda’s workshop space, Flores said. “We do not consider it a landlord-tenant type of relationship; it’s a true partnership,” Flores said. — Michael Barajas



On the Books: Part One

When One Cultura isn't Enough: A Love Story

On the Books: Part 3

How a local poet found art (and the rosary) can heal and restore lives

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