At Houston alternative school, the eyes have it; Curriculum steeped in art helps at-risk ‘visual learners’ excel

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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HOUSTON — Lea Ann Lockard has bachelor’s and master’s degrees, with a second master’s on the way. But on the wall of her office at the Spring Branch School of Choice, you’ll only find one diploma – from A.C. Jones High School in Beeville, Texas.

“That one took more work and more effort than the others,” said Ms. Lockard, the school’s principal. “That’s the valuable one.”

That’s the attitude of everyone at the School of Choice, an alternative school for teenagers on the brink of dropping out: A diploma is worth fighting for.

“Nobody here is looking to get in trouble,” senior Maurice Moore said. “Everybody’s focused on their work and graduating.”

Across America, lost students wander the halls of giant high schools, unnoticed until they stop showing up at all.

To be admitted to the Spring Branch School of Choice, you have to be one of those kids, officially considered “at risk” of dropping out. Among the ways a child earns the label: by falling two years behind in math or reading; by veering off course to graduate in four years; by getting pregnant; or by having previously dropped out.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that last year, in the final year of Texas’ TAAS test, the School of Choice posted reading and writing passing rates higher than the state average.

They also beat the reading and writing averages of traditional high schools in the Spring Branch district, which is in west Houston. That means that the kids – every last one of them considered a threat to drop out or fail or worse – ended up topping their better-off peers back at their home schools.

“Our kids have to get past the idea that once you mess up, you can’t get back on track,” said science teacher Debbie Sheffield.

The idea behind the School of Choice and other alternative schools is to personalize the environment. They make the classes smaller and emphasize one-on-one learning. And since teachers know their kids haven’t succeeded in regular schools, they have the freedom to try something different.

“We don’t do the things that didn’t work before,” said English teacher Bob Koupa. “Giving them a bunch of worksheets works for some kids. But not for all.”

The school’s most obvious departure from the norm is its integration of art into every element of the school’s curriculum. “These students are visual learners,” said Joanne Frimel, the school’s art coordinator. “If they could draw their way through school, they’d ace it.”

Ms. Frimel floats from classroom to classroom, helping teachers integrate art into their assignments. A unit on African history means kids making ceramic idols in the style of West African religions. The concept of chemical solutions is taught through experiments with watercolors.

The school’s hallways are lined with posters and paintings. In physics class, Matisse paintings are used to demonstrate the properties of color and light. Kandinsky’s shapes are used to demonstrate the properties of geometric shapes. When a math teacher brings up three-dimensional shapes, she does it through Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo come up in language arts classes.

“The art makes the core subject friendly,” Ms. Frimel said. “It’s an alternative to ‘Read Chapter 8 then answer the questions at the end of the chapter.'”

In a regular English class, a writing exercise might just mean composing a story. In Mr. Koupa’s English class it means building a story visually by arranging a series of images on a poster – then writing a story telling the narrative the images produce. Most of the images show members of the Blue Man Group in abstract poses.

“When you change the stimulus and focus with these kids, they just go,” said Mr. Koupa, a former regional teacher of the year who compares the teaching style to what gifted and talented children get.

“These teachers will try to help you through anything,” said 19-year-old Dennis Martinez, who will graduate in December. Without the School of Choice, he said, “I would have been gone two years ago.”

In 1999, the school won the National Dropout Prevention Center’s annual Crystal Star Award as one of the nation’s premier anti-dropout efforts.

The School of Choice isn’t just a second chance for students. For teachers, it’s usually a second career.

Ms. Lockard said that only three of the school’s 23 teachers took the traditional route – four years in a college of education. You’ll find an ex-stock broker, a former taxidermist and a retired dentist. (“Pulling teeth is easy – this is hard,” joked John Baker, language arts teacher, to recent immigrants.)

“People here aren’t so indoctrinated in the educationese approach,” said Mr. Koupa, a former insurance salesman and artist who didn’t finish college until his 40s.

A job interview at the School of Choice is grueling, Ms. Lockard said, as she and other staffers try to determine whether a prospective teacher shares the school’s ideals. Negative attitudes are banned; there’s to be no humiliation of kids if they fall short of expectations.

“Some people think it’s OK for some kids to fail,” Ms. Lockard said. “It’s a red flag for a teacher to ever say, ‘It’s the parents’ fault.’ We just can’t have that attitude here.”

“Usually when you find at-risk kids, you find the worst teachers in the district,” Ms. Sheffield said. “But here you’ll find the best teachers.”

Ms. Lockard’s background gives her a perspective on what the school’s kids need. Her father was in the Navy, which meant moving often. She attended five high schools in four school districts in two states.

“If this school had existed for me, I would have been a student here,” she said.

She was an EMT, a newspaper ad salesperson and a Child Protective Services caseworker before turning to education in 1990.

Every element of the school is focused on making it work for students. Teachers know that almost all their kids have jobs, children or both, so they keep out-of-class assignments to a minimum. For students needing to make up credits, there are computer learning centers. There are night classes for those who must work during the day. Many of a traditional high school’s distractions – pep rallies, football games – don’t exist here.

“I’ve seen total transitions here,” said assistant principal Frank Biggs. “I’ve seen them blossom.”

When Jorge Garcia arrived from Mexico seven years ago, he didn’t speak English. Academics were a struggle. He went to school only two or three days a week and considered dropping out.

“At my old school, the teachers didn’t care,” he said. “If you didn’t pay attention, they’d just forget about you. They were like, ‘If he doesn’t pass, that’s his problem.'”

He switched to the School of Choice, but he still wasn’t sure of his success. “He said to me, ‘I don’t know if I can make it,'” said Joyce Roberta Miller-Alper, his government teacher and the 1989 Texas Teacher of the Year.

But Jorge started getting individual attention in the subjects he needed help in, like writing. “Here you feel like someone cares about you,” he said. “If they see you’re trying your best, they’ll help you out. There’s nobody with a negative attitude.”

Jorge is the father of a 2-month-old girl and works full time in the kitchen of a Houston steakhouse. His schedule: school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., work from 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. “It gets you stressed out,” he said. “But you know you have a plan, that you’re doing it for a reason.”

Last month, he got word he’d passed the writing section of the TAAS – the last hurdle between him and graduation. On May 30, he walked across the auditorium stage and moved one step closer to the life of his dreams.

“If this school didn’t exist, I’d just be a dropout, no doubt,” he said.