Advanced Learning Academy Embraces Freedom, Community Through Art

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Maria Sierra and her daughter Arianna, 6 years old work together to make a door for a cardboard house they are creating.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Maria Sierra and her daughter Arianna, 6 years old work together to make a door for a cardboard house they are creating.

One of the secrets behind the innovation promised by San Antonio Independent School District’s Advanced Learning Academy (ALA) is the freedom teachers have to dream up enriching activities.

Inspired by the upcoming Monarch Butterfly and Pollinator Festival and Luminaria, ALA elementary art teacher Sonya Castro wanted her students to construct glow-in-the-dark butterfly wings out of cardboard.

Then she thought about getting parents involved, to encourage them to take students to the events.

Then she thought about getting students involved in other arts organizations and events.

What started as a simple art project soon grew into Open Studio Night, an all-school event hosting representatives from the Briscoe Western Art Museum, Blue Star Contemporary, Southwest School of Art, San Antonio Public Library, S.M.A.R.T., Artpace, Bibliotech and Luminaria.

“There’s just so many programs available in the community,” Castro said.

A resident of Dignowity Hill, Castro said she has seen how community resources and programs have enriched her own children. Visiting museums, parks, and libraries to take advantage of age appropriate programming has gotten her kids out into the community and strengthened their bond with the city.

Students and families gather at Fox Tech High School for the Advanced Learning Academy Open Studio Day.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Students and families gather at Fox Tech High School for the Advanced Learning Academy Open Studio Day.

She wanted to extend that awareness to her students and their families.

“If kids are doing that at a young age, they feel like they have a voice,” Castro said.

As the scope of the event grew, Castro decided to loosen the creative reigns, and encouraged families to build whatever they could imagine. They took over the Fox Tech cafeteria, using the open space as a giant studio.

“Because it’s so hands on, kids can get on the floor if they need to,” Castro said.

A group of middle school students worked together with some purple duct tape. They weren’t sure what they were building, but they liked the way it was coming together. Like everything at ALA, they were enjoying the freedom of Open Studio Night.

Craft paper, cardboard, and an assortment of Crayola crayons were laid out on tables for families to enjoy and create.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Craft paper, cardboard, and an assortment of Crayola crayons were laid out on tables for families to enjoy and create.

Killian Salinas, 13, came to ALA from Basis. He said he likes the freedom at ALA. He is strikingly well-spoken and unabashedly enthusiastic about his cardboard creation.

Alexis Martinez, 13, came from Austin Academy, which closed its doors at the end of last year. The campus reopened as the home of ALA’s lower grades. Martinez said that the teachers at ALA “don’t yell.” She feels like they are calm, in control, and having a good time with their students.

Brandon Gonzalez, 12, came from Young Men’s Leadership Academy. He enjoying the judgement-free atmosphere of ALA, and the more relaxed approach.

Not all the students are as enamored with the freedom. Eighth grader Alejo Soto came from Basis, and he misses some of the structure. He feels like the grading system at ALA, which replaces traditional grades with the classifications “novice,” “certified,” or “artisan,” doesn’t give him enough feedback. He preferred the more traditional grading system.

He does love that homework is minimal and all of their note taking and what would be paper-based work is done online through Google Docs.

(From left)Brandon 12, Alexis 13, and Killian 13 work together while creating with cardboard and tape.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(From left) Brandon, 12, Alexis, 13, and Killian, 13, work together while creating with cardboard and tape.

ALA is about to add another online component, having agreed to pilot a Reasoning Mind program with the 4th and 5th grades. The online math curriculum has been used effectively across IDEA Public Schools, Great Hearts Academies, and Harlandale ISD. The Archdiocese has also adopted the curriculum.

Reasoning Mind will be one of many nontraditional elements to the ALA curriculum. The school currently borrows from Montessori, project-based learning, and other highly effective teaching methods and philosophies.

Soto’s parents, Celina Pena and Michael Soto, trust the leadership of Principal Kathy Bieser and the Trinity University faculty involved. They aren’t entirely sure of the method yet, but they are confident that Bieser will make a strong showing in the end.

“I have tremendous faith in the school leadership,” Michael said.

The administration at ALA has also been supportive of Castro and her colleagues. She feels supported by Bieser and her team, who seem to be open to teachers’ ideas for special programs and events. Later this semester the school will host a fine arts night, and they are currently exploring the possibility of an opera.

The opera, which could feature the entire Euclid campus, will be no small undertaking.

At the beginning of the year when the staff came together, Castro was impressed by the idealist energy among the staff. She hopes that school wide events like that will keep the momentum as the school year presses on and teachers have to deal with more mundane tasks.

A family art night had long been a dream of Castro’s. Her niece attends school in Northside ISD, and her school has a painting night. While that program was student led and smaller in scope, it inspired her to think about the possibility of such programs.

Bieser is able to do what many principals would probably like to do, explains Castro, because the format of ALA allows teachers of “specials” (electives) to have spare room on their plate. They use that spare room to dream big in the realm of special events, field trips, and community building.

The ALA parents are also enthusiastic. The cardboard was donated by parents and communities members, and some volunteers to help at the event.
Castro said that parent involvement at ALA strengthens teacher efforts to go above and beyond.

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