Bonham Academy: A Parent-Driven Success Story

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SAISD District Map (draft). Click for larger image.

SAISD District Map (draft). Click for larger image.

Bekah S. McNeelAsk about the bright spots in San Antonio’s inner city schools, and you’re going to hear a common refrain: Bonham Academy. It’s popularity is so widely acknowledged, leaders in the district hardly make note anymore. “Well, of course there’s Bonham,” they say, as though it can be taken for granted that the school is a raving success.

Imagine: an inner city public school with a waiting list of anxious parents who live outside the school’s geographic boundaries, but want their young child to start school here.

SAISD District Map (draft). Click for larger image.

SAISD District Map (draft). Click for larger image.

Bonham Academy is an in-district charter in the San Antonio Independent School District, which serves more than 54,000 students. That means Bonham still functions as a tuition-free, neighborhood school, and is held accountable to district academic standards. Their charter status, however, obtained in 2007, requires the school to offer innovative alternatives to standard curriculum.

The charter status also opens enrollment to students who would not be slated to attend the school based on their address, a boon to schools struggling to achieve full enrollment in the urban core. Neighborhood kids do not have to fight for a spot, but open places are assigned by lottery to applicants outside the school’s boundaries.

In the case of K-8 Bonham Academy, the charter was given for innovative curriculum in science, fine arts, and a dual-language program offered to all students, and required of students outside their feeder pattern.

“Dual-language programs require a long-term commitment on behalf of the teacher, the student, and the parents,” said Cristina Medrano, who teaches second grade in the program and was awarded an SAISD Foundation Excellence Grant for two years in a row.

Children in dual-language programs often lag behind in basic subjects for a couple of year, because they are learning them in Spanish. However, as the years pass, the rigor of the programs close the gap, and students move into high school bilingual and testing competitively in all subjects. This is the case at Bonham Academy as well, said Medrano, who taught kindergarten before moving up to second grade. She now teaches many of the same children she had as kindergarteners, and the progress leaves her impressed.

I had the opportunity to be wowed myself as a trio of Medrano’s spritely students demonstrated their language skills with perfect pronunciation and diction. After a recital of their favorite things, I put them on the spot, asking, ¿Cuál es tu libro favorito? 

Without missing a beat, the girls answered my question in complete sentences. One said Little House on the Prairie, two said James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl. For those not acquainted with the reading tastes of elementary school kids, these choices bode well for a lifetime love of reading.

Christina Medrano's class. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual

Christina Medrano’s class. The best place in SA to become bi-lingual

“I’m passionate about the program because I like what I see,” Medrano said, “But we also know that the program is not for every one. We want the kids to like school.” She goes on to explain if a student reaches second or third grade and has not found his or her footing in the program, they give them the option of switching to the English-only track.

Love of learning also is evident in the eighth grade Language Arts class of Nathan Busse, a campus favorite who walks to school each morning. His classroom environment is lively and engaging. The students are out of their desks and chattering at the blackboard. Listening in, I realize they are discussing appositives, the topic of the day. Busse asks for an example of a sentence using an appositive phrase. He moves around the room offering help and reading good work out loud. The answers are far from bland or forced. One sentence comes off particularly well.

“Hello Kitty, a popular cat who has no mouth, drives girls crazy,” he reads. The student author beams. The rest of the kids giggle, and go back to work.

This engaging environment will no doubt take them beyond appositive phrases and into high school with a desire to learn and thrive.

Angela Martinez and her wildly popular Book Share.

Angela Martinez and her wildly popular Book Share. Photos by Bekah McNeel.

Parent Angela Martinez pointed out a small bookshelf in Busse’s class, a Book Share station where donated books are free to interested young readers. A larger version of age appropriate material sits in the hall of the elementary school building. The biggest challenge to what Martinez calls her “pet project:” keeping the shelves full. The kids have turned out to be voracious readers.

It only takes about 30 seconds of being on campus to realize the secret to the success of Bonham Academy: the parents. This can partially be attributed to the cohort of families coming from The Circle School, where parents are expected to play a hands-on role in children’s school experience. A recent informal survey counted more than f 30 Circle School alumni. Every wall bears some testament to the involvement of parents at Bonham Academy, especially in the sciences and fine arts.

For the science pillar, Bonham teachers and parents capitalize on relevance. Hands-on science is everywhere on campus. Gardens and planters grow food for the campus Slow Foods program. Students experience the joy of superintending the process from seed to harvest.

Wildlife at Bonham.

Wildlife. More than just the 4th grade boy.

Behind the playground (funded by Friends of Bonham, a parent-led fundraising mechanism), is a garden deemed by the National Wildlife Federation as a Certified Wildlife Habitat where kids can interact with native flora and fauna. A rain water harvest system is in place along the side of the building as well, thanks to one particularly passionate parent.

The fine arts pillar of the charter is also well established. The walls are plastered with visual arts and theater rehearsal schedules, mostly because fifteen years ago a group of concerned parents saw the inevitable demise of funding for arts programs. So they banded together to create Art Smart, a funding mechanism that brings in two teachers from Southwest School of Art for one hour per grade level per week, Jump Start once day per semester, and the Spring Arts Festival.  To maintain their yearly budget of around $24,000, the parents get creative, and the community joins them. A grant from the King William Association is a major contributor to the effort.

It is money well-spent.

Art Smart also funds the Ballet Folklorico program at Bonham, headed by the former director of the company Ballet Regional Mexicano, Ricardo Muñoz. The program has exploded from an after school club to part of the physical education curriculum, and last year they had 120 elementary students performing in the SAISD Holiday Dance Extravaganza, an honor usually reserved for high-schoolers.

Ricardo Muñoz

Ricardo Muñoz

“Dance incorporates the whole body,” said Muñoz, who also uses dance to demonstrate geometry.

Recently Bonham participated in the UIL theater competition, and a student came home with the Best Actress honor, while other performers earned honorable mentions and a “superior” rating in the Ensemble Cast category. This sort of honor in fine arts is not common for inner city schools, but it has obviously enthused the student life. The theater departments next production, James and the Giant Peach, sent obvious ripples through the reading habits of the kids. Or at least the second graders.

Bonham’s energetic theater teacher, Holly Clifford, does all of this without a stage on campus. Productions are at the mercy of available stage space wherever they can borrow it, which means last-minute scrambles and two-show runs at the end of months of hard work.

A new theater was part of the plans for  the proposed campus additions, but after a frustrating debacle wherein SAISD, Bonham Academy parents, and the Emily Edwards Endowment found themselves in a stalemate over the acquisition and future of the Alfred Giles house at 114 Cedar Street, those plans are stalled and in jeopardy.

“It’s really hard to get SAISD to understand the importance of this program,” said Celia Mendoza, the Middle School Parent Coordinator, “But it’s one of the most successful programs in the district.”

It’s not beyond hope, however, as the Bonham parents are still on the case, prodding the district to “think outside the box,” according to Martinez and Mendoza. Both parents attribute much of their success so far to Principal Patricia Ortiz, an open-minded administrator who capitalizes on the energy of parents to make the school a better place. Now, they hope that the district will take the same approach.

That raises the central question for anyone surprised to learn of highly successful academic programs at work in inner city schools: can they be replicated, and if so, is it happening?

**This is the first in an occasional series of stories on the Rivard Report examining successful schools, programs and academic initiatives in inner city schools. You can suggest a story topic by writing**

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 on the Rivard Report:

Advice to a Divided School Board: Look South for the Next Superintendent February 2013

H-E-B Recognizes Exceptional Educators with Surprise Cash Rewards February 2013

Rep. Mike Villarreal: Don’t Let Our Kids Tune-Out Education February 2013

Amid a Host of Parents, a Catholic School Thrives January 2013

24 thoughts on “Bonham Academy: A Parent-Driven Success Story

  1. Great article about my neighborhood school and the awesome community of parents. I would like to clarify: Jump-STart Performance Co. has had an arts education program at Bonham since before the charter school days: since the mid-90s that had been primarily funded by the organisation. These days we are indeed indebted to the King William Association & the Bonham PTA for funding our programs there which include an after-school component, an in-class arts resource component and an all-elementary school Arts Day at the end of the year. I would also like to say that much of the improvement to Bonham would not have come without the push of Dora Espiritu who was the principal there during this amazing transition.

  2. I hope this helps some members of the surrounding community see Bonham Academy not just as an ‘institutional encroacher’ but as an essential part of what makes King William and Lavaca great. Both our architectural patrimony and our children are important. However, children are the future and should be given priority. Updating Bonham without keeping its nature and play spaces, and without providing a home for the theater program, could jeopardize the elements that make it appealing. It is a work in progress. The subtext is that without the involvement and dedication of teachers, parents, and very importantly, the community, it would not be what it is. It is part of a district that is stretched thin in a state that does not value education. It is more than the sum of its parts. Thanks you for capturing the school’s essence.

    • My comments do not advocate exclusively removing or moving the Giles house, I agree with finding creative solutions. As a private residence, unless a speculator comes in and refurbishes it for resale, I don’t see many prospects for its future. To the left of it is the back of a building on Alamo that has a couple of very unattractive dumpsters behind it. I’m advocating keeping in mind needs of families who want the experience of walking their kids to school who will then invest in homes such as the Giles house that need many hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment to be habitable. These families would also value walkable neighborhoods, frequent local establishments, and shop at the local grocery store. As designed now, the addition of the middle school buildings to Bonham would allow for minimal green spaces and no playing fields at all. These would also be permanent buildings, and permanent mistakes.

  3. Thank you for mentioning the situation with the Alfred Giles house, which threatens the relationship of the school and its neighbors. In the time that I have lived in King William, the school has gobbled up two homes and is now endangering a third. The situation is unacceptable for the state’s oldest historic district. True education must honor the past. Creative solutions are required to demonstrate for our children that we are stewards of the past as we build for the future.

  4. Second Shimi’s kudos to Dora Espiritu! Bonham would not be where it is today without her tenacity.
    It is regrettable that articles about Bonham (and there are many, rightfully so) do not acknowledge the parents who were in the trenches years ago establishing its trail-blazing dual language program and fighting to keep it alive, when even the district did not support it. It was the “wave of the future,” and it is gratifying to know that there is actually a waiting list for admission now, when, back then, we were essentially (and often none too subtly) reproached for sending our kids to the neighborhood school.

    • There is always a ‘desperation and tenacity stage’ to every courageous endeavor, I’ve found. I appreciate hearing about it in the case of Bonham and appreciate the efforts and vision of those who worked for change and improvement back then. It has been my experience that it can be so discouraging to “rage against the machine,” especially from within it. And by this comment I mean trying to change and improve our public education in this country.

  5. Thanks for the great article on Bonham! As one of those Circle School parents who moved their child to Bonham for the Dual-Language Program in Kindergarden, we are still there in 8th grade. The staff is a remarkable group of individuals who truly care for our children in extraordinary ways.

  6. I second Ms. Shimi’s comments: As an education reporter during the mid-1990s, Bonham was succeeding long before the charter came to exist. Dora Espiritu earnestly put a program into effect by learning best practices in dual-language and putting those best practices in place: hiring high quality educators, making sure there was a balance of English and Spanish speakers, making sure teachers got continuing education, making sure parents understood the program and how best to support their children as they acquired a second language. It takes dedicated professionals learning best practices and implementing them to make a school successful. Yes, parents are important, especially to the success of their own children. But without high quality educators knowledgeable about best practices, you cannot successfully implement a solid educational program. The school was high-achieving long before the charter came into effect. The charter was put into effect largely to increase enrollment figures and to ensure the school’s ongoing survival. Word has gotten out about the program, and parents from throughout the city, wanting dual-language education for their children, appreciate the school’s history and are attracted to Bonham as an option for their children’s education.

    • Thanks to everyone for their comments about Bekah McNeel’s Bonham Academy story published today. I am familiar with what Analisa wrote at the Express-News because I served as editor in those same years and helped build that excellent education team. Our story wasn’t meant to be a complete history of the school or the program. And while our story noted the connection between charter status and maintaining full enrollment, we wanted to make the larger point that charter status gives parents a choice they didn’t previously enjoy when Bonham existed as a more traditional school in the district. Choice is becoming an increasingly important tool to improving academic performance, and important for parents who want alternatives to geographical limitations. Bekah also noted the importance of the school’s principal and her admirable record of leadership, but we focused on parents, too, because we’ve been told about other district schools with excellent principals who remain limited by parental inactivity and indifference. Above all, we’re are pleased to see how strongly people feel about Bonham. –RR

  7. Robert, thanks for clarifying the approach Beckah took to the article. My purpose in mentioning Ms. Espiritu and Jump-Start Performance Co. was to make sure that people understand now that while this second wave of energetic parents has definitely made a big difference to the school and the kids, it is important to acknowledge those of us that dedicated our time and resources to the school when it was not in the bloom that it is in now. I’m really proud that all that dedication has paid off and made Bonham the kind of school that parents WANT to invest their energy in. All progress happens on the backs of those who pushed hard in the past.
    The issues around the current physical expansion of the school are complex but I suggest that the real battle lies with SAISD, Kell-Munoz and the project manager who appear to be deeply reluctant to engage with parents and residents who actually care and pay attention to what happens in their ‘hood.

  8. Glad to see the new admission priorities at Bonham include preference for younger siblings. I was shocked to learn that was not the policy in the past. I’ve never encountered an open enrollment public charter school that didn’t have sibling priority.

  9. The SAISD Foundation has funded a number of grants at Bonham to support innovative programs and hands-on learning in their classrooms. Last year alone, we funded five grants at Bonham which involved individual teachers and teams of teachers (two grant award signs were pictured in one of the photos in the article). When you have that many teachers with great ideas and the funding to support them – fabulous things happen for children! It is powerful to see the broad base of support Bonham has worked hard to create for its unique programs.

  10. Thanks in great part to the efforts of the Emily Edwards Endowment, the Middle School is now being designed in the right configuration and the right orientation on the site. Had we not showed up en masse that fateful September evening when there were only a handful of parents, I seriously doubt if SAISD would have furthered talks and community meetings to address the very bad Site Plan. Our group fought continuously behind the scenes to ensure a good outcome for the eventual Site Plan, navigating the fractious waters of groups vying for dominance on the campus. The middle school should never have been sited up against the residences on Cedar Street. SAISD management and architectural team reviewed our well-published Site Analysis and Tree Studies (these are posted on our Facebook page), and came to the conclusion they now have the best possible arrangement of buildings. We realize the Solon Stewart House designed by Giles will be boarded up until the Middle School is completed. We take the long view that together with SAISD and all stakeholders we can find a community solution. SAISD leadership, staff and the SAISD Foundation staff were incredibly forthcoming and helpful in all our dealings with them. Their Board of Trustees on the other hand leaves much to be desired in the realm of professional conduct and courtesy. The non-parents and long term residents of this area, have given many years of volunteer efforts to this campus. We will continue to do so. An enormous debt of gratitude is owed to both the San Antonio Conservation Society and the King William Association for their unprecedented pledges for a creative public private partnership funding the inclusion of the Giles House in Bonham’s facilities. It’s not every day that a group of non-parents band together to raise upwards of $500k as a gift to our community children and to our beloved historic districts.

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