Very Special Ed

How the alternative school Chinquapin prepares me and other students from Houston’s inner city for college – and life in a multicultural world.

I RECEIVED THE FATEFUL CALL late one summer night in 1969. My father, unable to speak English, handed me the phone and said in Spanish, “I think it’s from that school.” At the other end of the line was Robert Moore, his voice full of enthusiasm, inviting me to attend a new school that he and his wife, Maxine, were starting near Baytown. It was to be a college-preparatory boarding school for the ghetto and barrio boys of Houston.

I had been recommended by my sixth-grade teacher and interviewed by the school’s faculty. Now, finally, I had been chosen, but I hesitated. It all sounded too strange. Even the name of the school was different: Chinquapin. I looked to my father for advice, hoping he would say no. Instead, he told me to try it out for a month. I stayed five years. (I spent my junior year in a Houston public high school before hightailing it back to Chinquapin.)

That first class consisted of sixteen seventh-grade boys: eight blacks, six Mexican Americans, and two whites. Of the original students, six managed to survive the lonely nights, the chores, the government-surplus food, the early-morning track runs, the lack of television, and the demanding schoolwork to graduate. Three of us attended college, but I was the only one to get a diploma. I collected three degrees: a B.A. from Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa, and two M.A.’s, one in Spanish from Rice University and another in journalism from Northwestern, in Evanston, Illinois. I also spent a summer at the University of Colorado and my junior year in Spain. Had Chinquapin helped me? Yes. No doubt. The tiny school instilled in me a love of reading and writing and a curiosity about the world that I have yet to satisfy. Equally important, Chinquapin taught me to live in a multicultural environment where skin color and cultural background were recognized and respected.

The Chinquapin School—which moved to Highlands, about 25 miles east of Houston, in 1973—has gotten bigger and better since its shaky start thirty years ago. It remains the only prep school in Texas—and one of the few in the country, along with the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania—that targets poor students, especially minorities. Says Susan Sclafani, the chief of staff for educational services for the Houston Independent School District: “I think the school provides a wonderful opportunity for students to remove themselves from the temptation of the inner-city neighborhoods and focus on academics and social development in an environment in which they are able to blossom and learn.” Chinquapin has become a model for alternative schools, helping students from low-income families reach their highest potential. Bill Heinzerling, the school’s director, says he often gets calls from educators around the country who plan to start a school like Chinquapin and want to know how it  achieved its success.

Chinquapin was a product of the sixties, a time when educators were experimenting with “free schools” or “schools without walls.” Most of the experimental schools died almost as soon as they started. They were too loose and lacked a firm structure with which to guide young minds. Not Chinquapin. Robert Moore had taught for eighteen years at the exclusive St. John’s School in Houston. An authoritarian with a kind heart, he was that rare teacher who could inspire even the worst students to learn.

Fed up with teaching rich kids, Moore wanted to help poor kids. He solicited money from his former St. John’s students and raised enough funds through private donations and grants, including $250,000 from the Brown Foundation, to open the school. He called it Chinquapin (pronounced chink-a-pin) after a tree found in East Texas. (The tree produces a burr, which serves as the school’s mascot. “Stick ’em, burrs!” is the cheer.) Moore, who retired in 1983, was living in Palestine until his wife died in August. He has moved back to Chinquapin, where he teaches two vocabulary classes, serves as an adviser to the school’s newspaper, The Burr,  and helps with the gardening. He has just completed a book about Chinquapin.

Since 1975, the year of the first graduating class, 202 students have graduated from Chinquapin. In its early years it was graduating only about six students a year, but now fourteen graduate annually, and the school has set a goal to increase the number to twenty (currently the maximum number of students in each class). Students leave the school for reasons that range from the lack of a social life and the demanding curriculum to disciplinary problems.

Chinquapin requires that graduating seniors be accepted by a college, but whether they actually attend it is up to them. Many Chinquapin students have joined the armed forces instead, and some, like Donald Grant, a 1979 graduate, have sought employment. “I didn’t go to college because I had a passion to see my mother happy,” says Grant, a chief clerk in the advertising design and service department of the Houston Chronicle.  “She had raised seven kids by herself, and I wanted to support her. I was ready for the work force. My skills were better than those of many of the college graduates working in my office.”

Chinquapin students consistently score higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test than the national average. In the past six years 95 percent of the school’s graduates have gone on to college, receiving degrees from such prestigious universities as Stanford, Notre Dame, Rice, Northwestern, Middlebury, Purdue, Smith, and Colorado College.

“Chinquapin taught me the power of believing in myself and my dreams,” says 1976 graduate Bruce Manuel. “I learned not to be afraid to go out in the world and claim or earn what was there for anyone who is willing to work for it.” Manuel grew up in Houston’s Third Ward ghetto and graduated from the highly regarded University of the South, in Sewanee, Tennessee. He is now a lieutenant commander in the Navy.

Fausto Nolasco, a 1982 graduate, admits that without Chinquapin he would

More Texas Monthly

Loading, please wait...

Most Read

  • Viewed
  • Past:
  • 1 week