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.

October 1998By Comments

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 not have ventured far beyond his barrio in East Houston. In fact, Nolasco, who owns a real estate company in Houston, graduated from Notre Dame and spent eight years in seminary schools in several European cities. “The most important thing Chinquapin taught me was the basic skills of reading and writing,” he says, “but Chinquapin did that extremely well.”

Catalina Garcia, class of 1989, went on to Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, and returned to teach at Houston’s Tijerina Elementary School, which she had attended as a child. “Chinquapin made me what I am today,” she says. “It is my basis. Without it, I would not be teaching. I would be having my fifth baby.”

What accounts for Chinquapin’s success? “We are very small, which allows us to know each and every student inside and out,” says Kathy Heinzerling, who works with her husband, Bill, as the school’s codirector. “We are able to give them the attention they need.” The directors and teachers live on campus and act as surrogate parents as well as counselors, social workers, and friends. “Nobody can get away with anything here,” she says. “We try very hard to deal with their needs, whether it is a family problem, an academic problem, or a discipline problem.” With 112 students in grades seven through twelve and eleven full-time faculty members, Chinquapin boasts a student-to-teacher ratio of ten to one. Along with the school’s size, Bill Heinzerling credits its excellent faculty for contributing to its success: “We search across the country for the best teachers.”

Students respond to this nurturing environment. “The thing I like about Chinquapin the most is its intimacy,” says senior Grejuana Dennis. “It is like a community, a family. It is not like going to school every day. The faculty are your friends.” Adds eighth grader Rafael Chico Trujillo: “It is like going to camp for a week. At home there are a lot of bad things going on in my neighborhood. Here, it is peaceful. At night you can see the constellations. It is like being in the country.”

Chinquapin lies on 32 acres of land that formerly served as a chicken farm. The physical layout of the campus has changed dramatically since I was a student there. Sidewalks have replaced wooden pallets, young trees shade the quadrangle, and buildings have been added and, in some cases, replaced the dilapidated ones I grew up in. There’s a new library, administrative hall, and gymnasium, and the classrooms are air-conditioned (Robert Moore did not allow air conditioning because it was too expensive). Teachers live in decent duplex houses.

Another major change has been the addition of girls. Chinquapin was an all-boys school until 1978, when one female student was admitted on a trial basis. Now almost 40 percent of the student body is female. While the boys get to spend Monday through Friday on campus and sleep in dormitories segregated by grade, the girls are bused to the school.

Since Chinquapin’s mission is to give poor kids a chance to go to college, most students come from the inner city of Houston. Hispanics make up 65 percent of the student body, blacks 25 percent, and Asians and whites 10 percent. The school would like to have a more balanced mixture, but it has had trouble recruiting non-Hispanic students. “The school is going after low-income students, which means that in many cases it is dealing with a single-parent environment and the little boy is the only male figure at home,” says Jarvis Johnson, a 1990 graduate who is black and who voluntarily recruits black students for Chinquapin through his work as the program director for D.A.R.E. + P.L.U.S., an after-school drug-prevention program. “Mothers don’t like to let go of their sons, especially to send them to a place where they are outnumbered,” he explains. “I try to convince them that they must let him go because he will never reach his full potential.”

For a long time people believed that Chinquapin was a reform school because, in the early years, it accepted practically anyone who applied. “We would give them a thermometer, and if they were alive, we would take them,” quips Moore. Today some 200 students compete every year for one of 35 to 40 slots available—20 of them in each new seventh-grade class, the rest vacancies in the other grades. “We love to have straight-A students, but we are also open to taking average students who have some gumption, who have motivation,” says Bill Heinzerling. “We are even open to taking a troublemaker if that student is interested in turning it around and sees the value of a good education.”

Getting into Chinquapin is a three-step process. Students and their parents must attend a recruiting meeting offered in the spring at various Houston locations. The students then take reading and math tests and are interviewed by faculty members. If they clear those hurdles, they attend a one-week summer session at the school, where they take regular academic courses and are evaluated on how well they handle schoolwork and get along with other students. Chinquapin students must be able to live, eat, study, and play together in a truly integrated community.

Once admitted, the students get one of the best bargains around. Though it costs Chinquapin about $7,000 a year to educate each student, students pay only $30 to $100 a month, depending on their family’s income, for the nine-month term. About 85 percent of the students pay the minimum; those who can’t pay even that work additional hours of chores. Money to support Chinquapin comes mainly from foundations and private donations. After years of operating on a shoestring (lack of funds almost closed the school one year), it recently completed two fundraising campaigns that raised $3.25 million in capital and boosted its endowment to $4.5 million.

Students may not have to pay much, but they have to give back to the school in other ways. Chinquapin’s motto is “Quid Pro Quo,” meaning that in return for a quality education, its students must do chores—gardening, cleaning the campus, keeping their living spaces neat—for an hour a day. Through this simple practice they learn to be self-reliant and help the school as well as themselves.

Life at Chinquapin demands discipline. An electronic bell wakes the students at 6:20 a.m., at which time they must hit the track for a couple of laps. After breakfast they hustle to clean their rooms for the 7:45 dorm inspection. Classes run from 8 a.m. to 3:15 p.m., followed by chores, sports (basketball, volleyball, soccer, tennis), a free period, dinner, study hour, and another free period. Lights go out in the dorm at 10:30 (10 for seventh graders). Watching TV is not allowed, and phone calls are limited to three minutes.

Sound harsh? Not really. Chinquapin demands, but not in a military way. A relaxed atmosphere permeates the campus. Teachers as well as students dress informally and treat one another as friends. Students run their own government and issue punishments (usually extra morning chores or detention) to troublemakers. “We don’t put a lot of unnecessary stress on our students,” says Craig Wade, a 1982 graduate who earned his degree from Colorado College and now teaches at Chinquapin. “We put them at ease, and that allows them to absorb more of what is going on in the classroom.”

The curriculum is traditional: English, history, biology, physics, chemistry, and math, which ranges in high school from algebra to calculus. The students must also take four years of vocabulary-building courses, three years of Spanish, and a senior-year course on environmental issues. Less-traditional programs are offered after classes, when students can play in a band, put on a play, or join a men’s or women’s discussion group. They can help others by joining the Peer Assistance and Leadership (PAL) program or working on community service projects such as building houses for Habitat for Humanity and cleaning beaches. Chinquapin also offers summer programs that take students to the wilderness of Colorado or to such exotic places as Ghana, China, and Greece.

There’s a tendency in us to want to make a good thing even better, and so it is with Chinquapin. The school recently bought twelve adjoining acres, where it has built a directors’ house, a science center, and two dormitories that will open next month. The student body will expand, but only to 125. “I don’t want three hundred and fifty students at Chinquapin,” says Bill Heinzerling. “We would lose a major reason for our success. I understand that there are more students who need Chinquapin, but my answer is that I wish there were more Chinquapins.”

In an ideal society, there would be.

D. Medina is the senior editor of the alumni magazine and the minority community affairs director at Rice University.

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