In 1969 a visionary English teacher named Bob Moore left a comfortable teaching post at St. John’s School, to undertake the radical step of creating a college preparatory school for poor, minority students from the mean streets of Houston. In a letter to his former students and future faculty, he wrote,
“I am going to start a new school, embark on a new and exciting adventure in education…. It will open, if but for six students, and it will succeed.”
Change, in the form of diversity, came slowly to Houston’s schools, but Mr. Moore, as most of us respectfully call him, believed that with hard work and determination, his students could reap the benefits of a quality education, attend college, find meaningful work that would allow them to show the world what children from poverty – black, Hispanic, and white — could achieve, and produce citizens who could give back to the communities from which they sprang.
Many Chinquapin Preparatory School graduates became teachers, some chose law or criminal justice, others started their own businesses. One became an elected city councilman, another a professor at Grinnell College. Just the other day, a former student from the early days, who became a firefighter and who now supervises the 911 call center in the fourth largest city in America, stopped by to talk to us about how the school begun by Bob Moore changed the course of his life.
The essential ingredients
From the beginning, Bob Moore got some crucial things right. He knew that students need an open and caring, yet demanding environment in which to learn, one that values the discipline of education and that champions hard work. So he moved the first class of 16 seventh-grade boys into his home on Trinity Bay. There students built close relationships with faculty, partly through the assigned chores that everyone, students and faculty alike, completed each day, and partly through shared inquiry into the traditional fields of knowledge formerly reserved for students of privilege.
Later, students and teachers learned alongside one another as they cleared the land and transformed a former chicken farm in Highlands, Texas, into the school that is Chinquapin Preparatory School today. Over the years Chinquapin students have mowed and lined the fields where they play soccer, cleaned the classrooms in which they discussed Thoreau and algebra, and built bonds with fellow students and faculty that last a lifetime.
Some Chinquapin Facts
- 6 students from Chinquapin’s first class of 16 seventh-graders in 1969 graduated 5 years later; 3 of them completed college;
- Today, 100% of Chinquapin’s seniors, many of them the first in their families to apply to college, are accepted at 4-year institutions;
- The Chinquapin model has inspired many other schools that serve children from poverty, including Yes Prep! in Houston and the Seed School in Washington, DC;
- Chinquapin accepted its first female students in 1978;
- Jarvis Johnson, a 1990 graduate of Chinquapin, has served on the Houston City Council since 2005;
- Dr. Michelle Nasser, Chinquapin’s first Ph.D., is on the faculty of Grinnell College;
- Class of 2011 graduates are currently attending Duke University, Mount Holyoke College, Texas A & M University, and the University of Houston;
- We’re grooming one of our current students to become our first physician!
Today, nearly 160 girls and boys in grades 6-12 benefit from Bob Moore’s vision of change:
Chinquapin’s faculty are encouraged to meet students where they are and move them where they need to be.
Chinquapin’s demanding work and rigorous academic curriculum instill an ethos in which hard work builds toughness, resilience, and appreciation for reaching goals.
Chinquapin’s culture encourages strong relationships among students and adults through daily collaboration in shared tasks.
Chinquapin’s can-do philosophy promotes the inventiveness that comes from making do with minimal resources and becoming immersed in the give and take of learners inquiring and solving problems together.
The Revolution Continues
In 2011, Bob Moore’s school has become a place where students recently asked to resurrect a beloved course in Performance Arts by researching and rewriting the curriculum on Google Docs as a passion-based learning project (though they had never heard the term). With student as advisors and with support from Powerful Learning Practice LLC, a pair of teachers is redesigning the 7th-grade curriculum to create a blended learning experience in mathematics, science, language arts, and social studies.
And this year, a second round of seniors will learn the agency of self-directed learning by pursing a year-long individualized senior project that produces an online portfolio for each of these “digital divide” students, including a blog, a TED-style public presentation, and an archive of their “culminating demonstration of mastery.”
Following in the footsteps of the original Chinquapin revolutionaries, our students are becoming change-agents for their own lives. And if the tough times of the current economy are kind to us, we just might lead the explorations of the next generation of learning environments, as board members and faculty investigate designs for a new living/learning center as an optimal boarding experience, and as we discuss how online instruction can meet the individualized learning needs of future students from poverty who want to and who can change the world.
Senior Tamar Alvarenga and Dr. Amy Acosta, formerly of the Kinkaid School, collaborate on a study of shyness in girls, one of the first culminating “demonstrations of mastery” inaugurated by Chinquapin in 2011. Tamar’s project can be viewed here.
Susan Lucille Davis
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