To Be A Geek, A Robot God

An epic saga of genius, striving, triumph and survival in which our heroes, mere high school students, create truly marvelous mechanical beings, becoming fairly amazing human beings in the process

But the Leopards of HSEP clearly seem to identify with the magnet program more than anything else. Although Booker T.'s mascot is the Eagle, the robotics kids have chosen to be Leopards. During the practice runs on the first day of the Lone Star Regional, the students chant "H-S-E-P" instead of "B-T-W." HSEP, which was opened in 1974, has its own special faculty and its own unique schedule, and with the exception of foreign language classes and electives, HSEP kids are in classes by themselves. HSEP students are selected primarily on the basis of their performance on the Differential Aptitude Test, and some travel as much as 45 minutes to get to school. Booker T. Washington kids attend because they live close by. While the Booker T. kids leave school around 3 p.m., the HSEP kids continue to take classes until 4 p.m. And the fact that most magnet courses take place on the second floor of the school leads to the general school lingo of "upstairs" and "downstairs" when referring to the respective schools.

Booker T.'s enrollment stands at just under 1,400, with HSEP kids making up 28 percent of the student body with its 400 students. The 108-year-old Booker T. Washington has a long history in the African-American community, and according to HISD statistics is 83 percent African-American, 13 percent Hispanic, 4 percent white and 1 percent Asian. But HSEP's student body (60 percent African-American, 20 to 25 percent Hispanic and 15 to 20 percent white) certainly helps make up Booker T.'s diverse student body statistics.

So how does the school-within-a-school model play out?

Edmund Kohlwey, Gina Cagle and Anthony Zalesky have been preparing for the competition for six weeks.
Deron Neblett
Edmund Kohlwey, Gina Cagle and Anthony Zalesky have been preparing for the competition for six weeks.
Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.
Deron Neblett
Bob Brienzo teaches English at HSEP, but robots are a passion too.

"There are challenges when keeping parity amongst the schools," says HSEP coordinator John Spikerman. "I don't want to say jealousy, because jealousy is not the right word." As soon as he says this, he is quick to point out the numerous ways that HSEP kids take part in the life of Booker T. There are HSEP kids who are football players, cheerleaders, members of ROTC. They all take gym together, he says.

"The quarterback at Baylor was an HSEP kid; the running back for Arizona was an HSEP kid," says Spikerman.

Spikerman and others in HISD are eager to portray HSEP and Booker T. as one integrated body, but some of the HSEP kids at the Lone Star Regional think that's not so. Half of the HSEP kids don't go to school dances or sporting events, they say. They like to hang out together.

"Some of [the Booker T. students] don't really like us, because they think we act so smart," says Christopher Prince, a 17-year-old junior. Christopher's teammate Virgil Gamble, a 16-year-old sophomore, remembers the time he and other HSEP kids were working on building small "mousetrap cars" that could scoot down the hallway.

"They were all, 'Oh, they're so smart,' " remembers Virgil. "It wasn't really that hard. It's a mousetrap on wheels."

Booker T. Washington's principal since 1965, Franklyn Wesley, did not want to be interviewed for this story. Some of the HSEP robotics students wonder if he even understands how much time they put into their robot program.

"To him, football is everything," says 15-year-old sophomore Pegah Javidpour, echoing the sentiments of several Leopards. "He excludes us on a lot of things when it comes to sports." But Pegah knows the HSEP kids are valuable in one important way: "If we weren't there, TAAS scores would be down," she explains matter-of-factly.

When the Leopards took first place in the Southwest Regional championship, however, Wesley shocked the Leopards and their advisers by giving HSEP chemistry teacher and robotics coach John Gray a hug. The Leopards talk about this incident with a lot of surprise.

"He's normally very stoic," Mr. Gray says diplomatically. "Before I knew it, he gave me a hug."

At the same time that some of the HSEP kids try to explain the strange relationship between HSEP and Booker T. Washington, some -- like Pegah -- admit there are valuable lessons to be learned.

"I grew up in white schools, white neighborhoods," she says. "When I first came to Booker T. I hated it." During her initial months at the school, she found out from a cheerleader that there had been a shooting at a weekend party. Her parents begged her to attend Westside High, the school she was zoned for. But something made Pegah want to stay. And it wasn't just the HSEP curriculum.

"We all live in America," she says. "When I get to college, I don't want to be dense. Booker T. is teaching me." Recently she decided to attend a basketball game, just to see what it was like.

"If you open your mind, you may experience more," she reasons.

Edward Nelson, whose son Phillip is a sophomore and one of the Leopards' drivers, agrees there is a lot to be learned by sending Phillip to HSEP, even if he has to make a 25-mile round-trip to get there. The way he sees it, more random violence seems to be happening these days at all-white suburban schools rather than urban ones like Booker T. Washington. But he thinks there might be some wisdom in making HSEP more like the freestanding High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. By placing HSEP in a more central location and having bigger facilities, the number of students benefiting from the program would increase.

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