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Pickens bounds through the halls, occasionally picking up scraps of trash. He passes through a black-box theater built by students, a large art studio decorated with students' paintings and sculptures and a multimedia center where each morning students produce a news program aired to the entire school.
He scoops a red rose off the floor, which likely was dropped by one of the dancers, presents it to a teacher monitoring the hall and crosses into a classroom where kids are building underwater robots operable by remote control.
"Awe-some," Pickens mouths. "Aw, man, that is awesome."
At Carver High School in Aldine ISD the creative energy is palpable, the principal's enthusiasm infectious. Since 1995 the school has operated as a magnet school with concentrations in engineering and the arts. Kids specialize in areas ranging from architecture to manufacturing to printmaking to digital media.
Many of the school's teachers are experts in their fields with decades of professional experience. They often lead field trips to art galleries and museums, engineering schools and NASA.
"We have a lot more freedom than students in other schools," says 17-year-old junior Cory Heavin, picking a classical guitar outside a classroom. "Students here are treated like adults."
The results have been extraordinary.
The Texas Education Agency named Carver's engineering program the best in the state. The TEA awarded Carver a $200,000 grant for its designation as a pilot school in math and science. GeoSystems recently partnered with the school to offer deserving students an apprenticeship and full-tuition scholarship to the University of Houston.
Last year a team of Carver students bested 600 teams nationwide in an engineering contest sponsored by NASA. That earned them a trip to Scotland, where they placed second in an international competition. The winning team, from Germany, is now seeking to begin a foreign-exchange program with Carver.
"Get the best teachers; keep the kids motivated; make it safe," Pickens says. "Their minds will just take off."
Pickens encourages parental and community involvement by opening the campus for concerts, car washes and crawfish boils. The school is located in Acres Homes, a proud but dilapidated and crime-ridden African-American neighborhood on Houston's northwest side.
"The little guys that want to gangbang or thug, I get their parents and tell them this can't happen at Carver," he says. "Nobody worries about getting jumped here."
At Carver even the disciplinary measures are creative. Instead of detention, kids plant flowers and pull weeds around the campus.
"They hate it," says Pickens, who co-owns a landscape company that keeps him busy during the summer months. "It's hot; the mulch itches their hands."
The school, which admits students based on a lottery system, is growing fast: The student population has doubled in the last three years. Its programs are expanding as well, with new courses in photography as well as petroleum and civil engineering.
Future plans include converting Carver into a five-year high school. Pickens hopes to partner with nearby North Harris Community College to let engineering students spend a fifth year at Carver earning free college credit.
The importance of attending college is stressed to all the students.
It took a while for 18-year-old painter and sculptor Jeanette Arellano to convince her parents that her artistic ambitions were worth pursuing. But with her teachers' support, Jeanette assembled an impressive portfolio and is hoping to earn a scholarship to the Milwaukee Institute of Art in Wisconsin.
"They're a small school that will help you," she says, "just like Carver."
-- Todd Spivak