She put on the belt, the black one with her initial on the buckle. She made gang signs. "I just did like symbols with my hands." She talked back to teachers, didn't work in class and hated math with a passion.
Her cousin, who'd been in a gang, was in prison now for drugs "and some other things," she says, her voice trailing off.
She was in sixth grade, 12 years old, and on track to become just another Gulfton Ghetto lost child, one of hundreds of Hispanic kids who never quite get enough of anything to leave the neighborhood filled with old apartments, where the office for many men is the corner where they wait for any day work they can catch.
As it turns out, she wasn't actually in a gang, just a wannabe playing a dangerous game. She'd mimicked the gear and the gestures because she thought it would be cool, and she'd have friends, and they'd do fun stuff.
Joanna Aquino, now 13 and in seventh grade at SER-Niños Charter School, sits dressed in her school uniform, waiting carefully for her next question. Thoughtful and funny, she seems, at this moment, miles away from the girl both she and her teachers describe from last year.
"I got in a lot of trouble with my mom, my family and the school," she says. It didn't matter that she wasn't actually in a gang. They were outraged that she was acting out this way.
Her cousin, the one in prison, told her gangs were just bad. "He told me, 'Don't ever be in one. They just give you bad stuff, and then you will die just for nothing.'"
"My mom told me if I didn't behave in school and do better, she'd put me in another school until I am 21, where I'll stay forever until I'm 21, and then I'll just go away," she says, flicking one hand into the air.
And her school? From Principal Charmaine Constantine on down, its personnel battled to keep Joanna in school and out of trouble, and to get her back on course.
SER-Niños, a pre-K-to-eighth-grade facility in the heart of Gulfton, is one of those charter schools that pushes back hard on every preconception opponents to charter schools may have.
It is neither elitist — kids get in randomly through a lottery system, not high test scores or perfect behavior marks — nor academically dreadful. Its self-described "frugal" principal keeps a tight watch on the numbers to make sure it doesn't fall into the black hole of debt that has consumed other charters in Texas.
At the same time, it's clear there's been no bonanza of riches in operating this school. It gets a state allotment for each student, but nothing for buildings. It depends on philanthropy to do more.
But by the time students reach middle school, SER-Niños's test scores are way above those of the closest surrounding schools with similar student bodies. It has 600 students enrolled and had to wait-list 250 more this year for space reasons. And it is a Recognized School in the Texas Education Agency rankings — a designation many schools with more funding and resources would love to have.
And, as Joanna's case proves, SER-Niños doesn't take the easy way out and rid itself of troubled kids at the drop of a hat.
"When the charter law was passed in 1995, the fear was they would become elitist schools," says Debbie Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the TEA.
"Instead, they've become the opposite, schools with at-risk kids, with a high population of minority students."
Founded in the first generation of charter schools in 1996, SER-Niños hasn't ever gained the attention given to its better and nationally known peers, KIPP Academy and Yes Prep. For one thing, it hasn't advertised itself — it only appointed a public relations and marketing person this year, and that person, Christopher Strane, teaches social studies in the afternoon.
As it progressed from rented rooms in the Bellaire Christian Church to its own building on Alder, and then expanded to fifth grade and then middle school classes, its business started to come from word of mouth among people in the neighborhood. It is a public school, not connected to HISD, responsible directly to the state, and costs nothing to attend. Like most of the better charters, it offers its students longer hours and more days of school a year, complete with after-school tutorials and a summer session in June.
Unlike other charter schools, it operates a program inextricably woven into its particular neighborhood, which goes beyond its offering of adult classes in ESL, computers, nutrition and the like. SER-Niños is a dual-language school, which is not a bilingual program (with its graduated system adding more and more instruction in English each year) but a 50-50 approach to language and learning.
Most students start in pre-K, and there is little turnover. Vice Principal Elodia Villarreal says there were only three openings in kindergarten this year. The only preference given is to siblings of already admitted students.
Each student has at least two teachers. One week, all instruction is in English, the next in Spanish. The exception is the daily two-hour reading slot in the student's dominant language. Students are mostly of Salvadoran and Mexican descent, and 80 percent qualify as economically disadvantaged.
In the lower grades, classes are multi-age, with first and second graders in a class together, and third and fourth in another.
"If you are in the first grade, you learn the second grade, too. If you're in the second grade, you get a second chance to learn what you missed," says 14-year-old Kenneth Reeder, an eighth grader who's the snapper on his football team and would like a career as a surgeon.
Kenneth's reasons for being at SER-Niños started with his mom — a common, if not unanimous, experience voiced by students at the school. Either the moms want the kids not to lose their Spanish, or they want to make sure their children learn better English right away.
"My mom, she only speaks Spanish. She's from El Salvador. She found it extremely difficult when she got over here to speak to people who only speak English. When my older brother was born, she said, 'No, I can't let them suffer like this.'"
His mother, Marta Salazar, says she walked over to the school where her children were zoned and couldn't find anyone who spoke English. Then she found SER-Niños, and Kenneth is the third of her children to go there.
Another mother, Maricela Palacios, whose daughter, 13-year-old Milby Michelle Palacios, is in eighth grade, says she wanted her daughter to learn perfect Spanish and to be able to communicate fluently with relatives back in Mexico. Milby is torn between a career in fashion or forensics.
Twelve-year-old Gerald Alas says his mother pulled him from HISD's Benavidez Elementary after first grade because she "wasn't satisfied because they were only teaching me Spanish." He says the first year at SER-Niños was really hard, but during that year, he learned English. Now he wants to be a physician.
Cynthia Martinez, 12 and another seventh grader, joined SER-Niños in fifth grade, where she found herself a little behind but has caught up, she says. Now she's thinking about being a lawyer.
Allen Matusow, academic affairs director at the Baker Institute and a professor of history at Rice University, was part of the opening days of SER-Niños, serving on its board of directors as both a member and a one-time chairman.
They decided to go with dual language because studies show that's the best way to teach language, he says. There weren't any schools in the area offering that approach, and they thought an alternative was needed.
SER-Niños was the brainchild of Dianne Mancus, who worked with the Houston Hispanic Forum to get its charter. Strane describes her as a charismatic leader who was determined that "if they could open a Rice School (the HISD magnet school with an emphasis in Spanish) in West U, then we can open one in the barrio." She left after one year when her husband was transferred to a job in Atlanta. From there, the reins passed to Principal Constantine.
"HISD does have some successful schools, but they have too many schools that aren't any good," Matusow says. "We provided a quality choice funded by the state. And we made no apology for that."
Strane is the only teacher who started with the school who is still there. He has a degree in Spanish from UH and previously taught that at SER-Niños. Now he's a half-time teacher and certified crisis intervention counselor, in addition to his public-relations duties. He teaches Brazilian jujitsu in the after-school classes.
While SER-Niños pays at the same rate as HISD schools, it doesn't have the signing bonuses that the Houston school district can offer.
Merle Howe, a teacher of language arts,left SER-Niños for one such offer.
"HISD was offering a $5,000 bonus to come there. I wanted to buy a house. I did buy my house," she says, smiling.
But after putting in her two years of time at HISD, Howe wanted to come back. She had gone to a brand-new school that was nice enough, but there were discipline problems. "There were kids who would curse you out. I'd call the parents, and they would side with the kids." In 2003, she returned to SER-Niños, where, she says, students respect the teachers.
The passing rates for the 2009 TAKS scores at the middle school level for SER-Niños were stellar in four of five categories: reading 91 percent, writing 99, math 97, social studies 99. Science was the only drop at 76. At nearby Sharpstown Middle School, the percentages of students who passed the TAKS were: reading 84 percent, writing 89, math 82, social studies 88 and science 58 percent.
At the other school closest to SER-Niños, Jane Long Middle School, the passing rate was reading 74 percent, writing 79, math 74, social studies 82 and science 54. While SER-Niños is a Recognized School, Sharpstown got the lower Acceptable rating and TEA deemed Jane Long Unacceptable.
In the elementary-grades comparison with Benavidez Elementary and Rodriguez Elementary, SER-Niños bests the other schools in reading and writing, trails Benavidez by three percentage points in math and trails both by 10 to 12 points in science. Science is the area of focus for the school this year.
Constantine says that with her interest in helping students at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale, SER-Niños "is where I'm supposed to be."
With a business degree from the University of Houston, Constantine was working at the Harris County Courthouse when she got her alternative teaching certification. She taught at a couple of elementaries in HISD before going to the Rice School.
"I was in HISD for ten years. It's hard to maneuver. I was working at the Rice School when this opportunity came. It was everything the Rice School said it was going to be."
SER-Niños takes its students on college field trips in middle school. In seventh and eighth grade, they all take French. Everyone has to take three years of a musical instrument and learn the keyboard.
Things that don't work at SER-Niños are modified or discarded. At first the students switched languages every day, but that proved too chaotic, and they finally settled on a weekly change.
School administrators don't have to go through a central authority for approval to change things, but decisions aren't made by the principal acting alone. A teacher makes a proposal, and everyone votes on it.
Of course, it is this lack of oversight by a local central office that's allowed so many charters to go notoriously astray — either offering poorly thought-out courses with ill-equipped teachers, or just generally misusing the funding they're given.
Most charters that have closed have done so because of financial problems — as TEA's Ratcliffe puts it, that's easier to prove than lousy teaching.
But TEA is starting to see schools close after multiple years of poor academic performance, Ratcliffe says, adding that usually the schools close themselves before the state shuts them down. But the process that precedes such a step can stretch out to seven years.
"In the Texas experience, we've found it's critical to closely scrutinize charter applications," Ratcliffe says. "Because if you give a charter to people who are unprepared to run a school, who don't know how to keep financial records, follow federal law or how to implement curriculum, then you spend years with them."
When Joanna Aquino says, "This year, I want to be a good girl, not having problems," it is almost heartbreaking. After making some improvements last year, she's trying to stay out of trouble.
Last year, Constantine taught Joanna's math class. "We worked hard every day. Joanna, she hated it. Every day she would say, 'I hate math.' I told her, 'I understand that you hate it, but you have to pass this test, and let's get over the hate part and work work work work work.'"
The light dawned sometime in March, Constantine says, and Joanna caught on to all she'd been missing. She became one of the first students to finish math tests, with a minimum of errors.
Students aren't the only ones who have to abide by rules at the school. Parents must sign homework assignments and agenda books each day. They must come in for parent-teacher conferences. If homework arrives incomplete or unsigned, the school calls the parents and asks them to come in.
Students fail at SER-Niños, Constantine says, because they don't want to keep up with the work anymore and/or because their parents no longer want to keep up with the extra transportation to Saturday classes and the daily signing requirements.
The school doesn't lose many kids each year. Most are families moving to the suburbs or out of the area, Strane says. Last year to this year, 25 students left.
Because applications still so far exceed departures, SER-Niños is looking at building another elementary nearby in three years. Actually, Strane says, they could build school after school and never serve all the kids who live in the density that is Gulfton.
SER-Niños doesn't track its students; it hasn't figured out a way to do that yet. It knows who goes on to area high schools each year, but beyond that, unless students come back to visit or the school hears from younger siblings or parents, it doesn't know what the ultimate outcome was.
Professor Matusow thinks the tracking factor is important in trying to determine if the SER-Niños approach works long term.
"It would be interesting to find out if we really do give them a foundation that later on delivers the goods for them," he says.
The most common complaints from students about SER-Niños are: The school uniforms are lame, there are too many rules and could they please get better, healthier food in the cafeteria? How about a sushi bar?
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All of which sounds like the complaints of any private school student at any prep school in America.
That's it. No gangs in the schools or fights in the halls. No inner-city screening devices to pass through on the way to class. They're all going to college, no exceptions allowed, that's their mantra.
The Gulfton Ghetto has become their launch pad, not their prison. Gulfton is a part of them, but it is not the all of them. It does not define them. If nothing else, SER-Niños has taught its students that.