• by Dr. Olivia Evey Chapa • IDRA Newsletter • September 1998 • 

I have been fortunate throughout my life to have opportunities to explore, develop and refine my quest for excellence, which I explain to my students as reaching for the stars. Granted, many teachers encourage their students to reach for the stars. So why was I asked to write about my experiences? For the past four years, I have been a teacher in a barrio school that has received state, regional, national and international recognition for the successful changes created through middle school reform and academic standards.

Wynn Seale Middle School Academy of Fine Arts is located in Corpus Christi, Texas, in a typical barrio – predominantly Hispanic, economically challenged and highly transitory. In 1993, the Texas Education Agency designated the school “low performing,” indicating unacceptable scores on the state standardized test and leading to the changes that transformed the school.

With community support, Corpus Christi Independent School District (ISD) changed the school into a neighborhood magnet school with a fine arts focus. Mr. Richard Peltz was selected as the principal, and he hired an exclusively selected, virtually new staff that was committed to change and to the total welfare of the students.

Middle school reform is multifaceted, and the changes implemented at Wynn Seale Academy of Fine Arts were varied. The “house” concept was initiated to create a nurturing environment for the students. Two teachers were assigned to a group of approximately 60 students instructing two core subjects each – language arts and history or science and math – in a modified block schedule. The curriculum was aligned both vertically across grade levels and horizontally within each grade level to provide instructional focus and flexible teaching schedules in the houses. Instructional collaboration, both in the houses and within subject areas, was initiated as part of the change process.

Another change is reflected in the name selected for the academy – that is, a focus on fine arts. The hand-selected staff included fine arts teachers who were deemed outstanding, not only in the courses usually offered in middle schools such as the visual arts, drama, choir and band, but also in orchestra, piano, computer art and dance. To coordinate instruction, Mr. Steven Bennett was hired as the dean of fine arts. A program called Orbit rotates sixth graders through seven arts disciplines – visual arts, drama, choir, piano, band, orchestra and dance – throughout the year to explore fine arts courses they may wish to pursue. Seventh and eighth graders are scheduled into two elective classes each year. Another aspect of the focus, the Arts as Core Enrichment (ACE), pairs a fine arts specialist with selected house teachers in each grade to connect art experiences with academic skills.

While middle school reform was being implemented the first year, another important change was occurring in Corpus Christi ISD – the creation of district-wide academic standards. In 1992, the school district took the first steps by conducting meetings in which literally thousands of people (community leaders, business representatives, college and university educators, parents, and teachers) were consulted concerning the skills and knowledge required to progress toward graduation an into the “real world.” The result was a document, Real-World Academic Standards, that incorporates the U.S. Department of Education’s Goals 2000, existing national standards, the state-adopted Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), and advanced placement and college entrance examination expectations.

Each grade level in each subject area is guided by the academic standards that include (1) content standards identifying what students should know and be able to do, and (2) performance standards defining what students will do to demonstrate achievement of content standards. They were pilot-tested in selected schools in the 1995-96 school year, and by the next school year, all schools were required to implement the academic standards.

The changes initiated as part of middle school reform are visible throughout the academy. Teachers create a nurturing environment and work cooperatively to ensure student success. However, there are smaller changes that assist in the process. Teachers are called “transformational leaders,” reinforcing the expectations of their primary function. Uniform rules across the school inform students that teachers expect “academy behavior.”

Equally important is the rule that states, “Finished work must be of the highest possible quality.” There is a daily infusion of appropriate academy behavior as the principal announces: “Act right, do your best and treat others as you would like to be treated.” Banners and posters fill the halls with high expectations of academy students: “Academic standards will take you to the top!” “Without imagination, thought comes to a halt!” and “Human beings make art, and art makes human beings.”

The changes created by the academic standards are visible throughout the academy. Transformational leaders post the academic standards prominently in their classrooms along with learning maps and thematic concepts connecting the academic standards and core subjects. The key to creating the optimum learning environment provided by the academic standards is instruction that stresses higher order thinking skills and concepts connecting to the real world. The essential force behind the academic standards is that learning is not a mystical process; all students can identify what they must know and how they must demonstrate their knowledge. Empowering students and their parents is perhaps the most crucial element of academic standards.

The results of implementing middle school reform and academic standards at the academy were extremely significant. On the 1994 Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), 50 percent of the school’s students passed in reading, 47 percent passed in writing and 24 percent passed in math. By 1997, 82 percent of the school’s students passed in reading, 85 percent passed in writing and 73 percent passed in math. Once ranked in last place out of 12 middle schools in the district, by the third year of the academy reforms, the school ranked third in the district.

The outstanding accomplishments at Wynn Seale Academy of Fine Arts have not gone unnoticed. In 1997, the Texas Middle School Association acknowledged the academy as the “Region II Outstanding Middle School.” In 1998, the Texas Magnet School Association named the academy a “Texas Exemplary Magnet School,” the only neighborhood magnet school receiving this distinction.

In addition, numerous educators have visited the school, including a delegation from Japan. Positive media coverage occurs regularly, including an April 8, 1997, news article in USA Today that cites the academy as an example and states that Corpus Christi ISD’s focus on academic standards “has made this south Texas port city virtually without equal nationwide.” In 1998, at the Texas Education Association’s Mid-Winter Conference, Governor George Bush, Jr. singled out the academy as upholding the highest standards and striving to create “the best-educated students in the nation.”

Living up to its mission statement, “Success through body, mind and spirit,” Wynn Seale Academy of Fine Arts endeavors, through middle school reform and academic standards, to develop students into independent and collaborative learners, critical and creative thinkers, capable and successful problem-solvers, effective and competent communicators, and quality performers and producers. Reaching for the stars occurs on a daily basis in every classroom at Wynn Seale Academy of Fine Arts.

Dr. Olivia Evey Chapa teaches seventh and eighth grade Spanish at Wynn Seale Middle School Academy of Fine Arts (a 1998 Texas exemplary magnet school) in Corpus Christi. Corpus Christi schools’ standards-based reform initiative is funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation. The foundation also funded IDRA to assist the school district in partnering with community-based organizations to conduct outreach and inform parents about school reform. Comments and questions may be sent to IDRA via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©1998, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the September 1998 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]