On a sweltering, humid summer Texas morning, Trysten Williams was sitting on a chair in Carver High School’s black box theater on Houston’s north side. Several of his classmates, a mix of recent graduates and current students, had just finished performing a series of scenes and songs they had worked on throughout the school year, and he was in no hurry to leave.

“Some communities have sports teams or other things that are the cornerstones of the community, but here in Acres Homes, it’s the arts,” says Williams, a 2021 graduate who is attending Morehouse College in Atlanta this fall. “In intermediate school, I used to walk to see shows here. It pulled me out of the crazy world I was living in and put me into a fairy-tale world where anything is possible.”

The performing and visual arts are no fairy tale at Carver, a magnet school that serves 1,900 students from Acres Homes and across the sprawling Aldine Independent School District. With award-winning programs in visual arts, vocal and instrumental music, dance, and theater, the school is the centerpiece of a long-term effort to provide arts education to the district’s 67,000 students, almost 90 percent of whom live in poverty.

“We say it all the time: Your ZIP code is not your destiny,” says Aldine Superintendent LaTonya Goffney. “We want to make sure our students have the same opportunities and exposure to the arts as anyone, anywhere. They deserve it, and they benefit from it.”

As test-based accountability has become widespread throughout K-12 public schools, access to arts programs has steadily declined over the past four decades, especially in urban areas. Part of that is due to a dearth of research on arts education’s effect on academic achievement, even though a 2019 study says exposure to arts programs helps reduce discipline referrals while improving student engagement and college aspirations.
If you want to see engagement and aspirations in action, visit schools like Carver. If you want to see urban districts that are succeeding despite economic and societal obstacles, visit Aldine.

Click the arrows above to see more photos by Glenn Cook of the Aldine ISD arts program.

‘You can find yourself'

Because they are independent, Texas school districts often cut across municipal and county lines. Aldine, which covers 110 square miles, serves nine communities that are part of the city of Houston and unincorporated Harris County. Some of the communities are urban. Some are rural. Almost all are low income.

According to the most recent statistics available, 72.7 percent of Aldine’s students are Hispanic, 22.7 percent are African American, and 2.4 percent are white. More than a third (34.6 percent) are classified as English Learners.

Acres Homes, which was annexed by Houston in the mid-1960s, once was considered the largest unincorporated African American community in the South. The western part of Acres Homes is in Aldine, one of 20 school districts that serve the fourth largest city in the U.S.

Kaleb Womack, a 2021 Carver graduate who also grew up in Acres Homes, started doing theater as an after-school activity in second grade. At Carver, he performed in five musicals and three University Interscholastic League one-act plays, earning a series of district and regional awards for acting.

“The more I’ve gotten into it, the more I started realizing a lot of school districts don’t have programs like ours,” says Womack, who will major in musical theater at Sam Houston State University this fall. “That’s really, really sad because this is such a safe space for kids like me who need it. It’s been a safe space for me for over 10 years. It’s given me another avenue to let things go that you didn’t know you have bottled up. You can find yourself through the characters you play.”

At the showcase, Williams and Womack performed a scene from “The Diviners,” a play that told the story of a disturbed young man and his friendship with a preacher during the Great Depression. As the two actors ran the scene, Carver High School Theater Director Roshunda Jones watched and then gave additional pointers.

“It doesn’t matter if they never do this show again. They can always learn something new every time they do it,” says Jones, who has been at Carver for 17 years. “I always tell my students, ‘You never stop learning.’”

The care and attention Jones shows her students were evident during and after the showcase. She and her technical director, Jabari Collins, routinely check students’ progress reports and report cards. They do regular “temperature checks” and make sure the students understand “if they’re not being held accountable at home, they’re being held accountable by us.”

“Our students come here from a range of personal experiences. Some come from great loving homes. Some come from places where they need a little more love at school,” Jones says. “We try to create a family environment so that parents know when their children are here, they are safe. They are not getting in trouble.”

Advocate for the arts

Down the hallway from the theater, members of the Carver/Aldine Dance Company were working on a contemporary ballet number. The company, which is open to students in grades K-12, trains throughout the summer months. Doors open at 7:30 a.m., with the formal program running from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the fall and spring, Carver student dancers participate in classes during the school day. Guest teachers work with the students—many of whom come from other schools—from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m.

“We run a school and then we run it like a studio,” company director Sarita Salinas says. “A lot of our kids grow with the program. We’ve had students who have been with us since first grade.”

On this morning, Salinas had the students run through the complex number several times. She circled the mirrored room, which once housed Carver’s entire fine arts department, and talked to individual students about technique. A guest instructor worked separately with another group of students.

Two decades ago, Salinas created the company to provide advanced training to students who were interested in dance but did not necessarily have the financial means to take private classes. Today, Salinas estimates that the Carver dance department works with 120 high school students and up to 40 company members each year. For 10 hours a week of training after school hours, parents never pay more than $150 a month. Costumes for performances are provided by the district.

Students, who audition to be part of the company, now take classes in ballet, modern, contemporary, jazz, hip-hop, tap, aerial silks, and stilt walking. The company has performed at several special events involving Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, who was raised in the Acres Homes community.

“The most important thing with kids in inner-city schools is giving them the opportunities to perform and providing them with the technique and skills they need, not just to perform but also to be advocates for the arts,” Salinas says. “I want our kids to be able to compete with dance studios and dance companies across the state and city, but I also want them to be prepared to talk to the superintendent or the board about why this is so important in their lives.”

The first time Goffney saw Aldine’s students perform was at a Texas Association of School Boards convention more than a decade ago. She had just become superintendent in Coldspring-Oakhurst CISD, a small district about 55 miles north of Houston, and she was “wowed” by the quality of the performance.

“This was 2008 or 2009,” says Goffney, who later became superintendent in Lufkin ISD before moving to Aldine. “It was just amazing. There were about 10,000 people in attendance, and it was just so great that it stuck in my mind.”

When Goffney arrived in Aldine in the summer of 2018, one of the first places she visited was Carver. “Those students were working all summer,” she says. “Yes, working. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”


Photo Credit: Aldine ISD

Providing more

Viola Garcia grew up in Ben Bolt, a small farming and ranching community in south Texas, and “didn’t know I was poor until I moved away.” She moved to Houston and started her career as a teacher, ultimately retiring as chair of the Department of Urban Education at the University of Houston-Downtown.

Garcia, now the longest-tenured school board member in Aldine and NSBA’s 2021-22 president, says she had her three daughters take piano lessons because she knows how music can increase academic performance. But she also knows many of the families in Aldine can’t afford to pay for those lessons.

“I don’t know that parents, the community, and the legislators fully understand that the arts open the doors for these students that they couldn’t otherwise afford,” Garcia says. “The kids in Aldine and in other districts like ours should not receive less of an opportunity because of their circumstances. They are not lesser than anyone else. We should provide more.”

Providing more is the job of Refugio Rodriguez, Aldine’s director of performing arts. The son of migrant workers from California, Rodriguez graduated from Aldine and went to Southern Methodist University on a band scholarship.

“The reason I’m doing this is because the fine arts changed my life,” says Rodriguez, who returned to Aldine as a band teacher in 1993 and became a building-level administrator before moving to his current position. “I feel it’s my job to always look for those opportunities for our kids, whether it’s exposing them to theater as early as possible or to music in pre-k because that’s what was given to me.”

In neighboring districts, Rodriguez notes parents pay a participation fee for their students to be in band and orchestra. In Aldine, booster clubs work tirelessly for their programs to raise money, but no fees are charged.

“We have to know what it takes for our kids to be on that same competitive level in terms of resources, materials, instruments, costumes, whatever they need, and then we strive to match or exceed that, so our kids are at the same level as anyone else,” he says.

When Goffney arrived in Aldine in 2018, the district was facing a major budget crisis that forced the elimination of 300 teaching positions. Included in that were all elementary visual arts teachers.

“That was tough,” she says. “But now we’re doing better financially. We’re in a good place, and we’re starting to bring them back. Everyone knows how important they are to our kids.”

Garcia, Goffney, and Rodriguez are all quick to note the impact the arts have on Aldine’s students. Even if researchers can’t quantify the effect of the programs on achievement, they can point to the other effects it has on leadership and student engagement.

“It’s not always a fast win to be in the arts,” Rodriguez says. “I believe they absolutely make test scores better, and exposure to them improves your life. You may not see it immediately. It takes a little time and investment. But we’re very committed to making that investment and to make that happen for our kids.”

Safe spaces

Back in the black box theater, Emma Montiel talked about her experience at Carver. The rising senior lives outside the district but chose to go to the school because her mother works in Aldine.

Montiel, who had just performed a song she had written during the showcase, started playing music in the sixth grade. She says being part of a school so focused on the performing arts “has taught me a lot about being more self-aware and dedicated to my work.”

“I didn’t use to appreciate Aldine, but when I came to Carver, I started seeing how much effort they put into their shows and how much people really want to do this,” she says. “I started realizing I wasn’t the shiniest rock on the shore. But the teachers have helped me to have confidence in myself and confidence in my work. They keep encouraging me to put myself out there.”

All the students in the showcase talked about the loss they felt during the pandemic and how much they enjoyed getting back together in the spring to perform a masked, socially distanced “Dreamgirls.”

“When the pandemic hit, I felt like I couldn’t go anywhere,” Williams says. “This already felt like it was my safe space, where no one judged you, no one disrespected you. It was hard to be secluded and still have to deal with the craziness of everything around you, so being back on stage was a relief.”

Jones says teaching during the pandemic was “one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do.”

“I don’t want any child to feel like they’ve been left behind or not cared for,” she says. “It was hard to do those temperature checks with the kids through the screen. Sometimes they don’t want to have their camera on because they don’t feel comfortable with their background or their environment. They may not want you to see into their world. So, it was wonderful to be able to do the musical and at least get them for a while after school. It felt like a burden was lifted. They could be together again.”

Later that night, Jones was recognized as one of two winners of the Stephen Schwartz Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Award by The ASCAP Foundation and the Educational Theatre Association. A month later, she was honored with the International Thespian Society Inspirational Theatre Educator Award. Her co-teacher and students nominated her for both honors.

Williams was not surprised that Jones won the awards.

“Being here fostered my dreams,” he says. “When you see so many young people, especially young people living in poverty, working to make their dreams come true, how can you not be inspired? When you see people who have the same drive and ambition as Ms. Jones, it makes me feel like I can do anything in the world. As she says, ‘The sky is the limit.’”

Learn more

Theater Director Roshunda Jones receives the 2021 Stephen Schwartz Musical Theatre Teacher of the Year Award.

Aldine ISD’s Garcia Middle School and the Carver High School Choir perform "Good Job" for NSBA's Annual Conference.

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