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Chinquapin School: a local treasure hidden in the woods

By Luke Hales

There’s a series of buildings nestled away in the trees on Wallisville Road. Most people passing by would miss it, as it’s hidden in the trees to an extent. It’s not flashy, there’s not much spectacle to the exterior. It’s a simple complex, built not for glitz or glamour but for a higher purpose: changing the lives of area students for the better.

That complex of buildings is The Chinquapin School. And the school does great things indeed.

The school recently held an open house to display what the school can offer to prospective students and to show off some remodeled units, but the site’s history and heritage was on full display as well.

Serving the underserved

Since 1969 The Chinquapin School has offered a high-quality college preparatory education for low-income youth, many from the greater Houston area but also some from more local zip codes. And while the school’s education model differs greatly from that of public education, they’re doing something right, as 98 percent of their students go on to college. In fact, that’s one of the requirements for the school’s seniors; they must be accepted by a college or university to graduate. Of that 98 percent, an approximate 85 percent finish college, a testament to the lessons learned at Chinquapin.

Quid Pro Quo

Sophomore Melida Perez-Errasquin has been attending the school for some time, and she has plenty to say about all that the school can offer. She led this reporter on a tour of the school, pointing out exactly why the students and faculty feel that they have something special to share.

Perez-Errasquin pointed out a recent school project: rebuilding a classroom into a darkroom for photography classes. “We stopped classes to get it done,” she said. “Everybody that could helped to make it happen.”

The school’s motto: “Quid Pro Quo,” or “Something for Something” in Latin, indicates how such a feat occurred. The students at the school all give their time to improving the grounds as repayment for their being able to attend. It’s part of their culture, and all students do their part, whether by cleaning, doing yard work or gardening, or — in this special project’s case — by helping to construct a darkroom.

“The school employs a groundskeeper and a chef, and the students handle just about everything else,” said Sarah Callahan-Baker, the school’s vice president of marketing and recruiting. “In any other setting, how common is it to see a 12-year-old begging to do chores?”

Students also regularly volunteer for local clean-up projects at the beach or in urban centers, work in community gardens or on trail maintenance at the Sam Houston National Forest, or assisting with holiday events for disadvantaged citizens, among other things.

Robust in the arts

Perez-Errasquin is especially fond of the art room, she said, a sprawling building flooded with natural light that used to be a dormitory. “This room is really amazing to me,” she said, “and I love how many windows there are.” Student projects hang from the ceiling, on the walls, and are displayed on tables, showing off the diverse talents they have to offer.

Dr. Ray Griffin, Chinquapin School director, said that the art room — as well as the other fine arts areas — carry substantial weight at the school. “There’s a lot of pressure in public schools to improve in the basic skills, reading, writing and math, because there is so much focus on those subjects for standardized testing,” Griffin said. “Here, we’re trying to become more robust in the arts, because they help to round out a student’s full education. We’re proud of what we can offer in that capacity.”

Adding to that robustness is a music room further into the campus where students have access to electric guitars, amplifiers and a grand piano. “A lot of the students here don’t have these things at home,” Perez-Errasquin said. “And not many people at all have access to a grand piano.”

A Spanish class was being held during the tour, and it was clear that the students were paying full attention to the lesson. This may have been helped by a much lower teacher-to-student ratio than what is seen in public education. “We try to maintain an eight-to-one ratio,” said Callahan-Baker. “We feel like by doing so, the students have greater access to their teachers, and are able to learn more effectively.”

That connection to the teaching staff goes beyond just the class period. Many of the teachers live on campus, as do the male students. The school used to be an all-boys’ school, and so the facilities were available. Plus, Perez-Errasquin said, “many of the boys come from rough neighborhoods. They feel safe here.”

A safe place

Safety is key at the school, Callahan-Baker said, and something the school prides itself on. “Bullying is not an issue here,” she said. “There is no discrimination here. This is a second home for many of our kids.”

That secure feeling is likely drawn from the fact that there are only approximately 150 students total at the school, lending to a tight-knit student body. “At homecoming, all the girls lined up together in the girls’ lounge,” Perez-Errasquin said. “There was a whole row of hair curlers and blow dryers, and we all did each others’ hair. You don’t encounter that kind of a feeling at a public school very often, I wouldn’t think.”

Getting in

The applications process for the school is somewhat rigorous, designed to limit enrollment to those students the administration feels would benefit the most from the program. Each February, March and April, meetings are held wherein interviews are given with the prospective students and applicants take basic reading and math tests. Students selected from the recruiting meetings are then invited to try-out the school for a week in June, to see if they feel at home in the environs. From the summer try-out, the most qualified students are invited to attend the school during the next fall semester.

Keeping tradition alive

Noticeable in the center of campus is a big red bell, which in many ways serves as the cultural hub of the school. “This used to be an all-boys’ school, “ Perez-Errasquin said, “and this bell rang to let everyone know when to come to meals, to assemblies, and other events.

“Now we ring the bell every year on the first day. It’s a tradition. It remind us who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going in the future.”

It’s a solid tradition for a truly unique school, one with much to offer.

For more information about the Chinquapin School, call 281-426-5551 or visit www.chinquapin.org.