Several dozen sixth graders follow their docent to the second floor of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
They start watching a video about a famous French painter.
“Oh look at that! This is a very important part that I want you to look, because we actually are going to do that at the studio today,” says Claudia Zopoaragon.
“Yay!” the students cry out.
“We are going to work with sand and we are going to mix it with paint. And then you are going to be able to do that texture,” explains Zopoaragon.
“That was really cool. I like how he did that,” says Maya, 12.
Maya and other students already know a lot about this artist.
That’s because this isn’t a special one-time field trip to the museum. These students come here every Wednesday.
What’s more, they make the entire museum district their campus.
Jen Mascheck is with the school. It’s called A-Plus Unlimited Potential. Or A-Plus UP for short.
“We are an amalgamation of being mobile and being a technology-rich middle school. And so it’s a perpetual field trip,”she said.
The education nonprofit Houston A-Plus Challenge opened this school last fall as an experiment.
It’s actually several different experiments in one. No official building. No bells. Laptops for every student. And class at different museums.
The whole idea is to not just prepare students for college but also to help them understand their broader community.
Twelve-year-old Margaret says the Holocaust Museum is her favorite place so far.
“My personal, like, favorite subject is history and especially World War Two times and I’m partly Jewish so it has a real connection with me,” she said.
Other students say they enjoy what they call “going mobile.”
That’s when they break into smaller groups and study wherever they like with their coach. Sometimes they take the light rail downtown.
“We get to go to different museums, learn different things. We get to go around Houston, coffee shops, tunnels, everywhere,”says Brieanna, 12.
But there’s something else that attracts Chikosi to his new school. He’s 11 years old and used to attend a charter school. He likes something very low-tech and simple.
“This is one of the first schools that I ever had that teachers could spell my name the right way. That’s one of the things I like about it, to know the teachers actually care enough to memorize how to spell your name and how to pronounce it,” he said.
Right now the program is a free private school. It might expand in the future. But director Paul Castro says that depends on funding. This year the school’s budget is $460,000, which includes start-up costs.
“We’re funding this entirely out of our foundational dollars. Our objective, however, is to earn a charter designation from the state of Texas. And if we’re able to do that, we intend to replicate this work across the city with more kids and doing the same work,” said Castro, who has previously worked for the Houston Independent School District and KIPP charter network.
In the charter application, the school plans on spending $7,500 per student.
The school will find out later this year if they can continue the experiment as a state charter with public tax dollars.