On a first visit to SAY Sí, you could easily think you had gotten lost and stumbled into a rich, private art school instead of the free after-school program targeting inner-city kids. For public school art teachers — those who are left — the experience must be galling. Getting by typically with $600 a year to buy art supplies for hundreds of students, arts educators in public schools are in a system that has been crashing nationwide for years, and according to SAY Sí director Jon Hinojosa, “It’s only going to get worse.”
SAY Sí was established in 1994 as another way to teach the arts. The year-round after-school program is open to all middle and high school students in SA, many of who go on to great things. One of the best-known SAY Sí grads is filmmaker Pablo Véliz, who has written and directed six features since finishing the program, including La tragedia de Macario and Cartoneo y Nopalitos.
The success of the school, with an unheard-of 100-percent high school graduation and college attendance rate, may be in SAY Sí’s innovative style. Rather than teaching set classes, the program offers open studios in fine arts, media arts, and performance. “The instructors ask the students, ‘What do you want to do?” Hinojosa says. “And then try to help them find out how to do it.”
Another key aspect of the program is the assistance that older students give to the younger ones. On the weekends, high school students mentor middle school students in visual and media arts, assisted by SAY Sí teachers. This practice of giving back is complemented by Project ABC, Artists Building Communities. College-age SAY Sí alumni present art workshops for children at facilities such as the Battered Women’s Shelter and the Santa Rosa Children’s Hospital.
The building fills every day at 4 p.m. with students. In the midst of the rush I had the opportunity to meet Ashley Sanchez, a SAY Sí grad now employed as a visual arts teacher at the school. Ashley’s family had moved around SA quite a bit she recounted, but SAY Sí remained more like family than the rotating cast of students and teachers at the various schools she attended. She returned to SAY Sí during her years at UTSA, and is, as she says, “back home” for good now with a BFA in painting.
Sergio Ramos has just completed six years at SAY Sí and is looking forward to film school in college. With his experience, however, he already has logged as many years in the studio as many grad students. Films he and other students have worked on, like the summer feature films made at SAY Sí, have won awards from San Antonio’s CineFestival and Cine las Americas International Film Festival in Austin. He has been asked to do commission work, and is an adept mentor to the middle school students. With his talent and focus, he may be the next Pablo Véliz.