A Sense of Place: Appreciating HSPVA’s Montrose Campus Before the big Jump to Downtown
Nestled in the shady, tree-lined block of Stanford Street is HISD’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA). The campus is uncharacteristically quiet in early August; no violin students practicing in the hallways, no dancers perfecting pirouettes in a corner, no actors memorizing a monologue in the cafeteria. But today, the campus will be bustling as both new and returning students walk the halls on this first day of school. It’s one of only a few first days left at the Montrose location. After years of discussion about moving into a larger, more up-to-date facility, it’s finally becoming a reality.
The fine arts school — the first of any public high school in the U.S. to integrate academics with specialized training in various art disciplines— is building a campus in downtown.
“We’re just breaking ground this fall, so we have three more years in this building,” says HSPVA principal, R. Scott Allen, Ed.D. “We’ll have that urban, downtown aspect, but Montrose has been home since 1981. It’s going to have a very different feel.”
That different feel will also come with a five-story, full-city-block-sized campus that will open up enrollment to an additional 50 students (it’s around 700 now), more performance and practice spaces and a visibility it’s never had before.
“I think the new school is going to present even more opportunities for us,” says Allen. “The rail line is on either side of the building, so you can jump on the rail and be in the Museum District or be in the Theater District. One dream I have is that juniors and seniors have internships with arts organizations. I think that being downtown also makes that a little more realistic.”
But as the opportunities grow, so does the nostalgia.
“You walk in the front doors and hear the violins playing, see the dancers rehearsing in the hallway and because it’s too small, there are kids and art everywhere,” says Allen. “That scares me a little bit, because we’re going to move to to a five-story, whole-block downtown building. How do you keep that character and that culture and that charm of what we have here, but in a state-of-the-art building in downtown Houston?”
HSPVA alumnus and professional violinist Jerry Ochoa was once a student practicing in the crowded halls of the Montrose campus between 1994-97. He recalls his years there with a certain fondness not usually attributed to the generally awkward period of American life known as high school.
“The building was always crowded, but we took a lot of pride in that,” says Ochoa. “One of the things that made it so stressful, but also so valuable, was that you had to work so hard to stay a student there. Every year you had to reaudition, and every year, friends of ours would not get readmitted. Part of the reason that it was so ruthless was because really, there wasn’t enough room.”
While Ochoa doesn’t advocate for overcrowded conditions, he does think the school should maintain an exclusivity in its enrollment that forces kids to be passionate about their art at a young age – something that has contributed to Ochoa’s professional success as a musician. Being one of the chosen few to roam its halls, he also has plenty of fond memories, some involving some of Houston’s most famous pop star.
“In the commons area, the cafeteria — part of what made it so cool — is that they would keep sound equipment in the cafeteria,” says Ochoa. “There’d be performances by the students that had bands, or just wanted to sing, during lunch. I have this really vivid memory of Beyoncé — who was there when I attended — and her friends getting up often to sing gospel songs with the piano. She was already pretty famous. Destiny’s Child was already a thing. They even had a Destiny’s Child poster in the administrative office.”
While Beyoncé’s short attendance to HSPVA is ingrained in its lore, it’s the small, but significant annual events that have organically emerged as school traditions that give it a true sense of place in its current neighborhood. For example, every holiday season, the school’s top choral group performs at The Black Labrador, where seats fill up fast. (Though Allen hopes the annual concert here continues long after the move to downtown.) Or the nearby residents, who have no children enrolled in the school, attending performances throughout the year to lend support. Even the quick trips kids make to get a frozen yogurt or a coffee — or in Ochoa’s case, cheap fried rice at General Joe’s Chopstix — in between the end of the school day and the start of after-school rehearsals is something Allen will miss.
“I think we live in Montrose and take it for granted. It’s a great neighborhood,” says Allen. “But I would like to think that the neighborhood will miss us too.”
However worried Allen is about the move, he’s been reassured in an indirect way by HSPVA alumni planning a large reunion in 2015. Through correspondence with them about the upcoming festivities, he’s been able to hear their stories about HSPVA’s original location in the former Congregation Beth Israel, which is now part of Houston Community College.
“They went to the original school there and they don’t understand how this current Montrose school can be as great as what they had there,” says Allen. “So hearing that and framing it, one thing I’ve realized is that kids are resilient. Our kids are what makes this school so special. They’ll come up with the new traditions. Art is what draws kids here, and their passion for art and their love for what happens here will translate there.”
Ochoa is also in agreement, despite his love of the Montrose campus where he remembers admiring a huge tree through the cafeteria window, or walking past theater kids practicing fencing on the stairwells, or even listening to Beyoncé croon gospel songs during lunch.
“I think the new campus is going to be amazing,” he says. “The more professional you can make that school, it’s just going to benefit the students that much more. If it continues to be something that you have to work towards, and struggle to maintain, it’s still going to be great.”
As for Montrose, the school will be greatly missed, but the more than three decades of memories will always remain a part of the neighborhood’s ever-evolving history.