Jearnine Wagner

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Black and white photograph of Jearnine Wagner on Trinity University's campus circa 1963.

Jearnine Georgette Wagner was born in New Orleans, Louisiana to Joseph John and Edna Mae Wagner in 1934. After her parents divorced, she was enrolled in the Ursuline Academy of New Orleans at the age of five. Her mother, a former concert pianist, became a social worker and traveled to Europe to assist children during World War II.  During breaks and holidays Wagner would stay with her father. After her mother remarried, she moved with her to live in Houston.  

Wagner attended Baylor University with a focus in social work. However, when she took Paul Baker’s Integration of Abilities class, she switched her major to drama. Both Paul and his wife Kitty Baker became mentors to Wagner. In 1952, she traveled to Paris with Baker and other drama students to present “Green Grow the Lilacs” by Lynn Riggs at the Theater Babylone. She stayed a year and had a one-woman show “Chalk and Paint” of her oils and pastels. Upon returning, she became assistant to Ruth Byers of the Baylor Children’s Theater. Wagner also acted in Baker’s adaptation of Hamlet, which was inspired by his trip to Paris and his interactions with Cubism. Wagner was one of the Ophelias and was coached by actors Charles Laughton and Burgess Meredith.

In 1959, Wagner became director of the children’s theater when Byers moved to the newly formed Dallas Theater Center. It was at this time she decided to put her interests and efforts into the support and education of young people, though she still participated in theater productions. For example, Wagner played the mother in the theater’s production of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” in 1962. This show proved quite controversial however. Eugene O’Neil’s widow Carlotta Monterey had approved production rights for the play with the stipulation that not a word of the script be altered. After a complaint from an audience member, the Baylor University administration demanded the production be shut down. The drama faculty met for months, discussing this and other acts of censorship, with the ultimate decision to move the department. When Baker moved the drama department from Baylor to Trinity in 1963, Wagner moved as well, continuing the children’s theater program with the Ideas in Motion Youth Theater.  

In the summer of 1966, Wagner created a new program called Unlimited Potential. She found support and collaboration from Joyce Sowells, principal of Sojourner Truth Elementary, that was part of the San Antonio Independent School District. This program integrated the creative process developed by the Bakers and honed by Wagner into K-12 academic learning. In 1967, the Brackenridge Foundation and the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health awarded Wagner funding to expand the program across the San Antonio Independent School District (SAISD). Teachers and children of 15 schools participated. One year later, in 1968, U.S. Representative Henry B. Gonzalez awarded SAISD and the program additional funding through Title I Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Children’s Garden, an offshoot of the Unlimited Potential program, was located in the Project Y area of Hemisfair. 

In 1971, Wagner took what she had learned from Unlimited Potential and worked with with several of her former theater students—Cindy Ridgeway Herbert, Susie McAtee Monday, Julia Bryns Jarrell, Charles Jarrell, Susan Russell Marcus, Sally Howell and Mary Jean McCullough—to create the Learning About Learning Educational Foundation.  Its formative purpose was to develop a series of curricula for SAISD. They piloted a set of learning tools in the spring of 1971 with Milam Elementary, initially creating nearly 200 educational guides for the school district. Other projects included the Lab School for further educational research, the Idea Workshop family center, and Imaginations Works which was a line of educational activity kits distributed through Kid Concern, Inc. 

In 1985, Jearnine was awarded Woman of the Year in Arts by the San Antonio Express News. Learning About Learning operated until 1986. After its closure, Wagner and Herbert moved to Houston where they had previously done educational consulting and started the Center for Learning Studies with the support of Houston Independent School District (HISD). They developed an afterschool science program and a peer tutoring program, and higher-level creative thinking workshops for HISD. In 1989, these programs were featured on KUHT, Houston’s local PBS station’s production, “The Gift of Learning.”

Wagner passed away in November of 1997. At her memorial, Herbert invited people to speak and many teachers from Houston praised her for giving them the confidence to create successful programs with their students. Her legacy of differentiated creative learning is far reaching with many of her mentees having continued her teachings.