Making the road by walking: A roadmap from an after-school initiative to a better school system

Who would have known that an informal theatre program for young children in the early 1980s could yield such fertile ground.  I had been teaching an after school theatre program that had achieved some notoriety.  A visionary principal began to believe that he could turn around his K-5 school by providing arts for all students.

The first task was starting a middle school so that the school would grow to be K-8, and very few K-8s existed in that era. The school was located in one of the worst housing projects in Boston. The community was ravaged by violence, drugs and high rates of teen pregnancy. Busing was in full effect but few students from outside the neighborhood wanted to come to this school. Yet eventually, we worked across all grades to ensure that every young person in that large elementary school had daily arts experiences.

The principal knew that the arts would be a strong draw. He gave us another challenge: Make the middle school a bilingual middle school for the arts. Ensure that graduates were competent and conversant in both Spanish and English and also had skills in theatre, stagecraft, dance and music.  At that point, our visual arts program was almost non-existent.

A group of committed teachers worked for months to plan an interdisciplinary curriculum that would create multiple opportunities for students to experience science and arts, math and arts, English/history and arts. We had autonomy to create our own academic curricula and also to think about ways that arts and academics might enhance learning.  And we did it in Spanish and English, which may have been most important. To get a speaking part in a play, students had to speak both languages. Although students professed to hate the academic study of English or Spanish, those courses became some of our favorite since so many students wanted to be in a play.

Others who wanted no part of being in front of an audience became expert carpenters, lighting or costume designers, or stage managers. Family members helped with sewing, make-up, posters and general chaos control.  Folks had no precedent for bilingual musicals by 11-13 year olds, including Man of La Mancha and West Side Story. Yet we packed the auditorium every night. Since most families had had no experience with live theatre, we had to do considerable audience education.  People learned, for example, that they shouldn’t throw things onto the stage or call out in the middle of a song or an actor’s lines.

That school was meant to be the feeder for an audition-based high school for the arts. Two other strong magnet arts programs emerged during this era, but none could create the impetus for a true arts high school. Many other cities were opening such schools, often called magnet schools, as a way of stemming white flight and keeping the middle class invested in public schools.  Various attempts in Boston to organize the arts community brought tremendous resistance to opening an audition-based high school. The desegregation court order still controlled much of Boston school politics and there was no appetite for taking on what might be seen as an end-run to that order.

Without thoughtful dialogue the doubts became barriers to any action. Various proposals eventually died. The middle school arts programs languished with leaders who felt only their fingers in the dike of public school chaotic policies. The teachers in the individual schools knew programs like their own existed across the city but felt isolated and without a sense of agency to create a strong network. We kept hearing that we were the groundwork for the new high school, but we could barely do our own jobs let alone create a political force for real change.

We were all very committed teachers who made huge inroads with community organizations and families, but we had no authority or even protection to keep growing our school. Slowly we watched as our well-laid plans began to evaporate and our administration became interested in other programs. Our school began to look like a Christmas tree with one program or ornament being added each month. Our arts focus was just one of many things we were trying to do. Raising student achievement by any and all means became the new mantra. Funding and energies dissipated. Many of us began to look for new opportunities to effect change in schools. Then our own principal left and another arrived who didn’t share our zeal for a bilingual middle school for the arts.

Fast forward to the early 1990s

During this era Massachusetts experienced far-reaching education reform legislation that brought state testing (MCAS) and charter schools. The ProArts Consortium (a group of private and public colleges of the arts in Boston) was ready with a proposal to found a charter school for the arts. The State rejected that proposal as too expensive. Simultaneous to the legislation that brought charter schools, Boston Public Schools, the Boston Teachers Union and the Mayor’s office agreed on an innovative contract provision that allowed the formation of  “in-district charter schools” called Pilot Schools.

ProArts immediately applied for pilot school status and in 1995 Boston Arts Academy (BAA) became one of the first pilot schools in Boston, although we would not open for three more years until a facility could be found. I was then the co-director of Fenway High School which was the founding member of the group along with Greater Egleston, Health Careers, Young Achievers, Lyndon Elementary and Boston Evening Academy.   That group of six schools paved the way for what would later become Horace Mann Charter Schools and Innovation Schools in Boston and across the state.

Later, as the founding headmaster of BAA I met with all of the ProArts presidents to hear about their visions for this long-awaited and long-fought-for school. Ted Landsmark was the president of Boston Architectural College, one of the members of ProArts. Landsmark was the city employee captured in an iconic prize-winning photo that depicts him outside City Hall being stabbed in the chest with the pole of an American flag by someone opposed to court-ordered busing. Our meeting had special meaning for both of us. Landsmark never referred to the photo.  Instead, he talked about his vision for a school in Boston. Because of the rigors of an arts education, it would allow students, perhaps for the first time in our city’s history, to cross racial, socio-economic and language barriers and create meaningful work together.

Boston Arts Academy today

The arts created an environment where explorations of polarizing issues could be the norm. Young people grow up in an atmosphere that both validates their own backgrounds and experiences while simultaneously teaches about “other.”  BAA has done this for the past 16 years. Young people confront their own issues, and they learn to accept and even embrace the issues of their classmates and their history. This happens in the arts studios and also in math, science, language and history classes.

The culture of experimentation in new media, of risk-taking, striving for excellence and of collaboration permeates all classrooms. Students talk about how BAA is a “writing school.” They mean that everywhere, no matter what class, students learn to express themselves with written words. Students proudly discuss the values of the school, which include “passion with balance,” “vision with integrity,” “community with social responsibility,” and “diversity with respect.” These concepts, which can be difficult for most adults to live by, are infused in all aspects of the BAA community.

Students and parents are also quick to point out that a stellar faculty make this remarkable school possible. In fact, the deep ownership and pride of teachers for BAA has fueled a successful leadership transition to a wonderful new Headmaster selected by teachers, parents, students and Board members, who was also a founding faculty member.  Teaching at BAA requires lots of debate and meetings that allow teachers considerable control over what is closest to them: curriculum, assessment, schedule and working conditions.

Today, BAA is part of a growing number of autonomous schools in Boston. Pilot schools were the first to guarantee autonomy in six key areas: governance, budget, hiring, curriculum, scheduling and school calendar. Some autonomous schools are developed through a contractual agreement with the teachers’ union and the district. Others are legislated through new state education laws, and still others are part of federal “turnaround” policies.  While some slight differences exist within these autonomous schools, the principle of teacher ownership has remained the same.

From founding principal to a broader world

In my new role in the district, I work to better clarify what these variations in autonomies mean to different constituents. Some schools haven’t yet figured out how to ensure that teachers feel a strong sense of ownership. Other schools operate almost as if they don’t belong to any district. Collecting the evidence of the variations and the areas of tension has been fascinating.

Most exciting for me has been the opportunity to connect with young teachers and administrators who, as with myself over 30 years ago, embrace the challenges of public education and use autonomy as a way to ensure the creation of the best school possible.

Rochelle is an alum from BAA whom I visited recently. She works for another Boston public school, spearheading that school’s new destiny as a proposed Innovation School. I sat with Rochelle and her team of teachers, her principal, and students. They described their vision of a school with a focus on entrepreneurship, job development and the arts and new media. We talked about how to create a curriculum that was “hands-on” and project-based. What about a woodshop class where students made things that could be sold? What places of intersection exist between arts and entrepreneurship? Could students imagine starting and marketing their own business? As one student said, “Though I am senior and won’t be part of the new school when it starts, I give my full support to the idea… I believe that [this school] is what Boston is lacking right now. I have a little brother going into high school and [I’m glad] there will be a school like [this] for him.”

Whether or not faculty will vote to transition from a traditional school to an Innovation school is still uncertain. Still, the ideas shared around the room held great promise for young people who have not experienced success in school. Rochelle spoke about her vision for this school. “I learned so much as a student at BAA. I know the importance of creativity and collaboration. I was trusted to do a senior project as a high school student—and the topic was something I was passionate about—not an assignment a teacher gave me. I want to bring that same sense of excitement and ownership of learning to these young people.”  Rochelle described the transient population at her school, and how many students arrived with limited English skills. She was certain that by engaging them in the arts and entrepreneurship school might finally compete with the streets.  I look forward returning and seeing what Rochelle, her colleagues and her students have created. I have no doubt it will be magnificent.

A few weeks ago, I attended the 10th reunion of the BAA class of 2003. The founding ProArts presidents and founding faculty would have been thrilled to see this group, some whom had traveled great distances to get there. Students spoke to one another, or used American Sign Language, since this class had a number of deaf and hard-of-hearing students, about their challenges and their successes. A surprising number were in law enforcement or the military. Others were teaching. Some worked as professional artists as church accompanists and choir directors or writers or after-school teachers or in nonprofits. Still others were in marketing. Some were still finding their way taking classes part time, working and raising a family.

Little judgment existed among these young people about what “making it” really looked like. I felt only a sense of camaraderie and support and evidence of the lessons we had taught in high school. Students reminisced about whether RICO—refine, invent, connect and own, still held true 10 years later. “I use it every day with my staff,” said a young woman program director. “RICO’s not just an academic skill. It’s a way of looking at life, learning and how you do just about everything.” Even with some concerns about how some alums were faring, I had the strong sense that they would stay connected and continue to create an even better Boston or Raleigh or San Jose or wherever they were living.

The shared values we struggled to inculcate in our community seemed alive and well within each one of them. Many of them would end up, like Rochelle, likely creating their own schools, or business, or organizations. They would feel strongly about the importance of collaboration. They would value knowing others different from themselves.  They would emphasize the balance between the importance of autonomy and the power of being part of a greater whole.

1 Response to “Making the road by walking: A roadmap from an after-school initiative to a better school system”


  1. 1 Jill September 26, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Honored to be working with you on this great journey for BPS students and schools


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