Reflections on a visit to South Hadley, MA

Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School

I did a reading at Odyssey Book Store in South Hadley (across the street from Mt. Holyoke) last week, and so finally had the chance to visit Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School (PVPA) in South Hadley MA.  Chris Fournier did his administrative internship at Boston Arts Academy around eight years ago and is now the Assistant Administrative Director (much like an Assistant Principal) at PVPA. I have long wanted to see the “other arts” high school in the state. Dr. Ranny Bledsoe, headmaster of Charlestown High School, joined me.

First of all, PVCS’s demographics are the exact opposite of our school. There are approximately 400 students in grades 6-12. 17% of students identify non white. This is surprising given the demographics of the Pioneer Valley region and the populations of Holyoke and Springfield. PVPA serves 59 cities and towns, and the lottery process has created what I would consider a skewed demographic. There are only 40 students on free and reduced lunch. The issues of a lottery system have concerned me at many of the charters I’ve visited, which are located in poor communities but seem not to serve that community very well (High Tech High would be another example). While PVCS does provide two buses for students, most charter schools do not.

While the lack of diversity both in terms of race and socio-economics rankled me quite a bit, I still wanted to approach the visit with an open mind. There is much to be excited by at PVPA. First of all, the location.

So much beautiful green space!

You drive up a long driveway to the school, which is housed in an old converted graphic design building. It seems huge from the outside and it has been outfitted with a couple of dance studios, a black box theatre, a recording studio, music rooms, and various visual arts rooms which (at least during my visit) were devoted to set design/stage craft and costume design. I don’t think the school does visual arts the way we do. The school is next to a golf driving range and has fields and land and a parking lot and trees and picnic tables. On this beautiful sunny day kids were spilling over everywhere. Each teacher has her own classroom and while the size of the classrooms seemed small to me, no class has more than about 20 students. Walls were covered with student work everywhere.

When I walked into the building I felt surrounded by energy and joyfulness. Another thing I noticed immediately, were the heaps of backpacks on the floor in the main lobby.

No lockers!

That was possibly the most striking feature of the entire visit. The school has no lockers and students leave their backpacks in the hallways and lobbies. There are coat hooks in various places for coats. Chris told me that although there are some incidents of theft, they gather the community and have a discussion and then it dies down again. I saw no school police, nor did I see any custodians (they do not have school police). There is also no cafeteria. Students eat everywhere. But the “Radioactive Cafe” is where students who bring their lunch can microwave it. Otherwise, students order from South Hadley high school and lunch is picked up every day.

This was such a cool alternative for kids who bring their own lunch!

Beth Graham, who used to be a dean at Cambridge Rindge and Latin, is the head of Teaching and Learning and she introduced me to some teachers who were in their collaborative time—i.e. content meetings. Wednesday is the day all academic teachers meet. The arts teachers are part time so they come in the afternoon. Most of them are working artists and some have very impressive resumes. Students have academics until 2:30 and then arts classes until 4:30. Students do not major per se, but they can concentrate in a single area. I saw a variety of dance classes (Hip-Hop and African) as well as a sewing class and theatre class.

Dance class at PVPA

 

More than anything, I noticed how kids spilled into every available nook and cranny. There were kids sitting on the floor working on a laptop; kids sitting on the floor in the library reading; kids sitting on the floor sewing outside of their costuming class. Many kids were walking around barefoot and the hallways seemed to be a place that kids were always in.

Kids were in the halls everywhere!

 

Students at PVPA pick an Arts Concentration in music, dance, visual arts or theater during the 10th grade and they take a range of classes in that concentration. Students have won coveted awards at Berklee’s High School Jazz Festival and they also have done high level and high quality theatre work. They do an annual musical that gets rave reviews. In addition, their graduation is a senior performance.

We talked to the head of Academic Support. They do not use the term special education and they have dedicated a great deal of resources to academic support. The head is a former assistant superintendent. The goal of the academic support department is to help every student become independent and reach the standards of the academic requirements of the school. They believe in modification and accommodation but there is no such thing as a special education math or English class. In addition, they emphasize student ownership of the IEP process and eschew parents contacting teachers about “what their student needs to do.” They feel strongly that the student is the one that must learn to communicate about his/her work with parents and that when the dialogue is just between parent-teacher this enables the student to NOT be involved. Students complain about this as they don’t like this added responsibility but I sensed that the school was firm here. They use a weekly contract/reporting form as a way to ensure that students have a piece of paper to take home to parents.

Academic Support at PVPA.

In addition, PVPA has a rule that all students must do A/B work. Nothing under an A/B is accepted. Students can continue to revise work until it meets that standard without penalty. The head of Academic Support acknowledged that this is often very difficult for students in the academic support program who already struggle with organization and time management but given that this is the ethos and mission and belief of the school, it is the job of the academic support teachers to get these students up to that standard.

I also met an exuberant math teacher (Eli Chastek) who was loaded down with pipes for a class he was doing on music and math. The walls of his classroom were covered with posters of parabolas that the students had just made with balls dipped in paint. I’m looking forward to getting the assignment from the teacher. A student explained to me with obvious pride how she had done her parabola and dipped and rolled the ball on a large board. I am intrigued to learn more. I think there could be real synergy for our math team and PVPA’s.

A proud student with her math project.

I was so pleased to finally see this “sister” school and to learn just a bit about their practices.

Odyssey Book Shop

The book talk at Odyssey went very well. There were about 30 people there—including Meg Maccini (former head of Boston Day and Evening Academy). There were a variety of questions, such as: How do you keep the craziness of the current testing mania at bay at your school? How do you create sustainability and not build a school based on one visionary leader?

I talked about the history of Fenway High School and how proud I am that Fenway is now in its fourth generation of leadership and still a very strong school. I talked about how many of our faculty and staff complete the Principal Residency Network program and take on leadership roles at BAA, and how that makes for a community of adults that understand the importance of shared leadership. I also spoke about my worries that we are still counting the wrong things in our country. Why does our Africa Lives! curriculum not generate the kind of policy support that MCAS does? (I realize that is a rhetorical question). I also spoke about our collective responsibility to ensure that the arts are in all schools and for all young people.

As always I was proud to represent Boston Arts Academy.

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