Back At School Again

After two years in full-time academia, I am back in a school. It feels right. Labor Day and the ritual of children returning to school are, once again, part of my daily world. I am the newly appointed Executive Director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship (The Center). This nonprofit was originally developed by Diana Lam, retired Executive Director of Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS), and the school’s board of trustees.  CLCS serves over 400 students from pre-K to 8th grade on two campuses in Dorchester, MA. The Center, while affiliated with CLCS, has its own independent board and a mission that is still evolving:  

The Center for Artistry and Scholarship (CAS) is a nonprofit organization that fosters and mobilizes creative, arts-immersed schools where students are making and doing, teachers are asking how and why, and schools are engaged in their community.

So what will I do?

One of my first assignments is to share and promote two exciting rich academic models being used by Conservatory Lab Charter School, while continually improving the education provided to the school’s 450 students. I am back where it matters: at the intersection of arts and academics, where I can see every day how when a young person tries to do something really difficult—like learning to play the violin—their worldview and their sense of self truly changes. Words like “growth mindset,” “grit,” and “perseverance” are being used so frequently that they have almost lost their meaning, but in this setting I truly see each day how working in an ensemble to learn challenging music can transfer to feeling successful about oneself. “El Sistema-inspired” is the way CLCS describes its music program.

Conservatory Lab Charter School’s orchestra program is inspired by El Sistema, an international music program. El Sistema’s philosophy is based on the idea of music as the vehicle for social change: that the pursuit of musical excellence teaches students to strive for quality in all areas of their lives.  While many El Sistema programs are after school, Conservatory Lab Charter School infuses El Sistema into the school day.  I look forward to telling you more about the program and how this program could be used in other schools.   

El Sistema was founded in 1975 by Jose Antonio Abreu in Venezuela to affect social change through intensive, ensemble-based music education. Through a system of “nucleos” in poor and underserved neighborhoods, over 400,000 young people are involved in orchestral and choral music programs. While I was at Boston Arts Academy, I had the opportunity to visit El Sistema in Venezuela and witness first-hand the remarkable way it uses the teaching of musical excellence to help young people strive for excellence in other parts of their lives. As Abreu says, “the orchestra is the only community that comes together for the sole purpose of agreeing with itself.” The idea of the orchestra as a democratic institution is indeed unique in the classical music world, and I look forward to helping define and codify, along with various independent research teams, how El Sistema works in daily practice in the United States. I would love to see many more schools adopt this orientation towards learning music.

I get to witness on a daily basis how a school pours itself into project-based learning by using the EL (formerly Expeditionary Learning) curriculum and processes. I was involved in the early years of EL’s development, so it’s wonderful to see that it has survived and thrived through the past decades of high-stakes testing! There is nothing easy about project-based teaching and learning. It requires a great deal of skill and training on the part of the faculty, but Conservatory Lab is determined to be a place where risk-taking, experimentation and deep learning (to use the new term du jour) are valued as much as high scores on tests. Some of Conservatory Lab’s most famous expeditions can be found here

The school’s principal is Nicole Mack, one of the most clear-headed and talented individuals I have had the honor of working with.

dsc_7900 She and her team have already led some great professional development sessions to help teachers become immersed in whole brain teaching and learning and that all academic teachers understand what it’s like to learn to play an instrument.  What a great place to teach!  Watch a video of the teacher orchestra here!

Another area of focus for the Center (and for me) is the Perrone Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership. I am thrilled that the first cohort of the Perrone Sizer Institute for Creative Leadership began in August and represents emerging leaders from Citizens Schools, Hudson High School, Cambridge Public Schools, Conservatory Lab Charter School, and the following Boston Public Schools: Boston Arts Academy, Boston Latin School, Charlestown High School, Edwards Middle School, Lila Frederick Pilot Middle School and the Mary Lyons Pilot High School.

Carmen Torres co-directs PSI with me, and in her “spare time” she also is the head of Student and Family Support at Conservatory Lab. One of our earliest activities with our students was to immerse them in artistic thinking. We wrote and performed a blues anthem that reflected our emerging leadership journeys.


It has been a dream of mine to honor two of my most important mentors,
Vito Perrone and Ted Sizer, by developing a program that reflects their lifetime of work. Here are the leadership competencies we hope to develop in our students. psi-leadership-competencies

Both Vito and Ted were passionate about the ways in which schools and communities were connected and, while neither were known as arts advocates, both acknowledged in their writing the importance of creativity in student learning. PSI prepares emerging leaders from both education and not for profit worlds to integrate three distinct lenses. We describe the lenses this way:

  1. The Artist: utilizing creativity, design, risk taking and experimentation to solve problems. Through the arts, one persists, refines, and considers many different approaches.
  2. The Educator: informed and driven by experience in and research on powerful, engaging, and sustained learning; drawing upon a deep knowledge of child and adolescent development; and applying a profound understanding of the learning process to prepare students for academic and personal success.
  3. The Community-Based Organization Leader: employing a culturally competent understanding of the needs of youth and families in a given community to engage effectively in a dynamic collaborative process of community growth and development. What is (or is not) happening at home can have a profound effect on a student’s health and learning.

Another evolving program of the Center is the Creative Schools Project. Here is where we hope to share “best practices” of various schools that put arts in the center of teaching and learning. Since Conservatory Lab is our “lab” school we will start there, and share stories of successes and challenges from the classrooms. Stay tuned! Hopefully many of those posts will come from former students and colleagues of mine—both from Boston Arts Academy and other places.

I want to encourage you to help us think through what CAS can become. Seth Racine has joined me to help give shape to the Center. We both feel that this new organization can play an important role in the national and international debates about what matters in education today.  Write us, come visit and challenge us!

Below, check out some photos from when the mayor came to visit Conservatory Lab! You can see more and learn about his visit here.dsc_8047dsc_8010dsc_7931

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