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March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

Nurturing Excellence Through the Arts

A charter school focused on arts and technology helps urban students' talents bloom.

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In an inner-city Washington, D.C., neighborhood notorious for high crime rates and drug trading resides the Arts and Technology Academy Public Charter School (ATA). This elementary school is only 20 minutes from the White House but is figuratively a million miles away from that world. The neighborhood is a patchwork of burned-out residential streets; the main accessible businesses are laundromats, liquor stores, and carryout stores whose workers speak to customers through bulletproof glass. Public transportation is scarce, isolating families from one another and from grocery stores, hospitals, and social service agencies. Row upon row of two-level housing projects with overgrown yards and overflowing trash cans line nearby East Capital Street. Some houses have clothes, broken furniture, and personal items piled up outside, dumped on the sidewalk following an eviction.
Despite the odds, ATA thrives in this neglected neighborhood and has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception in 1999. The facility used to house a D.C. public school that was shut down in 1997; the building remained empty and fell into disrepair. In 1998, a group of community activists and parents came together with the goal of reopening the school as a charter school. When the school opened as ATA the following year, its mission wasTo provide an academically challenging, technologically rich, child-centered environment, where each student develops a strong intellectual, moral, environmentally conscious, and artistic foundation.
A focus on the arts—through student performances and integrating the arts into academic content—has played a central role in achieving this goal.

Challenges and Successes

ATA serves students from the surrounding neighborhood. Because that neighborhood reflects the segregated nature of Washington, D.C., the school's student body is 98.8 percent African American, and 95 percent of students qualify for free lunch, meaning their family income falls below the federal poverty threshold. Many students lack basic resources in their homes, often coming to school hungry or dirty. Others have witnessed or been victims of assaults, robberies, and gang activity in or around their homes. Such stressful conditions have led to emotions and behaviors that hinder academic success. ATA takes these circumstances into account while helping its students persist and perform.
In 1999, when ATA opened its doors to 615 students and 65 staff members, 80 percent of its students scored in the Below Basic category in math on the Stanford 9, and 75 percent scored Below Basic in reading. ATA now serves 620 preK–6th grade students and has a staff of 90. During the 2003–2004 school year, only 47 percent of all students scored Below Basic in math, and only 35 percent scored Below Basic in reading.
There is a lengthy waiting list for every grade level, and increasing numbers of students from surrounding neighborhoods are being enrolled on a first-come, first-served basis. The school's test scores have increased for the third year in a row. Since ATA's first year, attendance has improved consistently, reenrollment has increased, teacher turnover has stabilized, and parents have become more involved in the school.
ATA is being hailed for providing an exceptional education using innovative methods in a community that many have given up on. For the 2003–2004 school year, ATA was one of only nine charter schools in D.C. that met required adequate yearly progress goals as determined by the No Child Left Behind Act. Moreover, ATA was recognized as one of the top eight charter schools in the nation in a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report on successful charter schools. The school also received the William Vasher Award from Mosaica Education at the 2004 National Charter Schools Conference for “building a vibrant learning community through excellence in the arts.”

ATA's Core Practices

The success of the school can be partially attributed to a combination of well-thought-out practices: strong and consistent leadership, clear role definition, specialized on-site support staff, teacher and parent accountability, a strong academic curriculum, and a vast extracurricular program. Many ATA policies are established by the educational service provider Mosaica Education, which runs ATA and more than 25 other schools throughout the United States. (Visit www.mosaicaeducation.com for more information.)
Mosaica provides a rigorous academic curriculum that combines the teaching of such core subjects as reading, math, and science with an integrated social studies curriculum called Paragon, which the company created. Paragon uses literature, philosophy, drama, music, art, history, geography, technology, and character development to teach the “great ideas” of the world's cultures. Paragon employs multimedia resources to engage students in the hands-on study of world history and to generate connections across the curriculum.
  • A student-to-computer ratio of 3 to 1.
  • Foreign language classes for all students, beginning in kindergarten.
  • An extended school year and instructional day.
  • Strong school accountability, as measured by national standardized tests administered twice a year and parent satisfaction surveys.
  • Individualized learning plans for every student.
  • A Code of Civility, which outlines parent, student, and staff academic responsibilities and behavioral expectations, encouraging accountability for all parties.
  • Small learning communities within the school.
  • Recruitment and retention of quality teachers by rewarding excellent teaching and mentoring and through financial incentives, such as bonuses or compensation for taking classes and attending conferences.
  • 15–20 paid staff development days each school year and an allowance for staff development during the school day.
  • Outreach to families through parenting classes, volunteer opportunities, and educational evenings.
  • Partnerships with community arts organizations, universities, and businesses to promote students' involvement in their communities.

The Power of Art

Another main component of ATA's success is its strong emphasis on student and staff involvement in the arts. Teachers and administrators at ATA believe that integrating the arts into school life expands possibilities for learning and helps students develop essential social skills that benefit their education. The school provides music, art, drama, and dance instruction weekly to every student. In addition to these lessons, this year, for the first time, all 5th and 6th grade students will choose one of these four areas as an arts major to study in depth all year. Students will meet in classes related to their chosen major three times a week for the entire year, allowing them to work on such extended projects as scriptwriting or printmaking.
At a time when many arts programs are being cut or underfunded, ATA is adding resources to its arts department. This year, the school purchased a new floor, bar, and mirror for dance classes and 10 new keyboards for piano classes. Creative and motivated arts professionals inspire students to make the most of what the school offers. The school has a 12-member Arts Resource Team, made up of arts teachers who are both artists and educators, along with other interested staff. This group facilitates various multidisciplinary arts performances and helps classroom teachers infuse the arts into their lessons.
Arts are held on a par with academics at ATA and are infused into all content areas and into every aspect of the school. The school's motto is “Art is at the heART of everything we do.” From dramatic presentations depicting historic content to musical groups rehearsing in the lobby to music therapy groups nurturing social skills and appropriate behaviors, the arts are visible everywhere.
The school has developed fruitful partnerships with several arts organizations that flourish in the D.C. area, including the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Levine School of Music, the Institute for Education and the Arts, and the Kennedy Center. Teachers often supplement lessons with field trips to such arts offerings as the National Gallery of Art. The 2004 summer JumpstART program, which featured such classes as photojournalism and fashion remix, took 45 students to see a performance of The Lion King in New York City.

The Arts as a Teaching Tool

The Paragon social studies program includes a strong arts-integration component. Classroom teachers routinely teach and present content through the arts, culminating in “Paragon Night,” at which students display what they have learned through artwork and dramatic presentations. For example, 1st graders studying Michelangelo imitate his method of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by lying on their backs and painting pictures underneath their desks. Songs and raps are used daily to teach such concepts as the life cycle or phonetic words.
All ATA arts teachers have a common planning period with classroom teachers to help them prepare and deliver lessons in any subject using the arts as a teaching tool. Arts teachers provide workshops in their special genres and share ideas and resources about how to integrate the arts into lessons. An Arts Certification program is available to all staff through peer-to-peer instruction.
Teachers and administrators at ATA are committed to using the arts across all the content areas, understanding that the arts may help them reach a broader group of learners. Gardner (1993) asserts that the arts tap into the different intelligences students may possess—verbal, logical/mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal—because learning through the arts engages all of these processes. Artistic opportunities capitalize on students' different learning styles and enable them to receive and understand knowledge in ways that are optimal for them.
ATA's philosophy is that involvement in the arts not only brings lessons to life and teaches artistic content, but it also leads students to develop social/emotional skills that benefit their personal and academic development. Success in modern society requires not only good computing and reasoning skills but also an ability to work with others and read interpersonal cues. Goleman's (1994) theory of emotional intelligence stresses the importance of personal motivation, mood regulation, and empathy—and asserts that these competencies can be taught. The field of social/emotional learning is fast coming to the forefront of innovative education practices (Cohen, 2001). As it becomes evident that social/emotional competencies can enhance learning and academic performance (Zins, Weissberg, Wang, & Walberg, 2004), many schools are using curriculums designed to foster such skills as listening, sharing, cooperation, and leadership in addition to teaching content.
The arts are ideally suited to pursuing this goal of creating socially competent individuals (Daniel, 2000; Fiske, 1999; Jensen, 2001; Wolfensohn, 1993). By nourishing the important sensory, attentional, cognitive, emotional, and motor neurobiological systems (Jensen, 2001), the arts develop leadership skills, self-esteem, and cooperation—all necessary workplace competencies according to the U.S. Department of Labor (1991).

Student Performance and Social Skills

The many arts-related clubs and performing groups at ATA—including singing groups, band, a recorder ensemble, a drumming group, a drill team, and a bell choir—help students develop a sense of commitment and responsibility. Students are required to attend regular after-school rehearsals and perform in shows that sometimes take place after school or on Saturdays. These commitments encourage students to take increased initiative. One student raked leaves to earn enough money to purchase tap shoes, for example. Students learn about perseverance by practicing parts of a performance over and over again, and they learn how to support and encourage one another when a task is difficult.
Students in a performing group have a special opportunity to develop a sense of community. The many hours of rehearsing together bond students who may otherwise lack a strong support network outside the school. The clubs engage students in positive activities after school and keep them out of unsupervised situations. Older students look after younger ones during rehearsals, and peers help one another practice lines. Students learn quickly that when one person is not carrying his or her weight, the rest of the group is burdened. Through the satisfaction that comes with accomplishment, students perceive that greatness takes hard work and collaboration.
As ATA students take risks in a safe and supportive atmosphere, they realize that being vulnerable and making a mistake is fine. As they receive recognition for their accomplishments, they emerge as leaders with confidence in their artistic abilities. This artistic confidence may translate into confidence in academic abilities. As students navigate through reading music, memorizing lines for plays, sketching, and doing warm-up exercises, they also develop essential academic skills—along with self-discipline and focus—that help them in their classrooms.
The arts are an excellent way to reach at-risk students (Fiske, 1999). Students who are not succeeding academically are often drawn to the arts as an alternative route to success and recognition. Involvement in the arts can motivate students to make appropriate behavioral choices. Some ATA students come to school solely because of their involvement in the arts. ATA deliberately schedules drumming on Friday afternoons, for example, to encourage drummers to show up on Fridays, a day often skipped by students who have a weak family support network.

Forging Family Connections

Parents are essential partners for ATA to accomplish its mission. The many arts-related events at ATA are an inviting way for parents to get involved with the school, as volunteers helping with shows or as audience members. Parents' faces glow with pride as they watch their children performing on stage. At one school play, a proud mother reserved 20 chairs in the front two rows—taping U.S. flags to each one—so her friends and family could admire her son's delivery of his two lines. The increase in parental involvement has helped bring families together and create a strong school culture, establishing ATA as a central meeting ground for the surrounding community.
At ATA, we believe we have succeeded in educating a student if that student leaves school not only academically accomplished but also ready to strive for individual achievement, to cooperate with and be compassionate toward peers, and to approach the surrounding world with curiosity and joy. Through consistent and rigorous arts involvement, ATA students gain the personal awareness and motivation, social skills, and cultural appreciation that will propel them to great heights of achievement.

Cohen, J. (2001). Caring classrooms/intelligent schools: The social emotional education of young children. New York: Teachers College Press.

Daniel, R. (2000). Performing and visual arts schools: A guide to characteristics, options, and successes. Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, 12(1), 43.

Fiske, E. B. (1999). Champions of change: The impact of the arts on learning. Washington, DC: The Arts Education Partnership and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities.

Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: BasicBooks.

Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York: Bantam Books.

Jensen, E. (2001). Arts with the brain in mind. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement. (2004). Innovations in education: Successful charter schools. Jessup, MD: Education Publications Center.

U.S. Department of Labor. (1991). What work requires of schools: A SCANS report for America 2000. Washington, DC: Author.

Wolfensohn, J. D. (1993). The power of the arts to transform education: An agenda for action. Washington, DC: Recommendations from the Arts Education Partnership Working Group.

Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Wang, M. C., & Walberg, H. J. (2004). Building academic success on social and emotional learning. New York: Teachers College Press.

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