Song and Dance

To turn her middle school around, a principal invests in the arts

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At 9:30 this morning, the principal of the Ron Brown Academy in Brooklyn stood in her school’s auditorium, watching a fight break out.

Across from her, a tall girl in a tight pink shirt slapped at the girl in front of her. Three other girls grabbed the tall one’s arms and kicked at her legs. The girls broke apart as two boys doing cartwheels chased them off stage.

The principal, Celeste Douglas, broke into applause. She was watching the teenagers — who had grins plastered to their faces, and whose fight moves had been carefully choreographed by their teachers — perform their winter dance routine.

“Music makes me feel free,” said Justin, one of the dancers, after the performance. He is a seventh grader at Ron Brown, a middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Music has also provided the school with an opportunity to improve its test scores, boost attendance and jump off the state’s watch list.

An unusual solution

When Douglas first arrived at Ron Brown Academy in 2006, she found a school in crisis.

Attendance hovered just above 80 percent, students performed poorly on standardized tests, and the previous spring, state officials had put the school on the SURR list of the lowest performing schools in New York. Douglas had three years to improve the school or risk seeing it shut down.

Faced with low performance and small budgets, other schools have cut extra programming and reinforced ELA and math skills. “One of the first things to get cut in schools is the arts program. I felt a lot of pressure to do the same thing,” Douglas said today, sitting in her office, a space decorated with pictures of her students’ performances and trophies of their successes.

She knew that improving instruction was crucial, but she didn’t think it was enough. “The first issue was engagement. I realized our kids were just not coming to school,” said Douglas. “I was looking for something to engage kids and I didn’t know what it was.”

In 2007, she heard about a project at the Center for Arts Education to develop arts programs at low-performing middle schools. The program, called the School Arts Support Initiative, or SASI, demands a lot of partner schools. Working with an arts coach from the center, schools have to offer entirely new courses in drama, dance, music, and the visual arts. They have to hire a new batch of educators who, with help from the center, design the courses and teach them. And the schools must provide space for students to perform and practice; revise their scheduling to accommodate the new courses; and find funding to pay for it all.

Although a bulk of the program — the cost of the coach, professional development, and partnerships with theaters and drama organizations— comes from a U.S. Department of Education grant, the school itself must find funding for many of the other expenses, including art supplies and teachers.

At Ron Brown, space is tight, since the school shares a building with two other schools. About 240 Ron Brown students crowd onto a floor and a half. Some teachers have to share classrooms. Douglas’ budget didn’t have much room for growth, either.

But Douglas decided to work with the center anyway. The design of the program fit with her larger strategy of investing in helping teachers improve their instruction.

To raise the money needed to pay the extra teachers, she applied for outside grants. The school already had a dance studio; she took advantage of it and added a small arts studio inside a tiny classroom. The fact that she was already on a hiring binge allowed her to bring in new teachers who could play double roles at the school.

The school’s theater director also teaches English language arts. In addition to two full-time dance teachers and a visual arts teacher, other teachers help with directing and monitoring students during performances.

“People have come out of the woodwork,” said Brian Nagel, the visual arts teacher, “including a science teacher with a beautiful voice.”

The school is increasingly centered around art. As 6th graders, students are introduced to the range of art disciplines. At the end of the year, they choose an “art major,” which they study in more depth in 7th and 8th grade.

The school has altered the daily schedule to accommodate a full arts sequence. Each student attends an art class, even if that means that she has to be occasionally pulled from another class. Friday afternoons are also completely devoted to arts programming.

Douglas noted that she has had to make a lot of tough decisions to maintain the program, including excessing a math teacher last year instead of an art teacher.

“Out of the woodwork”

Developing an arts program was not just about introducing the students to art. The art classes are used to reinforce the student’s learning in other areas.

A key goal for teachers is to learn “how to marry the learning standards to the artistic process,” said Dr. Carol Feinberg, the director of the SASI program.

Students at the school have responded well to the changes. Some have even come from other schools to participate. A seventh grader, Jordan, who danced in the winter showcase, said he was failing classes at his previous school. He transferred to Ron Brown halfway through his sixth grade year. “My family comes from a long line of dancers,” he said, perched calmly on the edge of the stage. He is now active in an after-school activity called the rap and recording club and doing well in school.

Talent and interest has come from unexpected places. Nagle, the visual arts teacher, described a moment when a quiet sixth grade girl approached him in his studio. She pointed to the still life art pieces that hang in the hallways. “Trees are my life,” she said. “I want to learn how to do that so I can draw trees.”

Laura Hill, the English teacher who directs the school’s plays, said that one of the biggest successes has been getting the boys involved. At first, teachers struggled to get boys excited about dance that didn’t involve hip-hop, she said. But this winter, she was proud to see a large group of boys participate in the swing and jazz performances in the dance showcase.

Still, several boys mentioned today that their favorite dance piece was the finale, set to the song “I Whip My Hair” by Willow Smith.

“Pockets of success”

Douglas has started to see some promising results. For one, parents are more involved.

“I can tell you when I started, we would do a workshop and have two parents and now we have 50 or 60,” Douglas said. “We have found the best way to bring parents in is to celebrate their kids’ talent.” The winter showcase two weeks ago drew a large crowd.

School attendance has also improved, jumping from 86 percent in 2006 to 91 percent so far this year, according to the DOE. Test scores are also on the rise. The percent of students scoring at or above Level 3 on the state-wide ELA tests jumped from 21 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2009. No scores have been released since the state changed its grading standards, but the school received a B for student progress on its last progress report from the city.

One of the biggest triumphs has been getting off the SURR list in 2008, a full year shy of the deadline imposed by the state for improvement. “I am not going to say the arts are the Holy Grail,” said Russell Granet, the school’s arts coach. “But I do know from Ms. Douglas that the school is a much calmer place.”

Douglas plans to continue to develop the program, including adding a school orchestra. One of her goals this year is to support students who want to attend specialized arts high schools. “There is a lot of raw talent,” said Nagel, but none of the teachers or administrators knew how to help their students to create suitable portfolios or go through the stressful interview process.

Douglas is optimistic. “We are seeing pockets of success,” she said.

Said Granet, “It is not a process to be rushed. You need to plan it.”

First Person

First Person: Why my education nonprofit is bucking the coastal trend and setting up shop in Oklahoma

PHOTO: Creative Commons

“Oklahoma?! Why are you expanding to Oklahoma?!”

The response when I told some people that Generation Citizen, the nonprofit I run, was expanding to central Texas and Oklahoma, quickly became predictable. They could understand Texas, probably because our headquarters will be in the blue-dot-in-sea-of-red Austin. But Oklahoma?

My answer: Generation Citizen is expanding to Oklahoma City because no one would expect us to expand to Oklahoma City.

Our nonprofit is dedicated to empowering young people to become engaged citizens by reviving civics education in schools. We help middle and high school students learn about local politics by guiding them as they take action on issues they care about, like funding for teen jobs or state resources for teenage moms.

I founded the organization after graduating from Brown University in Rhode Island in 2009. Since then, we’ve expanded our programming to Boston, New York City, and the San Francisco Bay Area. All are urban areas with wide swaths of low-income young people, unequal schools, and disparate power dynamics. Our work is needed in those areas.

At the same time, all of these areas have predominantly liberal populations. In fact, according to The Economist, they are among the 10 most liberal cities in the country.

Generation Citizen is a non-partisan organization. We do not wish to convince young people to support a particular candidate or party — we just want them to engage politically, period. But the fact that we are preparing low-income young people in liberal urban centers to become politically active complicates this narrative.

So despite the fact that we could work with many more students in our existing cities, we made a conscious decision to expand to a more politically diverse region. A city that had real Republicans.

As we started talking about expansion, I realized the extent to which the dialogue about political and geographic diversity was a rarity in national nonprofit circles. While several large education organizations, like Teach for America and City Year, have done an admirable job of in working in conservative and rural regions across the country, a lot of other organizations follow a more predictable path, sticking largely to cities on the east and west coasts and sometimes, if folks feel crazy, an Atlanta or Miami.

There is nothing wrong with these decisions (and we were originally following this trajectory). A big reason for the coastal-focused expansion strategy is the availability of financial resources. Nonprofits want to raise money locally to sustain themselves, and those cities are home to a lot of people and foundations who can fund nonprofits.

But a more problematic reason seems related to our increasing ideological self-segregation. Nonprofits lean toward expanding to places that are comfortable, places that their leaders visit, places where people tend to hold similar values and political views.

One of the fault lines in our democracy is our inability to talk to people who disagree with us (highlighted daily by this presidential election). And non-profits may be exacerbating this reality.

This schism actually became more apparent to me when our board of directors started having conversations about expansion. Oklahoma City had come to the top of my proposed list because of my personal and professional contacts there. But I quickly realized that no one on my board lived more than five miles from an ocean, and save a board member from Oklahoma, none had stepped foot in the state.

“Are we sure we want to expand there? Why not a gateway city?” (I still don’t know what a gateway city is.)

“We can hire a Republican to run the site, but they can’t be a Trump supporter.”

“Are we sure that we can raise enough money to operate there?”

It wasn’t just my board. Whenever I talked to friends about our plans, they’d offer the same resistance.

The stereotypes I heard were twofold: Oklahoma was full of bigoted conservatives, and it was an incredibly boring location. (The dullness narrative got an unquestionable boost this year when star basketball player Kevin Durant left the hometown Thunder. It became quite clear that a main rationale for his leaving the team was Oklahoma City itself.)

But as I met with folks about Generation Citizen’s work, I met citizen after citizen who was excited about our mission. The state is facing tremendous budget challenges, and its voter participation rates amongst the worst in the country. Given these realities, there seemed to be widespread recognition that a program like ours could actually be helpful.

I did not talk about national politics with most people I met. Indeed, we might disagree on whom to support. But we did agree on the importance of educating young people to be politically active, shared concerns about public school budget cuts, and bonded over excitement for the Thunder’s playoff chances.

Still, the actual expansion to Oklahoma will be a challenge for our organization. Despite our local ties, we are coming in from the outside, and we do have the perception of being a progressively minded organization. What will happen if one of our classes wants to advocate for open carry at schools in response to a shooting? How will my board handle working in a site where they wouldn’t ordinarily visit?

I am excited to tackle all of these challenges. And I would push other similarly sized non-profits to think about working in a more diverse set of areas. It is not possible to be a national organization and avoid entire swaths of the country. But more importantly, given these tenuous political times, it feels important to interact with people who may not hold our beliefs.

Nonprofits can’t fix our national dialogue alone. But by expanding where we work, we might help improve the conversation.

honor system

Meet Derek Voiles, the Morristown educator who is Tennessee’s newest Teacher of the Year

PHOTO: Tennessee Department of Education
Derek Voiles, Tennessee's 2016-17 Teacher of the Year

Derek Voiles, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher in Morristown, is Tennessee’s 2016-17 Teacher of the Year, the State Department of Education announced Thursday.

One of nine finalists for this year’s award, Voiles teaches at Lincoln Heights Middle in Hamblen County Schools in East Tennessee. He received the top teacher honor at a banquet in Nashville.

Voiles, who has been teaching for six years, has long shared his teaching practices publicly — on Twitter, through a blog he wrote with a colleague, and as a state ambassador for the Common Core standards. In recent years, according to a state news release, his classroom became a hub as teachers from across his district observed his teaching in hopes of replicating his practices, which often improved the performance of students far behind their peers.

“All students are capable of achieving great things, and all students deserve a teacher who believes this and will do whatever it takes to make it happen,” Voiles said in the release. He is also a doctoral candidate at East Tennessee State University.

Now, Voiles will gain an even wider stage, as Tennessee’s representative to the National Teacher of the Year program. He will also share insight from the classroom as part of committees and working groups with the Tennessee Department of Education.

All nine Teacher of the Year finalists, representing each of the state’s regions, will serve on the Commissioner Candice McQueen’s Teacher Advisory Council during the 2016-17 school year.

The department also recognized two division winners from Middle and West Tennessee. Cord Martin, a music education and enrichment teacher at Whitthorne Middle School in Maury County, was recognized for his innovative teaching strategies and connecting content to contemporary culture. Christy McManus, a fifth-grade English language arts and social studies teacher at Chester County Middle School in Henderson was honored for equipping her students with the end goal in mind: a college-ready twelfth grader.

Voiles follows Cathy Whitehead, a third-grade teacher from Chester County, who served as Tennessee’s 2015-16 Teacher of the Year. Whitehead teaches at West Chester Elementary School in Henderson in West Tennessee.