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.”

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”