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National School Arts Conference Highlights Success of Small East Harlem School

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Judith Burton

Judith Burton

More than 150 arts teachers, administrators, and school principals from around the country will gather in New York City on Thursday, December 2nd to learn about the Heritage School - a highly successful "small school" in East Harlem that emphasizes the arts as part of a balanced curriculum and sends 70 percent of its senior class on to four-year colleges.

The conference will focus on how schools can build partnerships with cultural institutions. Keynote speakers will include Jane Remer, consultant for the arts in education and author of Beyond Enrichment and Changing Schools Through the Arts; Susan McCullough, Director of School and Family Projects at the Museum of Modern Art; and Heritage School founder Professor Judith Burton, Director of the Art and Art Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. The conference begins at 9:15 a.m., following a continental breakfast at 8:45, and will be held at Heritage School, located in the landmarked Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center at 1680 Lexington Avenue, between 105th and 106th Streets in Manhattan. A limited number of representatives from the press will be able to tour the school.

Described by insideschools.org as "one of the most promising new schools to open in the city in the past decade", Heritage School is distinguished by a combination of excellent teaching, strong parent involvement, and a curriculum that gives the arts parity with other subjects. Nearly all of the school's students come from poor black and Hispanic families, with most having scored in the bottom two levels of New York City's standardized reading and math tests prior to enrolling at Heritage. Yet 76 percent pass the Math A Regents exam by the end of 10th grade with a score of 65 or higher, and 82 percent pass the English Regents exam by the end of 11th grade. The school's successes and best practices have been documented in several studies, including one by the NYU Institute for Education Policy. A "meta-analysis" of these studies compiled by the Heritage School will be available in mid-December at www.heritage-school.org.

Heritage was founded in 1996 as a collaboration between Teachers College and the New York City Department of Education. It is now part of the Teachers College Education Zone Partnership, a research collaboration between the College and public schools in northern Manhattan that grew out of Teachers College's mission to help reduce the gap in educational opportunity and achievement between wealthy suburban students and those from poor, minority and inner-city backgrounds.

"As the nation looks at models for closing the educational achievement gap, the work of Heritage School is one that merits serious attention," says New York City Council Member Eva Moskowitz, who recently allocated $500,000 to the school. "I believe in what they are doing and in the value of the arts in the public schools."

Heritage students take three years of art and music, versus just a year at most other New York City public high schools. "It's a regular comprehensive high school, where kids do well because the arts merely have parity as part of the curriculum," says Burton of Teachers College. "Art offers learnings in and of itself, and that creates a new context in which science, language, poetry and mathematics make sense." Burton is a contributor to New York City's new Curriculum Blueprint for Teaching and Learning in the Arts.

Heritage has forged unique partnerships with MOMA, the Whitney Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Guggenheim Museum, among others. In October, in collaboration with the Working Playground theater company, two recent Heritage graduates wrote and performed a play about voting and civic responsibility, directed on Broadway by the actress Rosie Perez.

The school also maintains close ties with Teachers College, where a number of faculty members provide ongoing input to curriculum development. Nearly all Heritage teachers - including the principal, Peter Dillon - have either earned degrees at the College or are taking credits there now.

Heritage promotes parent and community involvement through meetings patterned after those held in folk schools in Scandinavia. "You break people into small groups, present an article or speaker that inspires discussion, then talk about specific problems and concrete actions steps," says Dillon. "Then you bring the whole group together. It builds trust and gives people confidence that things will get done. As a result, we had 70 percent attendance at our last Open School Night. You just don't see that anywhere else, even at private schools."

Two-thirds of the students participate in Heritage's extended day program, including all ninth graders. The school also features an aggressively recruited faculty that includes English teacher Jessica Seigal, heroine of the book Small Victories, by New York Times education columnist Samuel Freedman.

Heritage School hopes to expand to include grades six, seven and eight, possibly by fall 2005. "Our kids are coming to us with limited skills resulting from missed opportunities," says Dillon. "If we can get to them earlier, we can really give them the grounding they need."

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Profiles from the Heritage School

A teacher and two students exemplify the success of a small school in East Harlem and the role of the arts in its balanced curriculum

Dan Nichols and the Art of Teaching History

To Heritage social studies teacher Dan Nichols, understanding the thoughts and feelings of historical figures is a lot like interpreting a piece of art - it requires using one's imagination. That's why Nichols often teaches American history through the study of paintings, photos and other visual images.

"I'll ask my students to link a series of photos around a particular theme, like poverty and conflict during the Great Depression," says Nichols, himself a doctoral student in the social studies program at Teachers College, Columbia University, which maintains a close working relationship with Heritage. Nichols is also exploring these techniques through a Met Life Fellowship in the Teachers and Leadership Network Institute, a nationwide group that seeks to connect teaching practice to education policy.

Nichols' use of the arts goes beyond the merely visual, however. For the past three years, he has collaborated with the Working Playground, a theater arts group in New York City that develops plays from the work of high school students. Last year, he focused his American Government class on the upcoming presidential elections.

"It's my view, and that of the Teachers College social studies program, that the goal of social studies is to create more engaged citizens," Nichols says. The class studied major American speeches and documents and their relationship to the Vietnam War protests, the Freedom Rider marches and other points in history when voting loomed large. Nichols also asked his students to imagine a future military draft for the war in Iraq. At the end of the course, the students wrote dialogues based on their papers, and these were fashioned into short plays. Two of Nichols students then performed one of these dialogues, "Why Should I Vote?", on Broadway under the direction of Working Playground board member Rosie Perez.

Nichols taught in upstate New York, Seattle and Manhattan's Lower East Side before coming to Heritage School. He also served as a Peace Corps teacher trainer in Uganda and later enrolled in the Teachers College Peace Corps Fellows, which fast-tracks returning Peace Corps veterans into inner-city urban teaching.

"I believe in John Dewey's idea that much of what students should learn is what they want to learn," he says. "When they choose what to research, they often do a much more thoughtful and productive job of writing it up."

Adapting Fast: Stacy Ann Blagrove

When Stacy Ann Blagrove arrived in New York City from Jamaica in 2001, she and her mother knew nothing about the city's public schools. So they took the suggestion of a neighbor, and Stacy enrolled at the Heritage School in East Harlem.

"I liked that Heritage was a small school," Stacy says. "Everyone knew everyone else, and we got more personal attention. For me, coming from a different country, it helped me to adjust to this new environment."

During Stacy's freshman year, science teacher Saby Malary, who is Haitian-American, helped her gain community service credits required for graduation and was also available just to talk.

During her senior year, social studies teacher Dan Nichols recruited Stacy for a play he was putting together on Broadway in collaboration with The Working Playground, a not-for-profit cultural group that offers arts education to teenagers through studio programs. The play focused on civic participation and voting, and all the seniors played famous historical figures. Stacy played Coretta Scott King in a scene that depicted the assassination of her husband. Actress Rosie Perez directed the production, which raised money for the senior class.

In addition to enrolling in AP Spanish, Stacy took a statistics class at Hunter College through the College Now Program and received an A, along with three college credits.

Stacy also became part of the Heritage Student Leadership Team-students from each grade who represent their classmates at PTA meetings. Motivated by her daughter, Stacy's mother, Carol Johnson, joined the PTA and became its Vice President.

Stacy closed out her Heritage career as class valedictorian. She was accepted to college at NYU, Babson and Bentley, but chose to attend the Honors program in Accounting at Baruch because of its strong financial aid package.

The Education of Steven Nuñez

It's been a journey for Steven Nunez. A well-rounded student when he entered Heritage School four years ago, Steven underwent back surgeries in 10th and 11th grades and missed weeks of classes, living on pain medication and struggling just to get out of bed.

Yet with the help of his global history teacher, Zairo Dhakkar, and his guidance counselor, Bernice Duboff, he managed not only to keep up with his studies, but also to submit a 10-page essay on the declaration of human rights to a competition among students from the tri-state area. Steven's essay was among the winners, and he was named a Student Global Ambassador and chosen to go to a Native American reservation in New Mexico and Arizona. He received a scholarship from the Student Global Ambassadors organization to make the trip, as well as funds contributed by Heritage School teachers and administrators.

During Steven's junior year, Dhakkar nominated him for a National Youth Leadership Forum that took him to Washington, DC, for a week and a half along with more than 400 other students from across the country. He participated in a mock government that made decisions in a terrorist situation based on the policies of the Bush Administration. He also listened to talks by generals who had served in the Vietnam and Gulf wars.

As a student in George Stengren's AP environmental science class, Steven worked on experiments with sand tank models provided by Barnard College that demonstrated the affects of pollution and water flow on underground sedimentary layers. Students were asked to give presentations about the experiments at the end of the year. In the audience was Sandra Vezques from the Columbia University Earth Institute, who recruited Steven to work as a field technician in the Institute's computer lab. There, Steven met a Columbia psychology professor who convinced him to study psychology in college.

Steven subsequently won a minority financial aid scholarship to Columbia and joined the University's Summer Humanities Program, which allows 40 students selected for the scholarships to test the waters at the University before enrolling for freshman year. Living in John Jay Hall for the month of July, Nuñez took courses in psychology, calculus, writing, and Spanish, spending from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the classroom before hitting his room to study and do homework.

Today Steven is majoring in psychology at Columbia. "I was originally interested in politics and government, but when I thought about my own goals and aspirations, I realized that though politicians deal with people and issues widely, psychology is an understanding of people without looking for controversy," he said. "And psychology is something I can do anywhere in the world."

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