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The Art of Balance

By giving parity to the arts, the Heritage School helps poorer students get to college.

It was seemingly just a blip on the New York City education scene: a $500,000 allocation, obtained through the office of city Council Member Eva Moskowitz, to the Heritage School, a tiny high school in East Harlem that was founded on a shoe-string budget seven years ago by a Teachers College art professor.

But for those in the know, it was another sign that Heritage-and its unique policy of making the arts as important (but not more so) than other components of its curriculum-has arrived.

"As the nation looks at models for closing the educational achievement gap, the work of Heritage School is one that merits serious attention," Moskowitz says. "I believe in what they are doing and in the value of the arts in our public schools."

The school's relative anonymity to date has been partly by design, as its evolution has been accompanied by the inevitable growing pains of an experimental school. "Starting a new school is really complicated, and quite honestly, there were points when it didn't look as though we'd make it," says Peter Dillon, Principal of Heritage School and a TC alumni. "But today, thanks to our own hard work and the commitment of Teachers College's President and Trustees, we're in a very different place."

One has only to walk into the lobby at 1680 Lexington Avenue, between 105th and 106th Streets, to quickly sense the truth of that statement. Behind its beautifully restored 19th century faíñe, the school is a series of airy, brightly painted spaces, all spotlessly clean. There is a theater and an art gallery, which Heritage shares with three local arts groups. People stop and smile, from the youthful Dillon, to the students themselves, and with just 300 of the latter, there is none of the harried atmosphere found in most New York City public schools.

Then there are the results. Ninety percent of Heritage's incoming ninth graders-nearly all of whom are African American or Latino-typically test at the city's two lowest levels in English and Math, yet by the end of 10th grade, 83% percent pass the Math A Regents exam with a score of 65 or higher. By the end of 11th grade, 83% percent pass the English Regents exam with a score of 65 or higher. And in 2003, 42 of the 44 graduating seniors went on to college-70 percent of them to four-year institutions, including Columbia, St. John's University, Pace and other top-tier schools.

So what's the secret? First and foremost is Heritage's use of the arts in a balanced curriculum. "Heritage isn't an art school like LaGuardia that self-selects for the high-achieving kids," says the school's founder, Judith Burton, Professor of Art Education at TC. "It's a regular, comprehensive high school, where kids do well because the arts merely have parity as part of the curriculum."

"The philosophy isn't, ?The arts serve other disciplines.' It's that art offers learnings in and of itself, and that creates a new context in which science, language, poetry and mathematics make sense. That's something special to hang onto in this day and age of ?teaching to the tests.'"

Heritage students take three years of art and music, versus just a year at most other New York City high schools. Teachers at the school lead interdisciplinary "cultural visits-for example, a trip to Central Park in which one group of ninth graders conducts science labs with a park ranger; another learns math by mapping the topography; and a third does Outward Bound-style team trust-building exercises. And the school maintains ongoing partnerships with the Whitney Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. "One of our goals in founding Heritage was to create a school that would use the city's cultural institutions as texts for learning," Burton says. "There really was no other place doing that at the time."

Of course, there are many other factors in the school's success. Thanks to an inclusive meeting format modeled on that of Scandinavian "folk schools," as well as to the work of a bilingual parent coordinator, Dilcia Medina, parent involvement is extraordinarily high. ("We had 70 percent attendance on Open School Night," Dillon says. "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. With only seven suspensions last year, student safety is not an issue. And perhaps most importantly of all, the school aggressively recruits its teachers-all of whom either hold or are working on degrees from Teachers College. "Good teaching is the key to our success, and that grows directly out of our link to TC," Dillon says. "Most of our teachers take three credits per semester of instruction at the College." Meanwhile, a number of TC faculty members provide ongoing input and direction for curriculum development at the school.

And then there's the institutional savvy of Dillon and his staff, who have been able to raise significant funds from such sources as the Robin Hood Foundation and the Horace Goldsmith Foundation while also maintaining good relations with the five school chancellors and four district superintendents that have come and gone during the school's existence. "I'm not a boutique small-school guy-I cut my teeth at huge schools with tremendous challenges, and that's helped my credibility within the system," Dillon says.

To be sure, there is room at Heritage for improvement. Dillon would like to boost the percentage of students who pass the Regents but score below 65 percent-a statistic that can hurt the school's "average yearly progress" profile under the federal No Child Left Behind legislation. And while the college acceptance rate among Heritage graduates is impressive, the attrition rate from ninth grade through senior year is higher than the school would like.

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

Meanwhile, word about Heritage is spreading. In October, in collaboration with the Working Playground theater company, two recent Heritage graduates wrote and performed in a play about voting and civic responsibility, directed on Broadway by the actress Rosie Perez. And on December 2, the school will host its fourth annual conference of principals, teachers, arts administrators and others-a forum that has led a number of schools around the country to incorporate aspects of Heritage's curriculum. (To learn more about the conference, or to register, visit

All of which is good news for believers in the value of art education. Still, those who have labored to create and sustain Heritage caution that there is no formula for success. "There's no recipe for starting a school," Burton says. "You've just got to get your hands dirty and learn how to do it on the shop floor. We've done that, and the result is an honest effort that's really all about the kids and quality education. And that makes me very proud."

Published Friday, Oct. 8, 2004