A Campaign for Equity: In the Neighborhood | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

A Campaign for Equity: In the Neighborhood

A high school founded by TC uses the Whitney Museum and other city cultural institutions as primary "texts."

Theory...Meet Practice

A high school founded by TC uses the Whitney Museum and other city cultural institutions as primary "texts."

Holistic art experience-or just a bunch of soccer goals draped in orange? When The Gates came to New York City's Central Park this past winter, it was not uncommon to overhear New Yorkers debating the exhibit's merits along those lines. Still, bus riders on the East Side back in February might have been surprised to find that a 17-year-old high school student named Ozzy Ramirez was one of the work's more articulate defenders.

"I think they're really beautiful," says Ramirez, who also happens to lead tours at the city's Whitney Museum and conducts interviews with featured artists. "They make you notice how Central Park itself is an artwork."

If you're wishing your own kid could offer a critique like that, you might consider checking out the Heritage School, the tiny public high school in East Harlem where Ramirez is completing his senior year.

Heritage-created by Teachers College and run as a partnership between TC and New York City's Department of Education-has a total enrollment of 300 students in grades nine through 12, mostly from poor black and Latino families. Ninety percent of incoming ninth graders are performing below grade level in math and English, yet by the end of 10th grade, 83 percent of Heritage students 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 to four-year institutions, including Columbia, the Honors College at Baruch and SUNY Binghamton.

The school has many strengths that account for this success, including an extended day program (7:30am to 5:30pm), extracurriculars that range from theatre and dance happenings to a class in Japanese; and parent workshops on everything from discipline to teen pregnancy. As a result, Heritage routinely draws upwards of 200 parents to its parent and community events. The school also boasts an impressive array of grants that support a summer program, a psychologist, a full-time college counselor and an orientation program for ninth graders. Many faculty members from Teachers College provide curriculum guidance to Heritage, and most of Heritage's teachers have scholarships that are enabling them to earn master's degrees at TC.

But what really distinguishes Heritage is the full parity it accords the arts with math, English and other core subjects. That's immediately evident to any first-time visitor to the school, which is located in the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center on Lexington Avenue between 105th and 106th streets, and is also home to several Latino arts groups. A large, bright mobile by artist Marina Guiterez hangs in the downstairs lobby. Upstairs, the hallways brim with student art. Bulletin boards overflow with drawings and collages, and there is a life-size paper-m-culpture called "The Art of Gossip," which depicts the moment before a whispered insult results in a fight.

On a more pragmatic level, "parity" means using the arts, wherever possible, as a kind of glue to help motivate students in other subjects where their interest might not yet be adequately stimulated. It also means using New York City's art and cultural institutions as primary "texts" to help students learn.

"My vision is really that any kid from the Heritage School could walk up those august steps at the Metropolitan Museum and know they own it," says Judith Burton, Professor of Art Education at TC, who founded the school in 1997 after being unable to find city schools for student teachers where art was "entrenched" in the curriculum. "For them, it's not an elitist museum, for them it's not something foreign, for them it's full of objects and artifacts made by other human beings for their delight and learning."

True to that vision, students from Heritage now intern at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum. As the culminating assignment in an art history class taught by Kimberly Lane, students are required to go to a museum they haven't been to before and pick three pieces of art, research them and then bring someone to the museum-often a parent-and lead a discussion with that person about the pieces.

"I had one girl say, ?I went with my Mom and I'd never gone with my Mom to a museum and she had such interesting things to say and now we're going back to museums together,'" Lane says.    

Which is not to say Heritage has reached all its goals. The school is working to share its model of arts integration nationally, as well as to achieve a higher graduation rate, lose fewer students along the way, improve students' Regents scores and send more graduates on to competitive four-year colleges. Another long-term goal is to extend the school downward to include sixth, seventh and eighth grades. "If we can get our kids in sixth grade, by the time they get to ninth grade, they'll be ready to fly," Burton says.

Overall, though, there's a growing sense that Heritage is a success story-and a model to be emulated. "From my perspective, it's no big trick to get high- achieving kids to perpetuate their high achievement," says Principal Peter Dillon. "The big trick is to take kids who are low-achieving and turn them into middle to high achievers. How do we do that? Our approach isn't to blame kids for where they are, but to meet them there and to look at what's happened to them before they got here."

And then turn them loose on the world. Heritage sent virtually its entire student body to see The Gates-some with their English teacher, others with their art teacher and still others as part of a Saturday brunch program that included parents. The high point was when a ninth-grade class encountered the artists, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and one student engaged them in a spirited, if brief, discussion about their choice of color.

Dillon couldn't have hoped for more. "Teachers College was founded on this promise of addressing the needs of the city," he says. "So this is the most pragmatic thing you can do: run a high school in East Harlem that serves 300 kids. And that nicely balances out the theoretical stuff. People talk about it as ?praxis,' the interaction of theory and practice. I think we're a very good example of that."

Published Friday, May. 27, 2005