As soon as we walked through the front doors of Boston Arts Academy, the energy and creativity were palpable. Earlier this month, a delegation of Beacon Press staff (Director Helene Atwan, Associate publisher Tom Hallock, Director of Publicity Pam MacColl, and myself) went to experience the BAA, a public arts high school under the direction of founding headmaster Linda Nathan, firsthand. All of us, having already read about the faculty, students, activities, and principles of the BAA, were thrilled to see them all in action.
The BAA belongs to the Boston Public School system, but as a pilot school enjoys a more freedom than most public schools in curriculum and scheduling. Students from the city of Boston audition for the 140 spots available each year, and are selected for their passion and commitment to seriously pursuing their chosen art form (music, theater, dance, visual arts). The students are trained as scholars as well as artists, and an astounding 94% of them are accepted to college (compared to 50% on average district-wide). Linda writes that the secret to the school's success lies in asking the right questions and listening as all players grapple with the answers. This process has led to practices such as developing a school-wide set of Shared Values, supporting the teachers by giving them time to discuss ideas in a professional learning community, opening doors to college through offering help with the application process, and being open about ethnic and economic differences in students' backgrounds.
These aspects of the school were all demonstrated as we walked through the hallways and into the classrooms and studios of the BAA. The hallway walls were covered not only with some impressive work from the visual arts students and stills from theater productions, but also a bulletin board filled with kudos to students "caught in the act of shared values"—in other words, those who had done good deeds in keeping with the school's ideals of responsibility, integrity, and respect. Another wall displayed the photos of graduates with the names of the colleges to which they were accepted. In studios we saw dance students going through exercises at the barre and heard music students warming up their voices, and in classrooms we observed SAT prep, offered by the school to make sure students who might not otherwise have access to this instruction wouldn't be at a disadvantage.
Between periods, the hallways were alive with students ready to talk about their experience at the school. Extremely poised and articulate, they are accustomed to being onstage during the many visits BAA receives from educators looking to learn from the school's success. In fact, several students had recently accompanied Linda to a London educational conference. One theater student spoke to us about his role in Jose Rivera's apocalyptic play, "Marisol," describing how he had to stretch himself to portray the surrealistic character, even moving in slow motion. Encouraged by Linda, dancers demonstrated their splits for us, impromptu, right in the hall.
It seems every student in the school is "encouraged by Linda," as she knows almost all of them by name, and doesn't hesitate to throw an arm over a shoulder, mediate a dispute, shout a word of praise or warning. She loves these kids and they respond to her.
It was a thrill to meet the other teachers we had read about as well. Through scenes of classroom interactions and discussions over policy, we had heard these teachers' voices and gotten to know them. In the book, we had "observed" Ms. Chan teaching her dance students, and here she stood, as supple and forthright as she had been described on the page. (The dance students had just returned from a national competition at which they had won acceptance and funding to summer programs at various schools around the country.) When I met Ms. Hairston, the career counselor, I thought not only of how proud she must be of the students who make it, but of her heartbreak over those who-- due to the myriad complicated circumstances of their lives--don't. Their struggles become her struggles, and their disappointments hers as well. We met Ms. Torres, the co-headmaster, for only a moment, but I saw in her eyes the patience and wisdom Linda attributed to her in the book. I especially missed being able to meet Mr. Ali, the humanities teacher, remarkably able to motivate a wide range of students by showing his respect for their intellectual capabilities.
When the tour was over, I left the school with a huge sense of jealousy; I wished I had gone to a school like this, or taught in one. But while I was so envious of these students who have this amazing chance to concentrate on their chosen field of art for four years, at the same time I knew that I would probably not be jealous of the grade schools and neighborhoods from which many of them came to the BAA. The school clearly gives many students a better preparation for the future than they would otherwise receive; I am delighted that teachers, principals, administrators, and educational policy makers will get an inside look at the foundations of this success when Linda Nathan's book The Hardest Questions comes out in the fall.