Yasmeen Khan is a reporter covering education. You can find her stories on the air and on SchoolBook.org, WNYC’s education website.
Ronnie Shuster has learned that a student with emotional disturbance may not feel comfortable speaking in class, but may sing into a microphone without inhibition. She has watched students with autism, some lacking any verbal capabilities, take part in school plays by sketching out the scenery or dancing with an ensemble.
Ms. Shuster, the principal of P 94M, a special education school with five sites in Manhattan, has elevated the importance of visual and performing arts in education since she became principal in 2001. Tuesday night, she will be recognized for that effort as one of six recipients of the Mayor’s Awards for Arts and Culture.
“We believe that it’s really, really important to tap into every student’s fascination in order to help them learn best,” said Ms. Shuster, whose school serves about 250 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. “When you find their fascination — especially for students on the autism spectrum — it makes it so much easier for them to accept any kind of instruction that you’re giving them.”
The school seeks to develop that fascination in several ways. Teachers are encouraged to incorporate drawing in regular academic classes. The school also stages musical theater productions. Students have performed "Annie," "The Jungle Book" and "Honk!" among other productions. This year, they are writing a play based on their social studies lessons on immigration.
Ms. Shuster said the integration of visual art and theater in the school’s curriculum and culture has helped students with reading, and has improved attendance. However, the school received low marks on its latest annual progress report. It earned a D over all this year because student performance on standardized tests was low compared with that of similar special education schools.
Nevertheless, Department of Education officials said they selected Ms. Shuster for the mayor’s awards because her school demonstrated achievement in the arts through collaboration, focus, discipline and personal growth.
A public school is recognized every year by the Mayor's Awards for Art and Culture, but this is the first year the award has gone to a school for special education students.
“I’m still pretty speechless,” said Ms. Shuster, who will be receiving the award alongside the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov; the arts advocate Alice Diamond; the musician Jimmy Heath; the artist and architect Maya Lin, and the Theater Development Fund. Stephen Sondheim will also receive the Handel Medallion, the city’s highest official cultural honor.
“It’s very humbling to me because something that we do every day that we think is ordinary is being considered extraordinary,” Ms. Shuster said.