Bronx, New York —Tomorrow is the last day of school at the Bronx Charter School for the Arts--a new elementary school for grades K through 3 in the industrial neighborhood of Hunts Point. WNYC's Alicia Zuckerman has been stopping by all year, and now has the last in a series of reports.
Aaron Feliciano: I don't like fish and I don't like liver shivers
AZ: One day last week, nine-year-old Aaron Feliciano was practicing a poem he wrote for an upcoming performance.
Feliciano: I do like rice and I do like beans you know about my beat. By Aaron
Hector Rivera: Yeah (applause), good job.
AZ: His coach was Hector Rivera, from the well-known poetry collective, the Welfare Poets.
Rivera: Who writes sonnets that we learned?
Felicioano: Uh, William Shakespeare.
Rivera: Very good, alright.
AZ: Aaron Feliciano is one of 160 students who won the lottery literally. Nobody had to audition to get into Bronx Arts, as the school has come to be known. They just needed to have parents who wanted something different for their kids, and so they signed them up for a lottery.
The school is an experiment, and began with Xanthe Jory, the executive director of the school basically the principal.
Xanthe Jory: The original kernel of idea, was just that there was a need for better education in the South Bronx, and one of the ways of doing that could be by utilizing the arts.
AZ: Jory also sees the school as having a hand in revitalizing the community.
It's a little too early to judge its success in test scores. Because the Bronx Arts charter was issued by the state, students didn't take the 3rd grade tests that were mandatory this year for all of the city's public school students. Standardized state tests don't begin until the fourth grade, and the school only goes through the third grade.
So instead, teachers administered one-on-one reading tests to all 160 students, three times this year in August in February and again in June.
Based in part on the June test results, the school is holding back six students none in kindergarten.
Listening to the parents tell it, the school is getting straight A's.
Father: He's totally different when he gets home. I'm proud of him, I really am, I'm proud of him.
Mother: Cause he does his homework by himself, he sits down, he could do his homework, his studies. Before, he was waiting for me.
Father: I come home, he's sitting doing this, I'm like Wanda, look at him, look at him. he's doing something that I've never
Another parent: they're really happy to be in this school. He comes home, Mommy, I had a good day, I had a good time! Where were you, at school?! (hearty laughter) We had so much fun, it's like great, I love it! He said, I wanna stay here forever.
Mother: It gives them the confidence in music, art. If they're shy in one area, they tend to grow in other area.
Father: Yeah! Opening up, opening up now, that's what I like about it.
Mother: See, my daughter is happy and it's confident, OK? That's all. It's like she has been stressed for years, and she made me stressed. And now she's more outgoing, she's more happy. She can't wait to come to school, and I haven't heard that in years!!!
AZ: Research indicates that parents are usually happy with charter schools, even if the schools are performing poorly, so that alone is not a measure of how well the school is doing.
But the school is evaluating itself. Right now a several-year-long project is in the works to create benchmarks for assessing progress in the arts. It'll be based on the "1 through 4" grading system commonly used in academic subjects. Three is average, or grade level. Eric Plaks, the music teacher and director of arts, says eventually there will be an archive of examples.
Eric Plaks: We're actually videotaping our kids. Anybody wants to know what a 3 looks like for a third grader? That's what it looks like.
Rob Horowitz: It's very important to have models of strongly infused arts schools.
AZ: Rob Horowitz is the associate director at the Center for Arts Education Research at Teacher's College.
Horowitz: There's a lot of evidence to show that schools that are deeply infused in the arts ... they can make deeper and stronger connections to other subjects.
Josie Carbone: Think about the characteristics of a hexagon
AZ: Third grade teacher Josie Carbone and about 20 students that's the average class size are sitting in a circle on the floor. They're learning about fractions using colorful flat blocks called pattern blocks.
Carbone: You can stack your pattern blocks you can discuss your pattern blocks with a partner and see if you make any kind of discoveries that you want and bring back to the class.
Student: First, I got a blue rhombus and I put it four trapezoids on the corner of the blue and two green triangles and I put them together. It's a panda bear.
AZ: Very nice. So what do you think of this way of learning math?
Student: It's more creative and it's more fun. It's like you get to explore what you know. It's like whatever you wanna make you can make.
Student: Now in this school, it's different, and it's our way.
Student: Last year, we didn't have these rhombuses and stuff. We used books and that's it. We didn't use all of this fun material. It's kinda like art and math and fractions, all together.
AZ: Later, Carbone says the assignment wasn't really a deliberate attempt to combine math with art, but after a year at this school, the kids make those connections on their own.
The administration and staff don't cut themselves a lot of slack. They point out that science and health education were neglected this year. And Eric Plaks says even bringing together the arts and academics didn't happen exactly as they'd hoped.
Plaks: This was a very experimental year. There was a lot of trial and error. I wouldn't say there's any area where things are going exactly the way we want them to go. We see where we want to go, we're heading in that direction, but it's not there yet.
AZ: A vote of confidence came just last week in the form of a $65,000 grant from the Center for Arts Education in New York City.
The school's vision of collaboration did come together this year, especially in a third grade unit on storytelling, history, dance and drumming traditions from the world, which culminated in the spring performance last month.
Student: We worked for weeks and weeks, maybe months.
[music from spring performance]
They're dressed in noisy bracelets and anklets and costumes made with beads, buttons and sequins. They designed them with teaching artists from the Guggenheim Museum; they call them wearable murals, that they painted and sewed themselves.
Student: It's a leopard and it represents me because leopards are usually grumpy when they wake up in the morning.
Student: You have to use your mind to do this, and your heart, and your soul, because, you have to make your own dance.
Student: We were also studying about Africa, like how they dance and like the rhythm circles and how when they dance, their ancestors come like in their body, like their spirit, and that's how we came up with this whole design, like our animal spirit and everything.
Horowitz: There's not a magical transfer, where a kid's gonna come out of an arts class, and he's gonna do better on a reading or math test.
AZ: Arts education researcher Rob Horowitz.
Horowitz: The primary effect is on these thinking skills and social skills.
And, says Horowitz, studies have shown this to be especially true in inner city schools.
As the first year comes to end, executive director Xanthe Jory is feeling the impact of how much energy it's taken to get the school off the ground.
Jory: I often get home at the end of the day and I don't want to talk to anyone, I don't answer my phone, and all I can do is eat and watch an hour of TV and fall asleep.
AZ: The demands of the school especially the 8-hour school day have taken a toll. Even so, all of the arts teachers and the primary classroom teachers will be back next year. The day will be an hour shorter, and it'll be in a converted sausage factory a custom-renovated building that will include a dance and theater studio, an art gallery, and a music room.
[Music: Students singing All Blues ]
The Bronx Charter School for the Arts plans to add one grade a year through the eighth grade. That's if the state renews its charter when it comes up for review in two years.
For WNYC, I'm Alicia Zuckerman.
[Students singing De Colores ]
TAG: Additional reporting for this story was done by Benjamin Shaw. You can listen to Alicia Zuckerman's earlier stories about the Bronx Charter School for the Arts at wnyc.org.