Voices from the Classroom: Young Audiences Charter School
Editor's note: With Voices from the Classroom: The Arts in Education Reform, NolaVie and cultural partner WWNO public radio are teaming up to take a look at how the arts are being used creatively in schools around the city. Why are they an important component for school curricula? And how are we integrating arts into local classrooms? Today, Renee Peck interviews Folwell Dunbar, head of a new kind of school in Jefferson Parish.
For the past 50 years, Young Audiences of Louisiana has been taking art and artists into area schools, with performances, residencies and workshops. Last year, the organization went a step further. It partnered with a new charter elementary school in Gretna to integrate the Young Audiences philosophy into the curriculum.
"They have identified talent here in the area, incredible artists," explains Young Audiences Charter School Leader Folwell Dunbar. "We have seven fulltime artists who are embedded in our school and they work side by side with our classroom teachers to ensure that the arts are integrated in a really powerful way. That expertise, that know-how came from Young Audiences of Louisiana."
Each of the seven artists works with a particular grade level, with five art forms represented, Dunbar says.
"In kindergarten, for example, we have music, and in first grade we have dance and in second grade we have theater and creative writing. In third grade we have visual arts and in fourth grade we have digital arts. So these artists are embedded in the classroom. They're co-teaching, they're co-planning, sitting down and coming up with these amazing lessons and projects that truly do integrate the arts. But then they're teaching side by side in the classroom and the results are remarkable."
The Young Audiences Charter School is entering its second year at the former Kate Middleton school in Gretna. The school currently offers kindergarten through fourth grade, and will add a grade each year until it ultimately serves K-8 students.The concept is not to teach art – although there’s an after-school program for that – but to use art to teach.
"For me, it was always how do we bring the arts together with academic subject areas in a way that was truly real," Dunbar explains of the concept. "We talk about real world things. The arts are a part of everything we do … For me, we should be learning math, science and social studies and everything in and through the arts. So that’s the idea. That’s the approach."
Young Audiences is not a baby NOCCA. It by no means targets only the artistically inclined.
"We’re not focusing on a single art form and we’re not telling you that this is Julliard and you’re going to come in here and you’re going to be a great cello player," Dunbar explains. "We’re going to expose you to all the arts in a number of different ways and try to get you as fired up about learning as you can possibly be. You may become an engineer, you may become a doctor, a lawyer, but you’re going to remember the things you learned through the arts."
For Young Audiences students, the arts infuse every part of their daily lives.
"We start our day with the arts," Dunbar says. "We have something called ART, art reflection time, so the first thing that happens when kids walk into the classroom is they’re exposed to a work of art. It could be a painting; it could be a dance number; it could be a song. And they talk about it, they write about it and they think about it. That’s how we start every single day and we end the day in a similar way."
Many of the school’s regular teachers are former artists themselves. That encourages an unprecedented level of collaboration among teachers, Dunbar says.
"You don’t walk into your classroom and close the door and do your thing. You’re also not reading from a script. Every single day we challenge our teachers to be just as creative as we ask our children to be."
Dunbar himself has been an educator for 20 years. For him, The Young Audiences School is the culmination of a lifetime of belief in an arts-infused curriculum.
"My father is an artist; he’s my favorite artist. By the way, our teachers name their classrooms after their favorite artists. Mine is the George Dunbar room. … I’ve always believed that the arts are important, and they’ve always been a part of how I’ve taught and the best ways that I’ve learned. For me it was a no brainer. We also talk about choice in this community and giving parents real choices. … This is a choice, a different choice, a different approach. We’re not doing things the same way every other school is doing it."
The school is a Type 1 charter with open enrollment, meaning that any child in Jefferson Parish can attend. And, with 500 students, it’s bursting at the seams. In year two, school administrators already are looking for more space. Parents are involved, too; more than 250 of them attended the most recent student exhibition.
"Parents are excited about what we’re doing," Dunbar says. "There are plenty of schools that have eliminated art programs. Many schools say, hey, we make no excuses, we’re all about academic achievement. What they’re doing is they’re preparing for a test. At the same time, we’re being told that critical thinking, and creativity, 21st century skills are really really important, and yet we don’t assess those. That’s where the arts come in."
While proponents of schools like Young Audience Charter believe that the arts will make better future citizens, they know that students today are measured by test scores. That can be a challenge in a
"We’re making progress," says Dunbar of his school's score ranking. "It’s one of the challenges that we have is how do we incorporate the arts that truly do meet standards that are rigorous and challenging. Oftentimes it's tough. But we’re focused on quality. We’re going to be obsessed this year with quality."
The Young Audiences School might be steering into a current that some schools have abandoned, but its supporters say they have faith that arts-integrated learning will serve its students well -- both now and in the future.
Voices from the Classroom: The Arts in Education Reform is a continuing series about the arts and education in New Orleans by NolaVie and its cultural partner, WWNO public radio. The series is made possible by the generous support of the Patrick F. Taylor Foundation.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]