School of the Arts: Finding a way

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Art school freshman Charlie Thompson

photo by John Booz

Art school freshman Charlie Thompson

Lawaune Moorman came to South Shore three years ago with a background in performance education and degrees in special education and counseling. Her one goal: To create a small school with an arts-integrated curriculum. She persuaded a social studies teacher to join her.

“It was a grassroots movement; they didn’t really have the blessing of the school,” says arts school Principal Doug Maclin. “Everyone was saying we needed a more rigorous curriculum.”

Moorman charged ahead, nonetheless, convinced that arts would hook students’ interest in traditional subjects.

“We brought in students we identified as good in the arts and brain-stormed with them,” says co-founder Twumwa Grant. Last year’s pilot program, composed of 120 sophomores and four teachers, was deemed a success. Moorman says attendence was up, discipline problems were down, and arts students outperformed other South Shore students on standardized tests.

Now in its first year as an autonomous small school, the arts school is facing more challenging obstacles, including a batch of unruly freshmen who have poor academic skills.

“As a small school, we wanted to accept everybody,” says Maclin, a first-year administrator whose expertise is special education. “We had students from Hirsch, from CVS, from Hyde Park who showed up here after the frozen [enrollment] date. We can’t just throw these kids away. We took some of them, and now they’re showing their true colors.”

A large number of freshmen in the arts school have no interest in the arts and enrolled only because they had no place else to go, says Moorman.

Sidney Brooks, a member of South Shore’s LSC, says he and some other parents have no idea how their children were enrolled in an arts school. His daughter, junior Yessenia Ovalle, did not sign up for the arts school, he says. “She was just put in it.”

Yessenia did not participate in the pilot arts program.

Initially wary, Yessenia now likes the arts school, Brooks reports. The atmosphere is calmer than at the big school, and she’s hoping to land an internship that will introduce her to clothes design.

This year, Moorman is the lead teacher for the arts school’s 129 freshmen, and Grant is the lead teacher for 132 juniors. All students are enrolled in a college-prep curriculum. In addition to those courses, freshmen take drama and juniors take a fine arts class.

Wednesdays are a mix of enrichment activities. They include internships for juniors and academic tutoring for freshmen. There are also faculty-sponsored clubs—photography, journalism and graphic arts, for instance—and on-site arts workshops led by visiting artists from Muntu Dance Theater and ETA Creative Arts Foundation. (Gates money pays for the arts partnerships, after-school programs and art supplies.)

Getting students to buy into the program was a challenge the first year, but after several months, the students began responding to teachers’ efforts to reach out to them, Moorman explains. “The process of being student-centered hit home,” she says. “They started to take their learning seriously.”

Those students, now juniors, continue to do well, Moorman says. But that’s not the case for the freshmen, some of whom are “out of control and often aggressive,” she says. “Our structure isn’t enough for some of these children, and having them in with kids who really want to perform isn’t safe.”

For instance, Moorman says she was unable to get much work done in her drama classes for several months because of the disruptive students. In December, she decided to reassign the 20 most difficult students, all of them boys, to their own class.

She drew up a contract that spelled out rules such as “I will remain calm and focused in class” and “I will use appropriate language.” If they signed the agreement, the students could join a makeshift technical crew that would work backstage for arts school shows.

That effort fell flat. Only eight students showed up for the second session. A few signed the contracts, but some didn’t. Most spent the time interrupting, cracking jokes and wrestling with each other. Since then, Moorman has brought in a mentoring group and a social worker to help her with this class.

Taking these students out of the freshmen drama classes, however, has improved the course for the remaining students, she adds. Moorman spends 8th-period teaching her drama class stage directions and body positioning in the auditorium. If the disruptive students were still in that class, “this couldn’t have happened,” she notes.

Most freshmen in the arts school score in the lowest quartile of students nationwide, and about 20 percent of them report to a probation officer, Maclin adds. The majority are neighborhood kids who were not accepted at selective schools elsewhere in the city.

Maclin and arts school teachers are hoping that positive word-of-mouth will attract a better mix of students.

“Our track record, our fewer absences, our test scores will help us,” Grant says. “We need to get the word out that there’s something different happening here.”