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Arts in schools: Unusual charters use dance, string instruments to motivate students

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When Arturo Haro enrolled in Renaissance Arts  Academy in the sixth grade, his music world consisted of reggae, rap and hip hop.

Then teachers handed him a viola. When he first carried the instrument home to Highland Park, some of his neighbors thought it was a gun.

"I honestly never knew what a viola was until I came here," said Haro, now a junior. "Having that instrument in my hands, it was like, wow, I’ve never had that feeling before."

Learning the instrument has helped him see life differently. At home, he now listens to classical music to help him focus. His grades have improved and his teachers said he's become a more serious student.

Renaissance Arts is an unusual charter school that incorporates string instruments and dance into its everyday curriculum. It is one of a handful of charter schools in L.A. Unified that are using arts not to create the next generation of artists, but to inspire regular students to stay in school.

Haro, for instance, wants to study architecture or engineering. 

The school is remarkably successful. Renaissance Arts' most recent API score was 906 out of a possible 1,000. Its graduation rate was 100 percent. Ninety-seven percent of its students attended college. 

About a block north of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, Gabriella Charter School shares a campus with Logan Street Elementary School. It also has an arts-based curriculum.

It incorporates nearly five hours of dance per week into the regular school day for first through eighth graders. Kindergartners dance 45 minutes per day. But it's not trying to train the next Mikhail Baryshnikov, either.

"There are a lot of schools that are performing arts schools and so the goal is to come to the school and train to be some sort of performing artist. Our students are not that," said Sophia Stoller, a dance teacher at the school. "The purpose is to really kind of reinforce their academic performance through art."

Gabriella is a high performing school; its API testing score is 894, more than 100 points above the district-wide average. Most Gabriella students come to the school with no background in dance.

But teachers and administrators at the school said dance has helped students succeed academically. 

"What it allows students to do is to really set a lot of goals, learn how to receive feedback, learn how to work in a team, which are all skills that are helpful in the classroom and in life," said Principal Lisa Rooney.

One benefit of Gabriella's dance-based program, she said, is that it gives kinetic learners a chance to experience success – often for the first time.

"They have more energy, they're more awake, more aware," said first grade teacher Nicolette Zimmerman. Students at Gabriella can sustain their concentration better than at other schools where she's taught, she said -- something that's often a challenge for younger students.

Students spent most of this semester preparing for their end of year performance, which will take place tonight at USC's Bovard Auditorium and feature dance styles from around the world. Second grader Joseph Oliveros will play a surfer at the beach.

"We can’t wait until we perform the dance so all our parents see it. I bet they’ll be really proud of us," Oliveros said.  He paused and added: "Really proud."

Founders of both schools say their vision wouldn’t have been possible outside of the charter world.  Freedom from rules allowed them to create a school environment that’s entirely unique, they said.

But arts-based charter schools are far from common. Out of the 229 charter schools in LAUSD, fewer than 10 are arts schools. Steven McCarthy, the district's K-12 arts coordinator, estimates there are about 80 arts-focused schools in the entire school district. 

"A lot of the energy and philanthropy and excitement around charters has not embraced arts as a priority, and again I think it comes back to the resource shortage,"  said Mark Slavkin, a former president of the LAUSD board. As Vice President for Education for The Music Center, he's in charge of its programs to teach arts. 

He said part of the reason arts programs are often less available in charters than they are in traditional schools is that charters tend to be small and, as a result, so are their budgets.

Arts programs are expensive. Instruments are costly and they require upkeep. There are also costumes and royalty fees for stage productions.

Renaissance is also different in another way. The school is not divided into academic classrooms.  Pods of students sit in small groups around teachers who work off mobile white boards. All of them share a big warehouse-type building that used to belong to the discount department store Dillards. Yet it's remarkably quiet.

"Sometimes people will come in and say, 'Oh, this is, it's great. When are you going to finish putting up the walls?' And it’s like, 'No, no, no, it is finished," said Sidnie Myrick, one of the school's co-founders.

Only the music lessons are held in rooms with doors, that border the main room.

The open floor plan is meant to foster collaboration and cross subject learning. Students aren’t divided by grade, either.

Myrick runs the school with PK Candaux. They both also work as teachers, but Renaissance Arts doesn't use that word - teachers are called "advisors" and students are "scholars." 

This is the school's tenth year in operation.

Luisangel Ocon, 17, said he feels privileged to be attending the school. Like students at many charter schools around the state, he was admitted by lottery. He wants to become a doctor, but is grateful he got to learn the viola.

"The overall nature of it is to combine everything," he said. "It's such a great fusion of all the arts and all of the liberal arts and all of the sciences."

About this map: This map shows charters schools in Southern California that specialized in fine arts education, based on data provided by the California Charter Schools Association.

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