Fourteen-year-old Zarria Porter spends her days surrounded by fine works of art. On her way to dance and computer classes, she passes through a sun-drenched lobby showcasing Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Brooklyn Bridge,” Albert Bierstadt’s “In the Mountains,” and—her personal favorite—“Song of the Towers” by Aaron Douglas.
This is Zarria’s middle school. It is modeled after elite private prep schools and filled with high-quality reproductions of famous paintings from around the world. But Zarria is a student in Brownsville, Brooklyn, one of New York City’s poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods, and her school is a public charter.
Ascend Learning, a network of seven charter schools in Brooklyn, is going to great lengths to ensure students living in the world’s cultural capital aren’t deprived of art—as so many poor, minority kids in urban America are. Inside renovated buildings that could pass for high-end galleries, students are not only taking art and music classes, but teachers also incorporate art into academic subjects. School operators say this approach—using Pieter Bruegel’s “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” for example, to help fifth-graders learn about the myth of Icarus and Daedalus—makes complex literature accessible to struggling readers. And while they carefully monitored student readiness for this month’s high-stakes state exams, they refused to throw out their curriculum in favor of test prep. They point out that many students from neighborhoods like Brownsville get to college and flounder from culture shock. What good is a high score then?