Prioritizing the Arts Over Test Prep

In an age when public education has become synonymous with high-stakes exams, an inner-city charter-school network is using culture and creative expression to teach the Common Core standards.

Students at Ascend charter schools in Brooklyn take classes in the arts, such as this dance class for kindergartners. (Kevin Hagen/The Hechinger Report)

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?

Such conviction is rare in an age when public education has become synonymous with the annual tests whose results can singlehandedly determine the fates of teachers, administrators, and students alike. Amid budget cuts and long hours of drills in reading and math, the arts have been decimated in the many of the classrooms serving the nation’s neediest students. Advocates for arts education are hopeful that the Common Core education standards adopted by more than 40 states will soon change that, as the standards and new exams that go with them emphasize critical thinking and analytical skills, which they say go hand in hand with artistic expression.

The arts have widely acknowledged benefits for education: They help create positive school climates, give kids a reason to show up to class, and inspire creativity—a trait highly valued in the workforce.

The arts most often get short shrift in high-poverty schools under intense pressure to boost academic performance. But the Common Core standards mention the arts frequently: approximately 75 times, according to Sandra Ruppert, who directs the nonprofit Arts Education Partnership. Students are expected to analyze paintings, music, and theater and create their own works of art. “The pendulum might be swinging to the idea that maybe kids actually do need a well-balanced education,” Ruppert said.

Third-grade students at Brownsville Ascend Lower School work on an art project about New York City architecture. (Kevin Hagen/The Hechinger Report)

A growing number of big cities, including New York, are increasing money for their arts programs as they roll out Common Core. “This is a really interesting and great opportunity to improve and expand arts education nationwide,” said Doug Israel, the research director for New York City’s Center for Arts Education. But, he added, at his own children’s public school in the suburbs, prekindergarten classes have eliminated art. “The pressure is intense for them to know their letters and numbers at such a young age,” he said.

Few schools emphasize the arts as much as those run by Ascend, which serves 2,800 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and has a high-school expansion coming this fall. Ninety-eight percent of students are black or Hispanic and more than 80 percent of them receive free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. They are admitted by lottery, with wait lists at every grade.

Ascend CEO Steven F. Wilson designed two middle schools to look like art galleries. He has long been appalled by the way many public schools look; he notes that while crime is down in New York City, schools still have bars on their windows. “I’ve always found it peculiar that our urban schools should so often look like the worst in our society rather than an expression of our aspirations for our children,” he said.

Wilson, who founded the network in 2007, studied sociology at Harvard. He wants his students reading great literature in the context of a broad liberal arts education, just like he had. He said too many public schools have a singular focus on test scores. “I don’t in any way discount that, but our purpose is much deeper,” he said. “It’s to equip our students with the broad capacities that can take them anywhere in life, whatever they want to do and whatever a changing world brings them.” Those capacities include the ability to separate fact from opinion, to think rationally, and to have an aesthetic sensitivity. “These are the hallmarks of an educated person,” said Wilson, 55.

Brooklyn Ascend Charter School was designed to look like an art museum, with high-quality replications of famous paintings from around the world. (Kevin Hagan/The Hechinger Report)

In 2010, when Ascend was just a tiny network poised for expansion, Wilson hired a consultant named Elizabeth Hun Schmidt, a literary critic with a doctorate in American literature who’s taught at various colleges. To develop a humanities program for Ascend, Schmidt sought inspiration from elite private academies, high-performing public schools, and her undergraduate alma mater, Wesleyan University. That quest brought her and Wilson one snowy day to visit the Ross School, a boarding school in the Hamptons. High-quality replications of famous paintings covered the walls. Schmidt remembers her reaction: “Oh my God. These kids go to school in a museum.”

Ascend’s five buildings, all leased privately or from the Archdiocese of New York, are visually stunning. On principle, Wilson has not relied on private fundraising to operate; he wants to prove that Ascend’s practices are possible to replicate with the same money all public schools receive. But he has relied on creative lease negotiations most plausible in underserved neighborhoods: He persuaded a landlord to construct two buildings and helped to get Goldman Sachs and other investors to loan a developer more than $45 million to restore a historic abandoned theater that now houses three Ascend schools.

Wilson’s team found money-saving tricks to create a museum-like look, using mock-walnut floorboards made of linoleum and painting walls in inviting colors like “grey cashmere” and “sea haze.” Nonetheless, Ascend officials say their schools spend about 17.5 percent of their budgets on rent and repaying building loans; among the tradeoffs, class sizes tend to be large, with an average of 28 students.

Schmidt, who now oversees Ascend's curriculum program, found a company that secures digital reproduction rights from museums worldwide and a high-quality printer to make the replications on canvas and foam core. She compiled a collection of 69 replicated paintings not just as mood-setters and conversation-starters, but part of everyday coursework. She put prints by van Gogh and Picasso alongside artists from the Harlem Renaissance and Civil Rights movement to show connections between foreign and familiar worlds.

Zarria, a slight, bespectacled eighth-grader who hopes for a career in engineering or construction, said she thinks about how lucky she is when she passes “Song of the Towers,” depicting a black man’s rise out of slavery to express himself through music. “I’m here where I can get an education,” she said. Zarria is among a half-dozen students who periodically visit museums around New York City with Schmidt on Saturdays as a reward for staying at the top of their class.

Zarria Porter, 14, stands in front of “Song of the Towers,” her favorite of the 69 paintings replicated to hang in her school. (Kevin Hagan/The Hechinger Report)

The Ascend humanities program began in 2011 with a daily 45-minute class period in fifth grade. It has expanded annually ever since, and this academic year, Schmidt rolled out a Common Core-aligned curriculum that she wrote with a team of experts, integrating the arts and close reading into every class and subject, with each grade focusing on a particular theme. Instead of cramming the week before state tests were to begin on April 14, fifth-graders at Brownsville Ascend Lower School were reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest, whose plot fit perfectly into the fifth-grade theme of family struggles, slavery, and colonialism. The students are preparing for a year-end theatrical production of the play.

Crystal Lane, a seventh-grade humanities teacher at Brooklyn Ascend Charter, said she has been teaching her students test-prep skills while reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. She used to teach at a school in the Bronx where she said students often read sample passages to mimic test questions, not real books.

Last year, Ascend schools outperformed other public schools in their neighborhoods and, in some grades and subjects, beat city averages. Yet, on average, only a quarter to a third of students at Ascend's schools met the tough new Common Core proficiency standards. Administrators believe their new curriculum will yield better results this year but say they're committed to giving it time to show impact, regardless of the outcome.

Still, Zarria was sick of hearing about the state exams by the time testing approached this spring. “That’s all they can talk about,” she said, even as her humanities class was acting out A Raisin in the Sun.

For Lane, who has seen far more extreme testing mania elsewhere, Ascend’s approach is refreshing. “We care about the test, but we know that’s not all there is to life,” she said. “This is how education should be done.”

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.