A new approach to the art of energizing schools


By Lawrence Lerner

It’s 3 o’clock on a balmy Wednesday afternoon in late March, and most New York City high school students will rush out of their building after the last bell of the day, high on life and delirious with spring fever. But the 120 teens crammed into the library at New Design High School on the Lower East Side are giddy for another reason. In a few moments, a gaggle of celebrity artists led by actress Rosie Perez will file into the room and take their seats before the assembly.

As the procession moves toward them, the crowd of students erupts into applause and ear-splitting shrieks. Rappers Q-Tip and Talib Kweli, actors Ally Sheedy and Brendan Sexton, comedian David Cross, spoken-word poet Staceann Chin and others stretch their arms toward the ceiling and wave to the hysterical throng, absorbing the electricity in the air. Perez grabs the mic and welcomes everyone. The feisty actress puts on her activist hat and addresses the students earnestly.

“Like you, I was an underprivileged kid, and the one thing that pissed me off more than anything was trying to prove to my teachers and other adults that I was an intelligent human being, that I had the ability to do anything that I wanted to do if given the opportunity,” she says. “We’re here to help give you that opportunity.”

Perez and company were at New Design last week as part of a special event by Working Playground, a group Perez has worked with for 10 years, and one of several arts-in-education organizations partnering with schools to expand learning possibilities for some of the city’s 1.1 million school children. The performers spread their message of hope through inspiring words and by leading “master classes” for the kids in their respective fields.

But when the celebrities are in far-flung places, everyday teaching artists take over. This year, Working Playground is pairing 26 of them with nearly 40 high schools whose kids have demonstrated academic needs.

The artists run after-school classes in filmmaking, acting, digital animation, fashion design, spoken-word poetry, music, dance and illustration. They also collaborate with academic teachers year-round to make core subjects like science, math, English and social studies more accessible to students who are used to tuning out.

“What people forget is that you have to engage the kids first,” said Phillip Courtney, Working Playground’s executive director. “If a kid happens not to want to learn, if they’re not turned onto math, that’s where the art can also come in. That’s how you get them engaged.”

At New Design High School this year, Working Playground has paired an illustrator with all ninth-grade science classes once a week, and the academic teacher revolves lessons, in part, around the artistic component.

“We’ve had a really hard time getting kids to understand big science concepts,” said Scott Conti, the school’s principal. “By coming in, the artist is not just teaching kids to illustrate. She’s helping them visually represent their ideas, and the kids are starting to pick up these ideas and run with them.”

Eleventh-grade English teachers at New Design are also collaborating, but with filmmakers to enliven novels like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and help students improve critical-thinking skills.

“We had the kids create these five-minute film vignettes that really help them explore themes in the novel,” explained Jess Westermann, one of the teachers. “They wrote skits that paralleled scenes in the book, but they based them on life in high school. It was a comparison of the institutions and a study on rebellion and control.”

The Department of Education launched the Project Arts initiative in 1997, under then Mayor Rudy Giuiliani. Project Arts not only expanded the scope of arts education and attracted more organizations to collaborate with city schools, but also provided a steady stream of funding, according to Sharon Dunn, senior instructional manager for the department’s Office of Arts and Special Projects. This year, $67.5 million has been earmarked for the program, all of it city money.

Other programs like Working Playground include Community-Word Project, in Manhattan, and Dream Yard, based in the Bronx.

“Say a class takes a field trip to a recording studio,” said Dunn. “Learning about sound recording can then be transferred to science class, where kids can study how sound works. And it can be applied in music classes as well, and maybe even math.”

Whether these methods work is a matter of opinion, given the myriad schools of thought on curriculum development, but for Conti, the proof has been qualitative.

“You can walk into the school and feel a vibe,” he said, adding that the kids’ work also speaks volumes. “When you look at their illustrations, are the kids getting it? Are they more into it? Are they having better conversations? The evidence comes from seeing the kids’ work and talking to them.”

Jennifer Nenadich, a New Design sophomore from Manhattan, likes having teaching artists in her classes.

“I think Working Playground is a secret way of infusing our education with fun, which is really good for me as far as learning specific subjects,” she said.

Nenadich says that after-school classes in filmmaking, acting, poetry and animation are also a hit with New Design students and are making more of them want to extend their school day. She stays late two days a week for spoken-word poetry, while her friend Marcus Wright, a junior from Staten Island, sticks around on three days after the final bell for poetry and acting.

“I think Working Playground is a bigger opportunity than high school itself,” said Wright. “It allows you, if you have feelings, to voice them, if you have something you want to say, to make sure you are heard. And it gives students the opportunity to feel like they’re actually going to go someplace after high school. That’s huge.”