Blog: The Educated Reporter

When Arts and Academics Share Center Stage

Students participate in a dance class at Boston Arts Academy, the only public arts high school in the city. (Natalie Gross/ EWA)

In the shadow of Boston’s Fenway Park, young playwrights do a read-through of a student script. Down the hall, dancers are flicking their toes in soulful precision.

On a tour of the Boston Arts Academy during the Education Writers Association’s national conference in May, visiting journalists listened in as students in a photo class talk about composition and critique one another’s work.

One young woman’s photo shows her face on all the big billboards in Times Square, and after classmates offer multiple interpretations, she admits, “I used the big screens of New York to represent fame.” The photo she manipulated was taken on New Year’s Eve, so it looks like huge crowds are “worshiping me,” she says with a laugh.

Seven hundred students from all over Boston apply for about 120 spots each year here, the only public arts high school in the city.

But getting in isn’t all about who has the most polished performance during an audition. With a goal of providing access and equity, the admissions team looks for students with a passion, judged in part by their interactions during sample classes. There are no minimum academic requirements. In fact, many students read well below grade level when they arrive.

About 6 out of 10 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, and about a third speak a language other than English at home.

One of Boston’s “pilot” schools, Boston Arts Academy has autonomy over elements such as the school schedule, budget, staffing, and curriculum. It receives the same amount of public funding as other Boston public schools, but a private foundation raises an additional amount equal to 40 percent of the school’s total budget.

Those extra resources help support a longer school day, a college counselor, Arabic classes, and other offerings that help the academy achieve a college-acceptance rate of over 90 percent.

Thanks to the recent hiring of a college-retention and support specialist, about 90 percent of seniors now enroll in college the following fall, up from about 65 percent the previous year, when some students who had been accepted came up against financial or other barriers that held them back from starting college. Some graduates of the arts academy earn full scholarships to prominent arts and music colleges in Boston and beyond.

Students choose one arts discipline for a concentration when they enter the academy – visual arts, dance, music or drama. A faculty advisor in that discipline gets to know them and works with them all through high school.

Civic engagement and social change pulse through the curriculum. Seniors complete a capstone project that involves writing a grant proposal for an enterprise that contributes to a community need, and a panel of judges decides which ones to fund so they can be fully developed.

One student who was concerned about racial profiling created a photo exhibit of youth of color holding up signs with such messages as “I am not a thug.” A dancer worked with young girls in middle school on building self-esteem.

A room at Boston Arts Academy that’s typically used by staff and students as a gallery recently featured a show of works created by security guards at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

The latest effort to ensure the students are college- and career-ready is a “STEAM” lab, where students can build musical instruments using 3-D printers and circuitry, for instance. (STEAM is a variation on the acronym STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — with an “A” added for the arts)

Students typically divide their time each day between their arts discipline and other subjects, such as math, English language arts, and science. But interdisciplinary learning is common.

Headmaster Anne Clarke recalls giving a tour during which visitors discovered a group of kids dancing. When she asked them what class they were in, the students said, “Chemistry. We’re doing a dance of mitosis.”