Creating “appreciators of the arts”

ECA walks fine line between arts pedagogy and public education

Written by Lucile Bruce

ECA's improv theater troupe, Ever Chasing Alchemy. Courtesy of ACES.

If your timing is right, you’ll see them.

They look like typical high school students, with their blue jeans, high tops, and occasional streaks of neon-colored hair. Look closer and you’ll notice their instrument cases, art portfolios, and Capezio dance bags. Peek inside those over-stuffed backpacks and you’ll find play scripts, music scores, books of poetry, and original short stories cranked out late at night on personal laptop computers.

They are the students of ACES Educational Center for the Arts (ECA). Around midday, they leave their regular high schools in towns across south-central Connecticut. They travel to ECA, located at the corner of Orange and Audubon streets in downtown New Haven. They come here every Monday through Thursday afternoon, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., to immerse themselves in the arts discipline of their choice. At ECA they join a thriving community of like-minded students led by first-rate faculty who are practicing, professional artists.

ECA is a part-time arts magnet high school — a public school run by ACES, Area Cooperative Educational Services. ACES, a “RECS” or Regional Educational Service Center based in Hamden, serves 25 school districts in south-central Connecticut. According to the ACES website, a RECS is “a public education agency created under Connecticut state statute for the main purpose of ‘cooperative action to furnish programs and services’ to public school districts.”

Since its founding in 1972, ECA has walked a fine line between arts education and public education, between the state-governed world of certified classroom teachers and the studios and stages of practicing, professional artists.

That line has never been finer than it is today, with educational standards mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the ensuing emphasis on teacher accountability and student assessment, and the ongoing state budget crisis. While ECA students are privileged to receive a high-caliber arts education, it isn’t happening in a vacuum. Those paying attention also have the opportunity to learn civic and political lessons.

Lesson No. 1: Past is present. ECA was founded during a time of social upheaval and broader support and funding for the arts. Today, viewed through the lens of contemporary public education, it’s a radical vision: take kids who are serious about the arts out of their regular academic classrooms and give them the opportunity to study with artists. It’s almost impossible to imagine such a school being established in 2011.

Yet ECA endures, successfully navigating a complex education landscape while remaining true to its mission.

Today the five department chairs at ECA — Johanna Bresnick (visual art), Amy Lachance Christman (music), Mariane Banar Fountain (dance), Caroline Rosenstone (creative writing), and Ingrid Schaeffer (theater) — are certified teachers. It wasn’t always this way.

Following the 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind, core academic teachers in Connecticut were required to become “highly qualified” by June 2006. Highly qualified meant, in part, state-certified. Historically, ECA teachers identified themselves as artists first and had not followed the path to teacher certification.

The new rule threatened to wreak havoc at ECA. As ECA Director Alice Schilling explains, “It violated the whole premise of the school, that kids would work with practicing professional artists.”

According to Robert Parker, director of marketing and public information at ACES and a former director of ECA, it meant hiring two teachers — one certified and one professional artist — for each classroom. This was financially unfeasible.

ECA faculty, administrators, parents, and students became political activists, testifying at state hearings about the effectiveness of ECA and the importance of retaining professional artists as teachers. In 2007, the Connecticut State Board of Education agreed to a compromise: ECA department chairs would be certified, while part-time instructors could continue to teach without certification. Department chairs work part-time (three quarters of a full schedule) and oversee all aspects of their departments. Currently, 45 part-time instructors, all practicing professional artists, deliver the majority of classroom teaching at ECA.

In 2009, the ECA community returned to the state legislature to advocate for the passage of a bill that would create an adjunct instructor certificate so that artists could continue to teach at ECA without full certification. That bill passed. Beginning this year, according to Schilling, non-certified instructors must have a college degree and a minimum of 180 hours accrued teaching high school-age students. It’s a win-win for ECA, its students, and the state.

Schilling, a visual artist and former chair of the fine arts department at a newly established high school in Region 16 (the Beacon Falls area), has been the director of ECA since January 2008. She says the faculty is working hard to document its curriculum.

“When I arrived here, there wasn’t much on paper,” says Schilling. “There are fabulous things being done here. When push comes to shove and someone wants to see the validity of our program or someone wants to question it, we had nothing to hand off to people. So I’m working on getting some documents ready that really put us in line with what’s going on at other high schools in the state.”

Schilling explains that she isn’t referring to standards but rather written curriculum and assessment tools.

According to Parker, ACES has a five-year curriculum cycle; this year the arts curriculum is being reviewed across all ACES schools. Leadership teams are paying special attention to national standards for arts education and making sure their curriculum aligns with those standards.

For Fountain, the new chair of the dance department who has taught at ECA for 18 years, the documentation process has been helpful.

“We’re realizing that we are current with what’s going on, and we understand the way kids learn. In the arts, we do ‘authentic assessment’ every day. It’s partly about documenting what we’re doing all the time.”

Fountain says, “I think this will help to validate us. The more we speak that language, the more the school districts will understand what we’re doing. And that’s going to be the key to bumping us forward.”

“We’re a public school,” says Schilling. “We have to meet the needs of every student, and we want to see growth in every student.”

Parker says ECA’s tuition for the 2011-12 academic year is $8,746 per student. Approximately half of tuition is covered by a state grant. The remaining half must be paid by participating school districts. In years past, if a district declined to pay, parents were permitted to pay the difference. This year, Schilling says, the law changed to ensure equal access. Now districts must pay the remaining balance or face financial penalties.

School districts are not allowed to opt out. They’re required to make slots available to students based on a three-year rolling enrollment average. Currently, Schilling reports, New Haven students claim 100 of 310 total slots at ECA.

The admissions process is complicated. Prospective students must participate in an interview process, but extensive experience in the arts is not required.

“We try to see if the students have a passion to be here,” explains Schilling.

Once a student passes the audition process, they enter the magnet school lottery. Admission depends on several factors: a student’s place in the lottery; the number of ECA slots allotted by a given school district; and the number of slots available in a given ECA department.

Parker says ECA enrollment has been climbing gradually for years. At 300 students, the school’s budget is stable, but having this many students places a strain on school facilities. ECA rents space at Neighborhood Music School and other nearby venues. This fall, Schaeffer went knocking on doors to find a space suitable for an upcoming theater department show. The Little Theater, an ACES-owned venue between Audubon and Temple streets, awaits renovation. According to Schilling, funding has been secured but ACES is still working out “some variance issues,” including negotiations with neighbors, which have delayed the project indefinitely.

Now that ECA department chairs are certified, they’re also eligible for tenure. ACES follows state rules; according to Parker, Connecticut teachers are tenured after four years of teaching and favorable reviews. How will tenure rules affect the composition of ECA faculty? Following the departure this spring of two longstanding teachers —Susan Matheke, the dance department chair who retired after 27 years at ECA, Judy Caldwell, the music department chair whose contract was not renewed — it remains to be seen whether the school is entering a period of high faculty turnover or newfound stability.

Current ECA department chairs are optimistic about the future and enthusiastic about their work. Fountain, who succeeds Matheke as dance department chair, says Matheke “had really done a fabulous job of establishing the curriculum. Susan has been the matriarch of modern dance in the New Haven community for so many years. … The transition is really just refining and crystallizing the vision that Susan had.”

Christman, the new chair of the music department, has taught the music elective course at ECA and is familiar with the program.

“I really respect and admire the work that’s been done here and I hope to continue in that tradition,” she says. “My goal is to maintain the wonderful things that students are doing and what the faculty are doing.”

The ECA program is rich and varied, with new projects and guest artists every year. It’s here in the rehearsal halls and classrooms that you’ll find the emotional core of ECA, driven by the energy and creativity of its faculty and students.

“Every year it changes, and that’s what makes it exciting,” says Schaeffer.

In December, for its annual “theater for social change” project, the ECA theater department presents David and Lisa, a drama about teens with mental illness. The Green Bird by Carlo Gozzi, an 18th century commedia dell’arte play, will be staged in the spring. Also this spring, the well-known New York-based director Kim Wield will teach a class, and theater students will compete in the Moss Hart competition for the first time.

“In the past I’ve stayed away from competitions,” says Schaeffer, “but this one believes in theater for social change, so we decided to try it.”

Schaeffer has taught at ECA for 20 years and was an ECA student.

In dance, ECA adjunct faculty members include top-tier professional artists such as Freddie Moore and Earl Mosley, both affiliated with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This year the ECA dance department will host a two-week residency with Adele Myers and Dancers, a modern dance company. Nazorine Ulysse is teaching a site-specific improvisation class that challenges students to create dances in various outdoor locations around town.

The music department has consolidated its theory and musicianship classes into one course that brings theory into the realm of practice. From “Super Sax” and Latin guitar ensembles to the performance by ECA orchestra and chorus at the local tree-lighting ceremony on the New Haven Green, ECA musicians will be busy this year. Christman plans to continue the annual New Music Festival, a tradition started by Caldwell, and Fountain will continue “Rough Edges,” an annual performance started by Matheke that showcases evolving work in the dance department. Throughout, visual artists will be making art and writers writing. Students in those departments, like many at ECA, consistently win state and national awards for their work.

Schilling wants to expand the culture of collaboration at ECA.

“Right now we do some collaboration between and among departments,” she says, “but most of the work is done within departments.”

The challenge is for faculty to find time for collaborations while still meeting curriculum benchmarks.

Ultimately, Schilling says the school is also working on helping kids become “appreciators of the arts, no matter what discipline they are in.”

“There are so many wonderful things that are going on that we just have to continue with,” says Schilling. “Kids just blossom here. They feel at home. They can be themselves.”

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