Arts & Culture » On Culture

Putting the Arts Back in Education

Free Street Theater's artistic director aims to start a one-room school for the tots; a new arts high school opens next fall.

by

comment

Like a lot of artists in Chicago, Free Street Theater artistic director Ron Bieganski has some experience teaching in the Chicago Public Schools. What he's seen there over the years convinced him that he'd like something different for his own son, Marcel. This year, when Marcel turned five and kindergarten was looming, Bieganski began thinking seriously about creating a public school alternative. Free Street trains teenagers in experimental writing and theater, so it wasn't a huge leap for him to imagine that if he pulled together a group of like-minded parents and a minimum of ten students, they could start their own art-centered, creativity-nourishing microschool.

Bieganski printed up a few dozen flyers announcing an exploratory meeting and posted them around his Avondale/Logan Square neighborhood. On the appointed date in late May about 30 parents and kids from eight different families showed up. The turnout was OK, but the result was disappointing: "After that meeting," Bieganski says, "two or three families are still really interested. The rest of them wanted to give the public school a try."

So Marcel will start kindergarten at the CPS's Hawthorne School next week.

But Bieganski hasn't given up. He's hanging in there, he says, because he knows it can work.

His buddy Bryan Saner, of the Goat Island performance group, was part of a similar initiative—the Sunflower Community School—from 1996 to 2005. Sunflower was a co-op of 10 or 12 families, with Saner's wife, Teresa Pankratz, as director and all the parents as part-time faculty. Saner was trying to recapture the experience he'd had attending a one-room school in South Dakota; others wanted to apply their training in Montessori and Waldorf School methods.

They never set up much of a formal legal structure for the school or bothered with a tax-exempt designation. It operated, Saner says, "just doing what we wanted" in a room rented from a Lutheran church, and never hit the radar of the state's regulators. (If it had it would have qualified as a home school, according to Illinois' very broad criteria.) He also says it was successful beyond anything they'd imagined, leaving state achievement standards in the dust without ever testing the kids or giving them grades. When the oldest students finished eighth grade and wanted to move into the public high schools, the parents realized they'd better show them what a multiple choice test looks like. "All of them got into the schools they chose," Saner says, and Sunflower became history. "Our son went, without a problem, from a school of 12 to a school of 2,000."

Bieganski says the school he's imagining could be housed at Free Street or a rented room somewhere else. He guesses that it might have to charge $150 a week per child, roughly the same as day care. Parents would volunteer at the rate of a half-day a week for each child of theirs in the school, and there'd be a full-time teacher—perhaps also a parent—paid about $25 an hour.

The school would cover a three-year age span—say, six-, seven-, and eight-year-olds—with students working at their own pace. The curriculum would be project-driven, the kids would determine the overall topics for exploration, and there'd be lots of field trips. Bieganski wants to have a pilot program in place next summer that could continue into the fall. Most of the parents who came to the first meeting are hoping the public schools will work for them, and "I understand that," he says. He figures by the end of September they'll have seen enough to make up their minds—and he's planning another meeting.

Meanwhile, there's a nice little story circulating that two foundation trustees got to talking five years ago, during the intermission at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert or some such event, about the scarcity of minorities in the performing arts in Chicago—and realized they were in a position to do something about it. They invited a dozen of the city's largest arts organizations to a meeting that grew into something called the Diversity Working Group. After three more years of meetings and research, that bunch issued a report noting that Chicago is the only major city in the country without a public high school for professional-track arts training and suggesting that a good way to boost diversity would be to start such a school.

Having heard that story from folks who should know, I'm now told that the intermission chat never happened. But the Diversity Workshop Group did, thanks to support from the Elizabeth Morse charitable trusts. And now so will the school. The Chicago High School for the Arts is slated to open in fall 2009. Last month Jose Ochoa came on board as its executive director and first employee.

The CHSA will be a contract school, operated by its own nonprofit organization and therefore able to recruit a selective student body as well as part-time, uncertified (and nonunion) teachers. Board chair Jim Mabie says the big missing piece right now is a location, preferably near the Loop. The CPS will provide and outfit a facility and kick in the same per-pupil allotment that would go to any of its schools; the CHSA is also getting $500,000 in initial funding from the Renaissance 2010 program.

Mabie says they're estimating an annual budget of $6 million, and will have to raise about $2 million of that from private sources. The school will open with 150 freshman, growing to a full enrollment of 600, and will offer dance, music, theater, and the visual arts. Admission will be based on audition, potential, and academic record. "We want students who've had extensive prior training, but also students who've never had opportunities in the arts before," Ochoa says, adding that instruction will be offered at various levels and the goal is for the school to mirror the diversity of the city. The CHSA will have a full-time academic staff headed by a principal, plus working artists as part-timers. "Its going to be a rigorous program—the schedule is 8 to 5," Ochoa says. "When they leave here, if they decide they no longer want to be a dancer but they want to go into pre-med, they'll be ready for that too."

Ochoa, who was superintendent of cultural arts for the Nashville Parks Department before he came here, grew up in a tiny Texas town and went to college as a flute player with no background other than having played in the school band. He earned an undergraduate degree in flute performance at the North Carolina School of the Arts and a master's in dance, music, and theater at West Texas A&M University. He's been a teacher, dancer, choreographer, and director, and says he knows both "how the arts work" and "how students without a lot of resources struggle."

Of course, Chicago already has an arts high school—the 26-year-old Chicago Academy for the Arts, a private school with 160 students from Chicago and beyond. But Academy head Pamela Jordan, who was part of the early planning process for the CHSA, isn't worried about competition. "I'm a product of the Chicago Public Schools," she says. "The more arts education the better."

Ochoa says the outpouring of support is "more than impressive": 90 local arts organizations have signed on as partners, promising everything from help with auditions to internships for graduates.v

Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com.

Add a comment