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Fine arts charter school takes different approach to education

Echoing through the hallway is the sound of perfect harmony. A peek inside a classroom reveals students ballet dancing while across the hall another class is busy rehearsing the Broadway musical “42nd Street.”

This isn’t an episode of “Glee”—its just another day at the 109’s Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts at 3901 S. Hulen Street. While schools across the country are slashing fine arts from their curriculum, the academy promotes artistic creativity and continues to be ranked among the top Metroplex schools in academics.

Originally founded as a private school by the Texas Boys Choir, the academy now shares a home with the Singing Girls of Texas, the Children’s Choir of Texas and flourishing programs in theatre, dance and visual arts.

In anticipation of its 10th anniversary, the local charter school celebrated with an expansion that allowed for the inclusion of more than 120 new students. The school now welcomes around 500 students between third and 12th grade each morning.

Craig Shreckengast, principal of the academy since 2005, said the school’s board of directors made the decision two years ago to expand and the school immediately began taking steps to incorporate a portion of the new students before the construction was complete.

Administrators considered how an influx of new students might affect the atmosphere at the school, Shreckengast said. “We wanted to make sure the environment affected the kids instead of the kids affecting the environment,” he said.

The slightly textured walls of the new addition are a singular shade of sky blue throughout, the floors are a shiny new commercial tile and the row upon row of lockers that line the hall are a bright, unscratched primary blue. There is a gymnasium with a basketball court, a dance studio, and an instrumental lab for practicing guitar, piano and violin. The new classrooms come complete with SMART boards—dry-erase boards that double as interactive computer touch screens. Inside the science classroom, a life-size skeleton is on display like the ones that can be found in classrooms everywhere. The difference is that this one is wearing a feather boa and a fashionable beret.

Aside from a few personalized touches that faculty have thrown in here and there, the new addition looks very much like a school building anywhere, and that’s exactly why some of the students and faculty don’t like it.

“We were really surprised, with all the additions that a lot of the kids prefer the older half of the building,” said Gail Hartsfield, school counselor. “They said it just doesn’t have the same feel as the old building.”

A tour of the original academy reveals an eclectic charm than can only be acquired with time. The old brick walls are whimsically decorated with student artwork. The windows are draped with handmade curtains and the glazed cement floors show the wear of a decade of children’s art projects and dance rehearsals. The auditorium where students practice and perform used to be the McKinney Bible Church, which has now moved across the street, and until recently it was still lined with pews.

A different kind of school

Charter schools came to Texas after legislative changes took effect in 1995. There are now around 400 across the state, serving more than 90,000 students.

Anyone in Texas can apply to found a charter school, but not everyone is approved.

“A charter is actually a document … a very detailed document that lays out a plan for financing, curriculum and everything you need in place to begin a school,” Shreckengast said. “The Texas Education Agency has a strict process for evaluating applications and if approved, the new school does receive a start-up grant.”

After that, the school may find federal grants it can apply for, but the only guaranteed income is based on average daily attendance. Charters do not receive any portion of the property taxes collected in their area that are allotted for local school districts.

“That is something a charter school has to flesh out in the beginning—where is the funding going to come from to obtain the necessary facilities and then maintain them,” he said.

Shreckengast said there has been a push by charter schools to change the way property tax income is distributed, but efforts at changing legislation have been unsuccessful.

“We actually thought it was going to happen a couple of years ago, but the public schools came in and lobbied against it and it didn’t make it through,” he said.

To make ends meet, the academy charges a $600 fee per student at the beginning of the school year and relies on donations to make up the difference.

Shreckengast said that because the school does not receive as much state funding as public schools, they have to be really fiscally conservative. “The fact is that none of the faculty here is making as much as their counterparts at other public schools in the area,” he said. “They are here for the quality of life, and because they believe in what we are doing.”

A different kind of curriculum

One of the criticisms of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, is that curriculum began to shift heavily towards math and English instruction at the expense of other subjects. The Act brought massive increases in federal education funding for states, but linked funding to standardized test scores in math and English. Likewise, these scores determine status within the state, be it “exemplary” or “recognized.”

“Standardized testing was always high stakes for the kids, but with No Child Left Behind it became high stakes for the schools as well,” Shreckengast said. “And a lot of times it’s just not a true measure of a school’s educational value.”

Since the law took effect, studies like one released by the Center on Education Policy in 2008, have found significant increases of English and Math instruction time in more than 70 percent of schools—in some case by as much as 150 minutes per week on each subject. This has resulted in higher standardized test scores in those areas nationwide, but students are receiving less instruction on untested subjects. Foremost amongst those are art and music classes.

All of that means very little to Kathy Maddoux, who teaches AP English at the academy. She spends her days engaging her classroom beneath a giant waterbug with an apple stuck in his carapace.

The work is a throwback to “The metamorphosis,” a symbol-rich 1915 novella by Franz Kafka in which a young man awakens one morning transformed into a monstrous insect. The student rendering of the giant creature was submitted in lieu of an essay to illustrate understanding of the story. This is the art-infused learning approach practiced by the school. In addition to the two hours of fine arts training that is a part of every school day, creative expression is encouraged in everything the students do.

“You’re trying to work on the whole child,” Shreckengast said. “Helping them to focus their creativity, teaching them to work with other students … this builds their confidence and makes them stronger academically.”

And the approach seems to be working. The school is ranked as exemplary by the TEA for grades 7-12 and the elementary program for grades 3-6 is “recognized” this year. Children at Risk, a Texas-based children’s advocacy group, ranked the school 10th in the metroplex, higher than all Fort Worth public schools and 29th out of more than 1,000 Texas high schools. U.S. News & World Report recently gave the school a gold star, placing it in the top 100 of more than 21,000 high schools nationwide. The school frequently produces National Merit Scholars, and the graduating class of 2009, with only 37 graduates, received more than $2.5 million in scholarship offers.

“I think most people are honestly surprised by how strong the academics are here,” Shreckengast said. “They assume that we’ve had to sacrifice one for the other and that’s just not the case.”

A different kind of student

Before the semester even began, Maddoux’s English students were assigned three books and a play for summer reading.

“Basically if they don’t do their reading they will fail the first six weeks,” Maddoux said. “In a traditional school the students would laugh in your face for that.”
What makes her school different, she said, is that the norm is accomplishment.

“At traditional schools some of these students might have been the target of derision because they are overachievers,” she said. “But here they fit right in, it’s like we’re the kingdom of the nerds and we love it. Instead of being mocked for being studious, now it’s cool.”

Brian Priddy, artistic director of the Texas Boys Choir, said what makes their school different is that most of the students are there because they want to be there, not because they have to.

“I’ve taught in a lot of other places and it’s not like this,” Priddy said. “My biggest concerns are things like telling them to spit out their gum; I’m not having to tell them to quit doing drugs or things like that … it’s really just a great bunch of kids.”

Priddy said many of the students are together for so long, they become more like siblings than just classmates.

“Divas don’t do well at this school because the other students are quick to put them back in their place,” he said. “That’s part of why we are so strong.”

The boys choir is booked six months in advance and have performed at million-dollar weddings, Hollywood premieres and presidential events in recent years, including an event hosted by former first lady Barbara Bush and a wedding attended by former President George W. and first lady Laura Bush.

“The payoff is big but the demand is also big,” Priddy said.

Like all the programs at the school, both fine arts and academics, the students in choir are expected to give their all.

“In some school programs the kids might be focusing on three pieces and practicing for holiday recitals or UIL; my boys know 50 pieces from memory,” he said. “This year they will learn a Mozart mass and a Bach concerto. One is in German, the other in Latin.”

The choir practices for two hours, five days per week. Only two other choirs in the United States get this much practice, Priddy said, “but with that comes a lot of expectations, also.”

A different kind of future

Shreckengast said the school held auditions for more than 300 prospective students for the 2010-11 school year and about one in three made it in. The majority of openings are always in third grade because it is the youngest class at the academy, and once students get in, most stick around through high school.

“That can be very difficult,” Shreckengast said. “Last year we had 65 applicants for sixth grade and we did not have any openings in that class at the time we were scheduling auditions.”

Shreckengast said the school is considering options for future expansion, but said the faculty and students really like the academy just the way it is.

“We feel strongly about the benefits of maintaining a small school environment; every kid here knows me and is comfortable coming to talk to me,” he said. “We don’t want to lose that.”

One thing he said the board is considering is opening more campuses like the North Texas Elementary School of the Arts, a similar school also founded by the Texas Boys Choir that is directly across the street from the academy. The elementary school teaches kindergarten through 6th grade and focuses heavily on the arts as well.

The main difference is the students there get it on a lottery, no auditions required.

“That is a really viable option because it is a much simpler process for a successful charter school to add more campuses than starting the process from scratch,” he said.

As for the students, Stephen Madrid, director of fine arts said it’s a mixed bag when it comes to what subjects the students plan to pursue after graduation.

“We’ve got maybe half of them going on to pursue the arts, and the other half will go on to do other things,” he said. “Our students have a lot of doors open to them and it’s amazing to see how far they can go.”

Sergio Bedford, a senior fashion merchandising major and theatre minor at TCU, joined the academy in its first year as a singer in the Texas Boys Choir and stayed through his graduation in 2007. His sister also graduated from the school and is now studying English on a full-ride scholarship to Stanford. Bedford said it has been interesting for him to watch the school evolve and grow from its humble beginnings when the students and staff were working out the kinks together.

“In the beginning it was a homemade-type thing, and now it’s all grown up,” Bedford said. “It has really established its place in Fort Worth.”

Bringing forth the creativity that was nurtured at FWAFA and enhanced by theatre training at the university level, Bedford is currently doing what he loves, designing costumes for an upcoming production of “The Dining Room”by A.R. Gurney at TCU.

He said he takes it for granted that everyone’s educational experience wasn’t like his. That a lot of high school students don’t spend their formative years having actual fun in the classroom. Enjoying their days as the Rachel Berrys and the Kurt Hummels of Fort Worth in a school setting a lot like “Glee,” minus the slushies.

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