Pawtucket is starting a statewide school for the arts like the one in Fame!
PAWTUCKET -- Donna Jeffrey bustles over the water-stained wood of the city's Armory building. She's a ball of energy in this quiet, dead space -- and if she's worried about falling through the floor, she doesn't show it.
Journal photo / Steve Szydlowski
Jose Garcia says he dreams that someday he will be good enough to go to Pawtucket's school for the arts. The 11-year-old lives in Pawtucket's Prospects Heights housing complex.
The National Guard abandoned this fortress-like building more than 10 years ago, and evidence of neglect is everywhere. The walls of one room are still camouflaged in black and forest green, and above the entrance to the vast drill hall is a yellowed sign reading, "Through these doors walk the finest soldiers in the United States Army."
But when Jeffrey, a music teacher at Shea High School, stands in these lonely, abandoned rooms, she doesn't see any of that.
Instead, she sees ballerinas flexing before mirrored walls and hears the swells of violins tuning to a single oboe.
She's determined to turn this space into a first-class high school for arts education. It will be public, it will be rigorous, and students all over the state will vie to get in, she says.
Now, all she has to do is make it happen. She's got eight months.
ABOUT FIVE YEARS AGO, Seth Handy, the chairman of the Pawtucket Armory Association, asked Schools Supt. Hans Dellith to consider a modest proposal.
Handy was leading the effort to transform the Armory into a home for the arts. Samuel Babbitt, former president of the board of Providence's Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre, was thinking about moving into the Armory's garage.
Babbitt and Handy had a simple proposition for Dellith: what if the theater's actors put on plays with the district's elementary students?
Dellith liked the idea -- but said it wasn't bold enough.
Why couldn't Pawtucket have a school like the ones he had seen as an administrator in New York? A school for kids who hated school because they would rather dance, paint or sing?
"If you look at the [federal] No Child Left Behind document, the only thing that's important is English language arts and math," he said recently in his office, rocking forward excitedly in his chair.
"If you really look at it, what you find is we're trying to train a work force. But people do things besides work! [The arts] pull at the heartstrings of humanity. It's the one big common bond, the one area that impacts everyone's life."
Dellith isn't an artist himself ("I can't draw a straight line with a ruler"), and his taste in music is questionable ("I drive people crazy with Yanni").
But he had been to school concerts in Pawtucket and knew there was a lot of young talent that wasn't getting nurtured.
"Where did Bruce Springsteen start out? Where did Billy Joel start out?" he demanded. "They started small, then someone said you've got potential, and now they're superstars . . . Let's remove the artificial glass ceiling."
Dellith, on the board of the Armory Association, also knew that the Armory needed another tenant to pay for renovations to the building and make the theatre's lease affordable.
"If we didn't go in there and the theatre was the only renter, the rates would be prohibitive," he said. "This was a mutually beneficial arrangement."
Leaving his meeting with Handy and Babbitt, Dellith was charged up and ready to go to work. But because the Armory Association was still wrangling with the city for control of the building, there wasn't much he could do.
With time on his hands, Dellith went looking for people to help him. He didn't expect to find someone more driven than he was.
DONNA JEFFREY, a music teacher in the Pawtucket schools for 32 years, comes across instantly as a pleasant, amiable sort. She offers refreshments to visitors to her tiny office, and she apologizes good-naturedly for the racket: her percussion students are rehearsing across the hall.
Now the project director for the arts school, she grew up in Pawtucket and remembers being too poor for private music lessons.
"I'd like to believe I would have been a student" at the arts school and a professional musician today, she says.
Some say that if the school opens as planned in September, she'll be the reason.
"It's hard to shake me. I'm like a little dog attached to the ankle of your pants," she says.
In October 2003, when the Armory Association asked the Pawtucket School Committee to commit to leasing space for the school, some committee members were skeptical. Memories of that year's budget crunch were fresh in their minds.
As the chairman moved to table the vote, Jeffrey produced her secret weapon: a handful of middle school students with string instruments, led by Rhode Island Philharmonic violist Consuelo Sherba.
Moved by their performance, the committee voted 5-2 that night to authorize a letter of intent. The momentum continued into last June, when the school board finalized a two-year lease at the Armory.
That approval was Jeffrey's starting gun.
Journal photo / Steve Szydlowski
Pawtucket music teacher Donna Jeffrey and Schools Supt. Hans Dellith are working to open a high school for the arts in the Pawtucket Armory.
WITHIN A MONTH, Jeffrey had organized a volunteer advisory committee -- about 20 local leaders in business, education and the arts -- and asked them for help. There was a mission statement to write, a curriculum to set, teachers to hire and lots and lots of money to raise.
The group decided to name the school after Jacqueline M. Walsh, a longtime Pawtucket educator who died last year.
To some extent, Jeffrey was feeling around in the dark. When her inspiration flagged, she thought back to a trip she had taken to New York.
Dellith had wanted Jeffrey and other school staff to see what what was possible, to get a vision of what a public arts school could achieve. So he turned to Sherba, the violist.
Sherba, like Jeffrey, had grown up too poor for private lessons. As a child, she lived in a housing project on Manhattan's west side.
But a few inspiring music teachers led her to Manhattan's famous LaGuardia High School for the performing arts. It was the country's best-known school of its kind -- the movie Fame! was based on it -- and Sherba was eager to show Jeffrey around, to give her a sense of what Pawtucket could gain from a new arts school.
"If you're a student that is gifted and has devoted any time to a discipline, it's extremely important that you have a community of other like-minded artists," Sherba said. "You have to work with people of similar ability. Otherwise, those around you are always dragging you down."
Jeffrey came back from her trip stunned, inspired and a little saddened at what her own students were missing.
"The kind of talk in the corridors was so different," she said. "They were saying, 'Have you written out the three-octave scales in F-sharp and B-flat?' Not, 'Who are you dating?' They seemed to be more individualistic, more mature, because they were happy in what they were doing.
"I thought, why can't we have the same thing in Rhode Island? Are we any less talented than New York?"
Jeffrey now knew what was possible elsewhere. She just had to make it happen here.
THE PHILOSOPHY behind a public arts school has support well beyond Pawtucket's borders.
The state Department of Education, for one, is happy to see any innovation that will keep kids from dropping out.
"Our schools do a great job of motivating kids that have athletic talent, and kids will stay in school to play sports," says assistant commissioner David Abbott.
"But what about musical or performing talent? I'm not sure the schools do as good a job of motivating those kids. We'd applaud an effort to have a program to reach those kids."
As Dellith is fond of pointing out, an arts school can also be a poor student's ticket to a career.
But the benefits of an arts school transcend keeping kids in school or giving them vocational training. Many say it's also about bringing up happy adults who don't feel thwarted by narrow notions of success.
"Human beings very early on have to connect to what it is we love to do," Sherba says. "That's how we become healthy, exciting human beings."
"The problem we have in education is that people are always trying to make everybody measurable by the same measurements," says Bennett Lentczner, executive director of the International Network of Schools for the Advancement of Arts Education, based in West Virginia.
"Math and English are two ways of knowing things. But there are other ways of knowing things -- visual art, music, kinetically through dance. That's why it's very important that schools like this exist, so kids who have other kinds of ability can be nurtured and excel."
HERE'S WHAT Jeffrey sees when she looks ahead to September:
At 8:30 a.m., 80 to 100 freshmen climb up to the second and third floors of the Armory to start their academic classes. They take four or five core subjects: math, English, social studies, science.
Their classes are designed to prepare them for state tests and college admissions, but the teachers manage to weave the arts into every subject.
It's a model that has worked elsewhere.
"We have a seventh grade [biology] teacher," says Renee Kelly, assistant principal of the public, award-winning John S. Davidson Fine Arts School, in Augusta, Ga. "Instead of just getting up in front of a class, he has students do something with drawing, or they may do a rap. Kids are always touching and feeling and becoming part of the learning process, instead of just looking at a book."
In Jeffrey's scenario, the drama, dance, music and art students after lunch and study under certified teachers with strong backgrounds in art and performance. Visiting artists drop in to give workshops and master classes, providing expertise the teacher can't.
The students leave at 4:30 -- two hours later than the state requires.
"We don't need another mediocre school in Pawtucket," Jeffrey says. "This is going to be a demanding school. It's not a school for kids who don't like to work."
AN ADMISSIONS committee will look at academic factors like grades and attendance. But the auditions, scheduled for March and April, will be what sets the school apart.
"We're looking for the potential to develop: musicality, technique and the potential for growth," Jeffery says.
The school will add a class every year, topping out at 400 students in year four. Jeffrey hopes to see three Pawtucket students admitted for every two from other parts of the state -- but residency won't be a factor in admissions.
Jeffrey says she's confident that Pawtucket students can compete with kids from Barrington and East Greenwich in the fields of art and theater. When it comes to dance and music, however, low-income city kids may lose out to better-trained, more affluent students elsewhere.
"We need a clean audition process that is the same for everyone," she says. "It will be painful for a lot of kids. But if a student doesn't make it the first time, they'll have a chance to get in sophomore year."
In the meantime, Jeffrey hopes to set up feeder programs to make low-income Pawtucket students competitive in auditions.
THE ARTS SCHOOL is already generating excitement all over the state. Jeffrey has given talks at all of Pawtucket's public middle schools, and her cell phone often beeps with messages from curious parents and students.
But there are enormous hurdles to leap before the school can open. The biggest one?
The new arts school needs $1.3 million in grants and donations if it's to be fully realized, according to Jeffrey's budget plan. That's on top of the district's plans to set aside $270,000 for two years' rent and about $324,000 for teaching staff.
The state legislature did award a $20,000 grant to hire an architect to design the new school inside the Armory, but the tight planning schedule has made it a challenge to secure government grants in time for the school's opening.
Jeffrey is in the process of getting nonprofit status for Friends of Excellence, the group she and Dellith formed along with a former School Committee member, so she can accept tax-deductible donations. But Jeffrey hasn't yet raised a cent from private donors, and the clock is ticking.
Jeffrey acknowledges her task is a big one. But School Committee Chairman Alan Tenreiro says the board has pledged to support the project financially, and Jeffrey says she can seriously cut back the budget if she has to -- even if it means a sparser school with fewer instruments and resources.
That's not what she wants or expects to do, however.
Students from other districts may help offset costs. Dellith plans to charge those students at least the cost of educating a Pawtucket student -- roughly $9,000 -- and if he can charge more to provide scholarships to needy applicants, he will.
JOSE GARCIA, 11, lives in Pawtucket and is learning to play the viola.
At his lesson last week with Consuelo Sherba, he was having trouble with the last measure of "Polly Wolly Doodle."
"Before you do anything, put the viola down and clap the rhythm," said Sherba.
Jose, a resident of the Prospect Heights housing project, put his instrument at his feet and clapped.
Finally, when he mastered the passage, he half-smiled and uttered a muted "Woohoo!"
Jose wants to be a professional violist. He is only in the sixth grade, but Sherba thinks in two years he'll be a strong candidate for the new arts school.
"I always wanted to go to some arts school," he says. "I really love music and art at my school, but we only get 45 minutes of it."
How to get in
Students in the eighth grade in Rhode Island are eligible to apply to the Jacqueline M. Walsh School for the Performing and Visual Arts. The application is available at the Edward J. Creamer Administration Building, at Park Place in Pawtucket. The application must include school records, two recommendations, an essay and a photograph. It must be returned or postmarked by midnight on Feb. 11. An extension may be available for students who live outside Pawtucket.
Auditions will be held in March and April. Times, dates and locations will be announced next month.
The art audition will consist of a half-hour creativity exercise, a still-life drawing completed in a half-hour, and a five-minute interview. Students must bring a portfolio of their art.
The dance audition will consist of two, one-hour dance classes including ballet, modern and jazz styles, and a 90-second solo piece on a subject of the student's choice. Evaluations will be made based on body alignment, technique and performance skills.
For the music audition, students must prepare and perform two pieces from memory, sight-read a piece of music chosen by the examiners, and take tonal and rhythmic memory tests. One of the pieces performed must be from the classical period, and the other piece must be from a different period.
For the theater audition, students must prepare and deliver a one- to two-minute monologue from a modern or contemporary play, do a cold reading from a selected script and provide a résumé of theatrical experience. Students may also sing 16 bars of a musical theater piece a cappella.
For more information, call Donna Jeffrey at (401) 527-4121.
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