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At 9:30 this morning, the principal of the Ron Brown Academy in Brooklyn stood in her school’s auditorium, watching a fight break out.

Across from her, a tall girl in a tight pink shirt slapped at the girl in front of her. Three other girls grabbed the tall one’s arms and kicked at her legs. The girls broke apart as two boys doing cartwheels chased them off stage.

The principal, Celeste Douglas, broke into applause. She was watching the teenagers — who had grins plastered to their faces, and whose fight moves had been carefully choreographed by their teachers — perform their winter dance routine.

“Music makes me feel free,” said Justin, one of the dancers, after the performance. He is a seventh grader at Ron Brown, a middle school in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Music has also provided the school with an opportunity to improve its test scores, boost attendance and jump off the state’s watch list.

An unusual solution

When Douglas first arrived at Ron Brown Academy in 2006, she found a school in crisis.

Attendance hovered just above 80 percent, students performed poorly on standardized tests, and the previous spring, state officials had put the school on the SURR list of the lowest performing schools in New York. Douglas had three years to improve the school or risk seeing it shut down.

Faced with low performance and small budgets, other schools have cut extra programming and reinforced ELA and math skills. “One of the first things to get cut in schools is the arts program. I felt a lot of pressure to do the same thing,” Douglas said today, sitting in her office, a space decorated with pictures of her students’ performances and trophies of their successes.

She knew that improving instruction was crucial, but she didn’t think it was enough. “The first issue was engagement. I realized our kids were just not coming to school,” said Douglas. “I was looking for something to engage kids and I didn’t know what it was.”

In 2007, she heard about a project at the Center for Arts Education to develop arts programs at low-performing middle schools. The program, called the School Arts Support Initiative, or SASI, demands a lot of partner schools. Working with an arts coach from the center, schools have to offer entirely new courses in drama, dance, music, and the visual arts. They have to hire a new batch of educators who, with help from the center, design the courses and teach them. And the schools must provide space for students to perform and practice; revise their scheduling to accommodate the new courses; and find funding to pay for it all.

Although a bulk of the program — the cost of the coach, professional development, and partnerships with theaters and drama organizations— comes from a U.S. Department of Education grant, the school itself must find funding for many of the other expenses, including art supplies and teachers.

At Ron Brown, space is tight, since the school shares a building with two other schools. About 240 Ron Brown students crowd onto a floor and a half. Some teachers have to share classrooms. Douglas’ budget didn’t have much room for growth, either.

But Douglas decided to work with the center anyway. The design of the program fit with her larger strategy of investing in helping teachers improve their instruction.

To raise the money needed to pay the extra teachers, she applied for outside grants. The school already had a dance studio; she took advantage of it and added a small arts studio inside a tiny classroom. The fact that she was already on a hiring binge allowed her to bring in new teachers who could play double roles at the school.

The school’s theater director also teaches English language arts. In addition to two full-time dance teachers and a visual arts teacher, other teachers help with directing and monitoring students during performances.

“People have come out of the woodwork,” said Brian Nagel, the visual arts teacher, “including a science teacher with a beautiful voice.”

The school is increasingly centered around art. As 6th graders, students are introduced to the range of art disciplines. At the end of the year, they choose an “art major,” which they study in more depth in 7th and 8th grade.

The school has altered the daily schedule to accommodate a full arts sequence. Each student attends an art class, even if that means that she has to be occasionally pulled from another class. Friday afternoons are also completely devoted to arts programming.

Douglas noted that she has had to make a lot of tough decisions to maintain the program, including excessing a math teacher last year instead of an art teacher.

“Out of the woodwork”

Developing an arts program was not just about introducing the students to art. The art classes are used to reinforce the student’s learning in other areas.

A key goal for teachers is to learn “how to marry the learning standards to the artistic process,” said Dr. Carol Feinberg, the director of the SASI program.

Students at the school have responded well to the changes. Some have even come from other schools to participate. A seventh grader, Jordan, who danced in the winter showcase, said he was failing classes at his previous school. He transferred to Ron Brown halfway through his sixth grade year. “My family comes from a long line of dancers,” he said, perched calmly on the edge of the stage. He is now active in an after-school activity called the rap and recording club and doing well in school.

Talent and interest has come from unexpected places. Nagle, the visual arts teacher, described a moment when a quiet sixth grade girl approached him in his studio. She pointed to the still life art pieces that hang in the hallways. “Trees are my life,” she said. “I want to learn how to do that so I can draw trees.”

Laura Hill, the English teacher who directs the school’s plays, said that one of the biggest successes has been getting the boys involved. At first, teachers struggled to get boys excited about dance that didn’t involve hip-hop, she said. But this winter, she was proud to see a large group of boys participate in the swing and jazz performances in the dance showcase.

Still, several boys mentioned today that their favorite dance piece was the finale, set to the song “I Whip My Hair” by Willow Smith.

“Pockets of success”

Douglas has started to see some promising results. For one, parents are more involved.

“I can tell you when I started, we would do a workshop and have two parents and now we have 50 or 60,” Douglas said. “We have found the best way to bring parents in is to celebrate their kids’ talent.” The winter showcase two weeks ago drew a large crowd.

School attendance has also improved, jumping from 86 percent in 2006 to 91 percent so far this year, according to the DOE. Test scores are also on the rise. The percent of students scoring at or above Level 3 on the state-wide ELA tests jumped from 21 percent in 2007 to 52 percent in 2009. No scores have been released since the state changed its grading standards, but the school received a B for student progress on its last progress report from the city.

One of the biggest triumphs has been getting off the SURR list in 2008, a full year shy of the deadline imposed by the state for improvement. “I am not going to say the arts are the Holy Grail,” said Russell Granet, the school’s arts coach. “But I do know from Ms. Douglas that the school is a much calmer place.”

Douglas plans to continue to develop the program, including adding a school orchestra. One of her goals this year is to support students who want to attend specialized arts high schools. “There is a lot of raw talent,” said Nagel, but none of the teachers or administrators knew how to help their students to create suitable portfolios or go through the stressful interview process.

Douglas is optimistic. “We are seeing pockets of success,” she said.

Said Granet, “It is not a process to be rushed. You need to plan it.”