Angel Angel, 13, missed playing in seven baseball games last month so he could mentor students at his middle school, M.S. 223.
But Angel, a rising eighth-grader who is also an avid guitar-player, welcomed the opportunity to forgo his usual summer activities to help 96 incoming sixth-graders at the South Bronx middle school study reading, math and music for three weeks.
The summer enrichment program, which just finished its first year, is the brainchild of M.S. 223’s principal, Ramon Gonzalez, who has gained a reputation as a leader in public school management since he opened the school in 2003.
Gonzalez has touted initiatives to increase literacy and parental involvement to school community members throughout District 7, which is largely poor and low-performing. Now he is trying to turn District 7’s attention toward arts education, at a time when many schools are facing cuts to their art and music teaching positions. He is asking a handful of local principals to help him write a large grant to fund after school and summer school arts education at multiple schools in future years.
Gonzalez said he wanted to create a free summer program for his students that would address the learning-loss that some students, particularly those from low-income families, experience between June and September. He hoped offering afternoon classes in painting, printmaking, and orchestral music — in addition to trips to Broadway shows and the Museum of Modern Art — would bring the students back each day, even though the classes were not mandatory.
Rather than try to carve $85,000 out of MS 223’s tight budget, he leveraged his connections — augmented after this spring’s appearance in the New York Times Magazine — to win funding.
Still, selling the split schedule to donors was difficult. Some pointed to a lack of research showing that arts integration would fuel academic improvements. Others didn’t see how Gonzalez’s program would fit into their funding priorities: One foundation that focuses on the arts didn’t want to help support the camp’s academic component, Gonzalez said, while another group wanted to fund academic instruction but not arts programming.
So Gonzalez approached this summer’s pilot program with a hypothesis: If you offer students quality arts education during the summer, then they will be more likely practice reading and math outside of the school year.
Gonzalez wants other principals to help him prove the point, so he is recruiting them to join him in offering arts integration programs outside the school day.
“His focus on trying to use the arts to raise reading scores is really good,” said Mary Padilla, principal of P.S. 5, who visited M.S. 223 last week for a tour of the summer program. “We need to do things differently than other districts because of all the high needs our students have. We have parents who are standing on unemployment lines, on food stamp lines. They don’t have the time to take kids to museums.”
Gonzalez plans to pitch the program to eight other principals this Friday and approach donors with his expansion plans in September. Most of the principals hail from Bronx and Harlem public schools which are outside of M.S. 223’s support network within the Department of Education, Gonzalez said, so collaborations like this one are his only opportunity to interact with them.
“You need a good body of people to effect change,” he said. “It’s the activist in me. We need to create the model to drive instruction, because this is not being done by outsiders.”
At the culmination of the camp last week, roughly 75 percent of the sixth-grade class—many of whom picked up instruments for the first time this July—performed Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues and other jazz numbers to a half-full auditorium of parents and teachers.
Padilla, who sent four graduating fifth-grade students from her elementary school to M.S. 223 this year, left the school impressed by what she heard.
“You had over 100 kids participating in his summer arts program in a heat wave, on a Friday, at one o’clock in the afternoon,” she said. “This is August, when kids want to take a break and put their feet up, and these kids were in work mode.”