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Broadway comes to a Brooklyn school looking for the spotlight

On Monday morning, Brooklyn High School of the Arts teacher Camille Russ tried to be in two places at once.

In the school’s freshly painted auditorium she sat with theater students as they discussed a new Broadway play with two of its stars, Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. At the same time, on the other side of the Boerum Hill school, she lectured her Advanced Placement English class about author’s voice in Jamaica Kincaid’s biography, “Girl.”

When Russ found out that the playwright, director, and cast of “The Mountaintop,” a new play about the night before Martin Luther King was assassinated, would be visiting BHSA, she used her brand-new MacBook Air to film herself delivering the day’s lesson. That way, AP English students who are not part of the school’s theater program could move on with the curriculum while their classmates enjoyed the artists’ surprise visit to the school that Principal Margaret Lacey-Berman calls “the best-kept secret in Brooklyn.”

In charge since 2008, Lacey-Berman said she encourages teachers to integrate arts and academic instruction whenever possible — something she hopes will boost achievement. The school received a C on last year’s city progress report, with a D for academic performance but higher marks for the progress students made over the course of the year.

Before the actors’ talk, students read the speech King delivered the night before he was killed, which tied into the school’s goal, set out in the new “common core” standards, of exposing students to more non-fiction writing, Lacey-Berman said.

During the talk, BHSA students lobbed questions about method and technique at Bassett, Jackson, director Kenny Leon, and playwright Katori Hall. Leon urged them to pick a passion in theater or outside of it and stick to it, even if they don’t immediately become celebrities.

Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who introduced the celebrities and then watched the discussion from a seat behind all of the students, said producers of “The Mountaintop” had reached out to the Department of Education and asked for a school to visit.

“When this opportunity presented itself, it was a no-brainer,” he said, adding that department officials selected BHSA because it was “a little bit different” from other arts schools.

This year, BHSA was the only arts school accepted into the city’s “iZone 360” cohort, 25 schools that are trying to reshape their programs using new technologies. Students said they now use Google Docs, rather than sheafs of paper, to annotate scripts. Later this year, the school is set to start offering AP physics for the first time, using a teacher at another school who will patch BHSA students in by Skype, a videoconferencing program. And for a film project in Russ’s class, senior are Marquan White said he had already interviewed dozens of people about societal expectations of beauty.

Russ said she looked forward to finding more ways to use the school’s new technology to help her students.

“Any time you find resources that reinvigorate your teaching, you’ve got to hold on with everything you’ve got,” she said. “If [students] can get information from virtual me and I go around and help with real me, we can get through to everyone.”

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