Perched in the narrow corridor south of Prospect Park and north of Brooklyn's Greenwood cemetery is a 107-year-old school building, and in it, energetic middle-schoolers present drawings of complex machines in a science lab (one that stuffs turkeys for Thanksgiving). Nearby, a 7th-grade chorus sings harmonies in the Beatles' "Ob-La-Di"; down the hall an art studio is silent except for the soft scratching of charcoal for still-life drawings; and around a corner, another class discusses the analysis of a passage in a historical novel.
Awarded with a Rising Star middle-school Blackboard Award, the New Voices School of Academic and Creative Arts serves the families of District 15 in Brooklyn, and is "as close to a performing arts middle school in New York City that you're going to find," said Frank Giordano the principal.
New Voices was a program within M.S. 142 and gained its status as an independent middle school in the 2003-2004 school year. It was founded with a goal of infusing the traditional core curriculum—English language, writing and social studies as a singular integrated "humanities" course and a traditional math and sciences—coupled with an intensive program in visual and performing arts. The school currently serves 486 students, and its expansion to six classes per grade will be complete next year, bringing the top two floors the middle school occupies (the bottom floor houses a separate elementary school) to capacity, at around 510 students in grades 6 through 8.
The 6th-grade students at New Voices enter the school taking classes in all of the available arts subjects: dance, instrumental music, chorus, theatrical arts and graphic arts. For the following year, students will audition for one art form to specialize in, a rigorous regime followed through to the 8th grade. A typical 7th and 8th grader studies their art form three times a week, an hour-and-a-half each time. Once the students choose their majors, they focus on more detailed work. Students also take regular trips to museums like the Guggenheim and see Shakespeare plays at the New Victory Theater in Manhattan.
"It's a very intense study," explained Giordano. "Dance becomes ballet, jazz and hip-hop, and visual arts becomes sculpture, two-dimensional sketching, paintings and computer graphics." Aside from a rigorous arts curriculum, the school is set apart by the teachers' focus on collaboration between the academic and the artistic. Last year Katherine Aceti, a 6th-grade humanities teacher, combined her lesson on non-fiction texts and research with Michael Anthony Kerr, the school's certified dance instructor—the students researched famous dance choreographers.
The oldest students at New Voices often "run the show," with top-performing 8th graders like Izzy Goldberger and Tyler Lorenzen balancing their creative majors (visual arts and alto saxophone, respectively) with rigorous academic work (both will take 9th-grade level regents exams at the end of the year) and extra-curricular responsibilities. Goldberger is the stage manager for all of the theatrical performances (the school hosts two a year), and Lorenzen runs the light board for all the productions. Not that the teachers don't indulge in more traditional studies ("We read Lord of the Flies," said 7th-grade humanities teacher Valerie Lake, which is normally a high school-level book).
However, the school remains diverse in its selection of students—they are not admitted based on their elementary-school grades, but their response to questions and materials provided during the interviews. All academic and socio-
economic levels are represented, according to assistant principal Laurie Cianciotta, and the school also offers collaborative team teaching: classes with two co-teachers, and special needs students mixed into regular classrooms.
While most students enter the school with little-to-no artistic training, they end up with portfolios that have them applying to some of the city's best arts high schools, like La Guardia and Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Over the last three years, the PTA involvement in the school has grown along with its credentials: They renovated the school's art studio and partially funded a new dance rehearsal space.
Giordano said the cohesion between his staff and their willingness to meet and discuss everything from projects to classroom issues is one of the keys to the success of the school and the positive attitude in the students. The faculty apparently thinks so, too.
"The environment is so great," Giordano said, "a number of my teachers bring their own children here."
— By Joseph Alexiou
Photo above: Dance class at New Voices School.
Photo by Daniel S. Burnstein