Promising young singers, actors and writers recently took turns at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts to get a taste of what it’s like to have an audience. In front of a packed hall of students and staff, Vivian Buchanan, a striking redhead from Destrehan High School, sang “Der Nussbaum,” composed by Robert Schumann. Creative writer Asiah Crutchfield, from New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, read his short story about materialism and alienation in modern society and Austin Alleman, a homeschooled student, portrayed the character Benvolio in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Generous applause erupted for every newcomer at the end of each performance. A jubilant mood pervaded the theater, even though at 4 p.m. on a Friday most of these students’ high school peers had already started their weekends.
But longer hours are a given for NOCCA students. For 37 years, they’ve spent their mornings studying academics at schools miles away and then spent their afternoons at NOCCA studying in creative fields such as drama, dance, voice, culinary, writing and visual arts. Because they’re learning from professionals in their fields in a public school environment, they’re getting the kind of intensive arts instruction that costs thousands of dollars in the private sector.
“NOCCA definitely helps you a lot because it gets your portfolio ready,” says Anna Koeferl, a visual arts student and junior at Benjamin Franklin High School. “You have these professional people helping you. It’s pretty awesome.”
NOCCA began turning arts education into an art form in 1973 when it started a half-day program for artistically gifted students. Its hands-on, master-apprentice approach to arts education has funneled thousands of talented young artists, singers and musicians into the world of art and culture. Some former NOCCA students are now big names in entertainment, including musicians Wynton Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. and actor Wendell Pierce.
Now NOCCA plans to apply its one-on-one, out-of-the-box thinking to the traditional subjects of English, math, science and social studies. Beginning in the fall, NOCCA will offer an Academic Studio so that interested students can get all of their instruction in the same location. Instead of attending two schools a day, as they do now, students will have the option of obtaining a high school degree from NOCCA’s state-of-the-art Bywater campus overlooking the Mississippi River.
In true NOCCA form, students won’t experience the traditional high school regime of small doses of English, math and science each day. Traditional lecturing, testing and grading methods won’t be found either. “The focus is on mastery,” says Robbie McHardy, director of the new program.
“The task assigned to me is to take what works at NOCCA in teaching the arts and to apply it to academics,” McHardy says. “This is an unusual way to go about it and the challenge is very exciting.”
Instruction will be individualized by an academic mentor in the same way that professionals now guide each student’s creative learning, she says. Just like the arts program, proven scholars will visit the campus to teach master classes and give demonstrations. Many will come from partner organizations such as San Francisco’s Exploratorium as well as an international advisory council.
Curriculum development will also be aided by proven specialists in their fields. A group of physicists and other scientists at The Exploratorium, for example, will meet regularly with teachers and students to develop student projects for sciences such as biology and chemistry. These scholars will also teach weekly lessons through interactive technology.
All subjects will be taught in longer blocks of time and in alternating semesters so that students can build a solid, deep understanding of the subject before moving on to others. In the fall, students will study physics and world history, later switching to English and math. Foreign languages will be offered year-round and determined primarily by students’ creative focus. McHardy says that dance instructors encourage studying French while operatic professionals encourage German and Latin.
In addition to focusing on New Orleans history the social studies program will link world history to art history, and world geography and world literature in order to develop a global perspective. Fridays are reserved for a Discovery Series, which includes such topics as “How The Brain Works” and “The Rights and Responsibilities of Civic Engagement.”
Students will attend from 8:30 a.m. until 6:30 p.m., with arts instruction coming later in the day. The long hours are to be offset by a “no homework” pledge so that students can continue to practice their art and complete other projects at home in the evenings.
About 60 ninth-graders, who have been selected according to auditions and commitment, will start in the fall. But by 2014, NOCCA expects to enroll about 240 high school students in grades nine through 12, bringing the schools overall enrollment up to about 800. The studio will provide Advanced Placement level classes and college co-enrollment classes as well as introductions to some of the finest conservatories in the country.
Future plans also include on-site dormitories. Because NOCCA is open to all Louisiana students, they now come from as far away as Baton Rouge to attend. If the school secures dormitories, students could live on campus most of the year, reducing transportation costs and opening the door for students who live in northern Louisiana.
NOCCA’s approach to academics is so unique, McHardy says, that reform-minded educators all over the country will be monitoring it.
“A lot of people are watching this, especially in the field of gifted and talented education,” she says. “My dream is that teachers will come to New Orleans in the summers to study the NOCCA model.”