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A school built on stagecraft: Los Angeles performing arts program boasts dance, music — and outstanding special ed

Beth Hawkins | June 11, 2020

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(Screen Shot from Renaissance Arts Academy / Vimeo)

Over the next several weeks, LA School Report will be publishing stories reported and written before the coronavirus pandemic. Their publication was sidelined when schools across the country abruptly closed, but we are sharing them now because the information and innovations they highlight remain relevant to our understanding of education.

Author’s note: This school profile was written two weeks before Los Angeles-area schools shut down for in-person instruction. Renaissance Arts Academy — whose physical space is such an important part of its identity — has switched to distance learning.

You might expect, upon opening the front door of a performing arts school, to brace for a wave of sound and motion, the kinetic jolt generated by dozens of youthful bodies with raised voices and constant movement.

So it is a peculiar kind of sensory shock to walk into Renaissance Arts Academy, where 532 students ranging from preschool to 12th grade attend class in two enormous, open rooms, and encounter a cathedral-like quiet. Not even a rehearsal for the school’s student-choreographed winter production ruffles the calm.

Orchestra and dance are unusual in central Los Angeles schools, and for students with disabilities, the arts and other enrichment activities are frequently missing altogether. That makes Renaissance Arts a double rarity — a free arts school for underserved students and a place where children who need special education services are thriving.

Virtually no student arrives at this public charter school, located on a ridge overlooking downtown Los Angeles, with an arts background. Admission is by lottery, not audition. There are 10 times as many applicants as seats. Two-thirds of students come from impoverished households, and 20 percent have disabilities — significantly higher than California’s statewide 12.5 percent special education rate.

Though the school didn’t set out to focus on students with special needs, families of children with disabilities have flocked to Ren Arts, drawn by its collaborative model that embraces all children as full participants.

The school has been singled out in research from the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools and the Center on Reinventing Public Education as a program whose innovative practices are particularly helpful to students with disabilities. Providing these children with exactly the same social and academic activities as their classmates, the think tank suggested, is likely a major factor in the school’s success.

Every Renaissance Arts student either takes dance or learns a string instrument — enrichments typically available only to the wealthy — with all getting some exposure to both. In place of homework, there is free conservatory after school. Everybody takes Latin. Students build the stages and other elements of show production — as well as most of the school’s furniture.

Instructors have deep expertise in their subjects, which include astrophysics, filmmaking, environmental science, classics, economics, philosophy, psychology, composition and a range of fine and performing arts. Unlike conventional schools where specialized academics are offered only in later grades, these content experts teach all students.

Middle and high school students have eight class periods a day, including math, humanities and science, plus afterschool arts. Younger students have multiple teachers, too, albeit on a different schedule.

It is, in the words of school founders PK Candaux, a veteran prime-time television producer, and Sidnie Gallegos, a literacy and curriculum specialist, ensemble learning. Each artist contributes something to the whole, in the service of a common vision.

“Ensemble” is a fitting metaphor. In the absence of classrooms populated according to age and other expected touchpoints that signal “school,” the carefully thought-out choreography of commingled arts and academics is invisible. As with stagecraft, there is a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes planning and collaboration.

Since the current school year began, everyone at Ren Arts has been studying beginnings and time, collectively delving into creation myths from a diverse array of cultures, astrophysics and The Iliad. Indeed, the winter performance, titled All of Creation in a Teardrop, took its name and other inspirations from a schoolwide essay assignment exploring the tears shed by Achilles’ immortal horses, Xanthos and Balius.

Throughout the space, kids gather in small groups, general education students and children with individualized education programs together — using math and physics, for example, to figure out how to make tables that are both durable and lightweight or a raised stage that rotates without wobbling — and otherwise engaging in tasks that look nothing like conventional classes.

They work in multi-age teams: pre-K through second grade, third through fifth, and middle and high schoolers. Varied levels of mastery of both academics and arts are expected, in the belief that the range in understanding enriches everyone.

It’s a particularly radical version of inclusion, the practice of ensuring that children with special needs spend as much of the school day as possible with their typically abled peers. Candaux and Gallegos call it full inclusion, which almost but not quite captures the ethos of people on a continuum of ages and capacities all plugging into a common activity in their own way.

Currently, the concept of push-in services — sending specialists into the classroom to help meet a child’s disability needs — is considered a progressive alternative to sending the student to a resource room or other isolated setting. Research shows that students who receive special education services outside the regular classroom spend just 42 percent of their time in instruction. No surprise, then, that students with disabilities in general education classes experience much higher academic gains.

As recognition of the importance of inclusion has increased, educators have begun to talk about using the same principles to enable students with an array of complex needs, ranging from learning English to giftedness, in mainstream classrooms as much as possible.

As these students, who may also be homeless, in foster care or struggling with unmet mental health issues, become the rule and not the exception, advocates say, sending unconventional students out of the classroom is increasingly problematic.

At Ren Arts, it is impossible to send anyone anywhere. There’s a large room where students in pre-K through second grade are taught, glass-walled music rehearsal rooms and a small child care space — a benefit for staff. Outside of those enclosed areas, however, the school consists of two repurposed warehouse spaces, one with an open loft running along the back. Furniture can be reconfigured as often as student groupings change, or when a stage or set needs to be built.

“We are completely full inclusion,” says Gallegos. “There is no place, there is no bungalow” — the nickname some schools give to what’s commonly referred to as a special education resource room. “Our physical structure makes it possible to have support right in the general ed classroom.”

The absence of walls is meant to enable cross-pollination. Teachers, referred to at Ren Arts as advisers, move from group to group as their expertise or ability to assist individual students is warranted. Facilitating this collaboration: The entire faculty creates multidisciplinary lesson plans and student progress notes, kept in shared online files.

“They have an in-house database where they can make notes and share information about students,” says Sean Gill, one of two CRPE analysts who spent two days at the school observing its mechanics. “It’s not like each teacher has their own grade book.”

Students move fluidly as well. Walking through the building on a recent morning, Gallegos quietly tapped a teenage boy on the shoulder, asking him to help a younger student at a table a few feet away. As it turned out, the smaller child wasn’t struggling; the bigger one, experiencing serious hardship at home, was having trouble staying awake.

Ren Arts students generally get two rotations of “smath” — intertwined science and math — a day. In one of those periods, students learn broad theoretical concepts in groups of about 24. During a second rotation for groups of about 10 students, more fine-tuning takes place. Similarly, there are two rotations of humanities.

Two ‘orchestra moms,’ one vision 

In the loft one morning last semester, an astrophysicist and a group of students sat arrayed around a whiteboard, working through a formula that shows where two lines intersect. The goal: to find out, given the amount of money collected for one of the upcoming shows, how many adult tickets were sold and how many children’s tickets.

At the same time, in an open workshop behind the performance space, a handful of students fabricated horsehead masks built on frames resembling constellations, with triangular lines connecting imaginary stars. Wearing similar, angular costumes, two students, transformed into whooping cranes, performed a mating dance, intertwining in concert with a string ensemble playing Vivaldi.

Even with the strains of The Four Seasons swelling on a round, student-constructed stage, the school was peaceful. The concerti were no more intrusive than a classical soundtrack at a white-tablecloth restaurant. Throughout the space, class conversations went on at a similar volume.

“This would be untenable if they couldn’t work quietly,” says Gallegos. “Churches are quiet. Libraries are quiet. There’s no authority enforcing that. Human beings are capable of understanding that a space is quiet.”

As they move through the cavernous rooms, teachers enforce order, asking students to pick up bits of paper or straighten chairs. Staff work hard to anticipate flash points that could spark disruption by “child-proofing” the space — making sure that a student who is compelled to swing his legs as he sits has room to do so without kicking anyone, for example.

Gallegos had been toying with the idea of starting an arts school for some time when she got to know Candaux. Gallegos’s daughter played the violin and Candaux’s studied cello, and they ended up spending many Saturday mornings together.

“We were those orchestra moms who showed up and set up chairs,” says Candaux. They also talked — a lot — about how fortunate they were to be able to afford years of music lessons.

One day, Gallegos, whose dream of opening a school kept foundering in red tape, asked Candaux if she knew what a charter school was. At the following rehearsal, Candaux told Gallegos she’d done a little research and learned there were charter school startup grants.

From the start, Renaissance Arts’ mission was to provide historically underserved students with a combination of deep academic inquiry and professionally guided arts training. The founders wanted the long arc of study that string instruments require, and they wanted to expose small children to the same kinds of topics shared at dinner tables in families with generations of experience with higher ed.

“If you’re a family that loves books, you don’t say, ‘Oh, we can’t talk about that book because the 5-year-old is here,’” says Gallegos. “You adjust how you talk about it.”

In a conventional school, lessons go in a particular order, with progression dictated not by grade but by understanding and with classes moving on to new topics once old ones have been covered. By contrast, Candaux and Gallegos like to say, everyone arrives at Renaissance Arts with their “prerequisites,” their existing knowledge and skills.

As these increase, a student can return to a text or a mathematical concept — the multi-age lessons mean a student may read and reread the same book for several years — and gain deeper understanding. “The idea that every sixth-grader is reading the same way is absolute fiction,” says Gallegos. “The goal is to get the kids in the room, not to line them up in a particular order.”

Because this belief is so central to the school’s identity, a great deal of collective time is spent exploring it. The whole faculty read The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, by Todd Rose, who heads Harvard University’s Mind, Brain and Education program.

A central tenet of the book is that people are “jagged” learners: All of us have stronger and weaker abilities, so designing instruction, among other things, for a supposed average is misguided. Students take mandated state proficiency tests every year, but teachers also track individual progress in the shared online files.

Because little attention is paid to students’ age-related grades, that hoped-for progress may not correlate to the kind of grade-level expectations used as benchmarks in other schools. The philosophy, says CRPE’s Gill, is, “Do as much as you can, and don’t worry if you don’t understand the rest yet.”

“They’re not a school that focuses on tests,” he adds. “They are a good example of what we hope happens.”

Together, staff have also read NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, which suggests that autism is both a disability and a valuable form of intelligence. The exercise, says Gallegos, reinforced Ren Arts’ embrace of the neurodiversity of both its faculty and students. Since there is no common conception of a “normal” or average student, there’s no standard from which to deviate.

‘I want our most confident minds in lower grades’

At one end of the long loft where the astrophysicist was holding math class, a group of middle and high school students wrote reflections on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations— in sonnet form. A few feet away, a class studying the Constitution had a TV tuned to a live broadcast of an impeachment hearing.

“The professional culture is just very different from a traditional school,” says Michael DeArmond, a senior research analyst at CRPE. “Broadly, they look for people who are going to be a good fit and not worry about their teaching credentials.”

Here, too, the open floor plan is a boon: Because someone with a teaching license is always in proximity, not all faculty need formal education training.

The website’s staff page boasts an impressive array of conservatory alums, as well as teachers with advanced degrees and diplomas from universities in other countries. Ren Arts often pays for faculty to acquire special education expertise and other teaching credentials.

The school blurs the lines in both directions. Last year, Ren Arts enrolled a student who is deaf. Instead of having an aide come in to assist the student, it hired a full-time American Sign Language translator who teaches a number of hearing students to sign.

Nor are teachers assigned the way they are in typical schools, with generalists serving the youngest students and specialists seen only in higher grades. Candaux recalls that when the school served only grades 6-12, for example, students spent their first couple of years recuperating from their fear of math.

The school now concentrates on mathematical foundations, with experts teaching the youngest students. “I want our most confident math minds in lower grades,” says Candaux. “It’s the opposite of most schools, where you put the best math minds in the higher grades, where they only teach kids who made it through the gantlet.”

In addition to academics and art for art’s sake, all students participate in one or more of three arts and entertainment industry career technical education pathways, including music and dance for the creative economy. Besides building school furnishings, students are responsible for set lighting design, sound, production videography and numerous other tasks with career applications. The California Department of Education has designated the school a CTE model demonstration site.

Candaux and Gallegos are proudest of the school’s 100 percent high school graduation and college acceptance rates, noting that in 2018, 90 percent of students enrolled in higher education and 75 percent attended four-year colleges.

Every Ren Arts graduate also completes the stringent “A-G” coursework required for admission to University of California and California State University schools, compared with 60 percent overall in the Los Angeles Unified School District. More than half of the Class of 2019 was accepted to University of California schools, versus a statewide acceptance rate of 17 percent.

The school dramatically outpaces both state and district averages on annual state-mandated assessments. In 2018-19, 77 percent of Ren Arts students passed reading tests, compared with 51 percent statewide and 44 percent in the district. Fifty-six percent passed math tests, versus 40 percent statewide and 33 percent in the district.

Forty-three percent of Ren Arts students with disabilities score at or above grade level in reading, versus 16 percent statewide and 12 percent districtwide. Thirty-nine percent pass math exams, compared with 13 percent statewide and 9 percent in the district.

Performance is higher among the economically disadvantaged students who make up the majority of the student body, with 74 percent passing reading exams and 50 percent math. In the district overall, 38 percent of impoverished students scored at grade level in reading and 28 percent in math. Performance was similar statewide.

Gallegos and Candaux credit the school’s track record of getting special education students into and through college for some of the buzz Ren Arts has acquired in the disability community. They also hypothesize that among their autistic students — the second-largest special education category served, behind specific learning disabilities — there’s something particularly appealing about string instruments.

Mastering the violin, viola or cello requires hyperfocus and a willingness to repeat and continually refine precise movements. A disciplined ear can hear, and adjust for, minute distinctions.

‘What’s viewed as innovation in education is still very narrow’

As rehearsals for the midwinter production continued, an ensemble of seniors and seventh-graders lowered their bows from their instruments. The musicians had fallen out of sync 100 measures into their piece.

The adviser overseeing the rehearsal was busy helping a much larger group of puppeteers trying to get birds on long poles to dip and turn like a flock in flight. So the tallest of the ensemble members stepped in front of his classmates and started a conversation to figure out where they got lost.

Other ensembles, vocal and instrumental, were warming up to rehearse a set list that included spirituals, a Balkan beatbox number, Cher’s “Believe” and liberal helpings of Philip Glass. As in all creation stories, the show will start in darkness. Selected by students in a spoken word class, a vocal and percussion performance of René Aubry’s “Who Lights the Sun” brings the symbolic birth of light. The production will end with a vocal and string performance of Skeeter Davis’s “The End of the World,” which, centering on loss, returns full circle to Achilles’ tearful horses.

What would happen if Candaux, with her writerly ability to interweave narrative threads, and Gallegos, with her deep roots in instructional design, left their jobs? Is Renaissance Arts simply too idiosyncratic to hold lessons for other schools?

Having heard this question many times, the founders smile. “It’s idiosyncratic because what’s viewed as innovation in education is still very narrow,” says Candaux. “There’s an orthodoxy that holds it in place, and it’s reinforced politically.

“Charter schools are supposed to be little ovens of innovation,” she adds. “In fact, most of it is a replication of the way school districts work: It has to be this way because it was this way.”

It is a singular place, they acknowledge. But there’s plenty of room for educators who admire their experiment to tear down walls of their own — literally or metaphorically — and write their own creation story.

Disclosure: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funded the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools and Center on Reinventing Public Education’s research on Renaissance Arts Academy and provides financial support to The 74.

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