Students at Genesee Community Charter School are immersed in art across the curriculum.
Credit: Genesee Community Charter School
In the fall of 2014, educators from more than 300 Blue Ribbon schools from around the nation met in the District of Columbia to talk about the hard work that led to their gains and national awards. We sat down to ask some of these educators about what other schools could learn from them.
One in four of the 217 kindergarten through sixth-grade students who attend the Genesee Community Charter School (GCCS) are eligible to receive free or reduced-price lunches and one in ten are students with disabilities. Admission to the school is by lottery but the school has worked hard to bring together a school population that is diverse racially, ethnically and socio-economically. Three-quarters of the school’s third through sixth graders are proficient in both mathematics and English language arts.
GCCS students are immersed in the arts, local history and culture. They learn about science, geography and the social history of Rochester by working with local experts, going on educational field trips and completing projects that often are made public. Classes share their understanding of skills and concepts through music and dance, writing, interactive presentations and media projects. Sixth graders complete what the school calls a “Portfolio Passage,” which gives them a chance to develop written and oral presentation skills and demonstrate how GCCS has prepared them to be active citizens in their community and the wider world. The school received a four-year Federal Arts in Education Model Development and Dissemination grant to advise other schools on how to integrate the arts across their curriculums.
Lisa Wing, principal, and Lisa O’Malley, curriculum specialist, Genesee Community Charter School
Credit: U.S. Department of Education
Q. How is your curriculum different from other schools’ curricula?
Lisa Wing, principal: We use the Expeditionary Learning curriculum. We’re unique in that we connect children deeply to the place in which they live, which forms a foundation for them to understand how social, natural, geographic, political and economic forces shape people and places over time. We spiral kids through six periods of history on a two-year cycle—three periods per year. The whole school studies the same time period at the same time. We spend a lot of time with the kids out in the community. If we’re studying the early days of the community, we study the seven original settlements along the Genesee River that combined to form Rochester. We visit a graveyard in King’s Landing, led by a local history expert; students take notes about the people buried there and then go back to the school and research them.
Lisa O’Malley, curriculum specialist: To study the effect of immigration on local history, we travel to Ellis Island and we visit the Tenement Museum in Lower Manhattan. We go to Lowell, Massachusetts, to learn about early industry. Our fourth through sixth graders travel all over the country as part of their studies.
Our sixth-grade curriculum focuses on one hot topic in Rochester each year. One year, the city was building an art walk, and the steering committee asked our sixth graders to recommend types of public art that would appeal to children and families. So, the sixth graders studied ancient Roman art, then the science of rust and metal and materials. They learned about how artists choose certain materials for their art. They traveled to five cities known for public art—Seattle, Denver, Minneapolis, the District of Columbia and Frederick, Maryland. They came back in the spring and studied more about the role of public art in a community. Then they designed some recommendations and made a presentation to the commission working on the project.
Q. How do you pay for those trips?
Wing: We pay for most of the cost out of our regular allocation. We ask parents to contribute but we also provide scholarships if they can’t afford it.
Q. How important are the arts in the curriculum?
Dance and art are prominent in the curriculum of the Genesee Community Charter School.
Credit: Genesee Community Charter School
O’Malley: The arts are alive and well in our school in an era when art is often chopped to meet other priorities. In our school, the arts are one of the priorities.
The regular teachers and the art teachers plan curriculum together so that visual arts, music, dance and creative movement become another language that children can use to express what they’re learning in the classroom. That deepens their understanding of a concept, a culture, a time period or the content.
Wing: There are three ways that art connects to content. One is literal: if you’re studying a river you can make river paintings and sing songs about rivers. The second is historical or cultural: you can study the art, music and dance from the time period you’re studying. If you’re studying slavery you can study African drumming. The third is conceptual: you can create art that connects to a big idea. For example, if you’re studying space you might compose music that has cycles in it. If you’re studying rivers, you could choreograph a dance that has movement and change.
Q. How is your school year organized?
Wing: Our teachers loop with their kids, staying with them for two years: kindergarten and first grade, grades 2–3 and grades 4–5. Sixth graders have a teacher for only one year. Each grade has one class, and each class has two teachers and an assistant. That provides teachers with more flexibility in forming small groups, doing interventions and managing behavior. We have three 12-week sessions each year, and our teachers have three weeks of professional development in August and 12 professional development days during the year. We also let the kids go early on Wednesdays when the teachers work together from 1:45 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. Our kids have more hours of school than usual, but they are spread out differently to give teachers more time to learn and plan and be thoughtful about their work. So, when things such as the Common Core State Standards come along, the teachers don’t freak out because we have time to deal with it and prepare our teachers for those challenges.
Q. How do you decide what to use that professional development time for?
O’Malley: The whole faculty decides what to focus our professional development time on. Our sessions are really dedicated to learning, and they’re structured so that everyone is involved and they really own it. And because we’re all focusing on the same thing, we can dive into the classroom and try things out. We have time to plan our expeditions and critique other teachers’ plans.
You can learn more about Genesee Community Charter School here.