Something is Working at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts

In the national pursuit to create better high schools, we seldom turn to art schools for inspiration.

But innovation can be found in our conservatories.

That’s what I found when I spent a semester at an art school.

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If you’re not from New Orleans you may not have heard of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), but you’ve probably heard of its graduates: Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Harry Connick, Jr., Terence Blanchard, Jeanne-Michele Charbonnet, Wendell Pierce, Anthony Mackie and Trombone Shorty are just some of the internationally renowned artists to train at the half-day conservatory.

Clearly something is working at NOCCA. For added confirmation, just check out the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

When I served as the interim chief academic officer for NOCCA from January through June this year, it didn’t take long for me to see that all high schools can adopt many of NOCCA’s practices and structures, which ultimately make it a great school.

Our non-pursuit of conservatories to modernize high schools may stem from our belief of art as artificial. Maybe a myopic view and idolization of science, technology, engineering and math remove our gaze.

Paradoxically, in a city that found inspiration for education reform in academic failure, New Orleans’s greatest intellectual exports – artists – are in abundance. New Orleans devaluation of art and art schools follows a negative view of black people. While good enough to entertain, black folk and their formal and informal schools are not good enough to emulate.

Related: Why more black male teachers should be feminists

In the six months of my “residency,” I’ve come to see that arrangements of great schools look more like polyphonic score sheets than conventional organizational charts.

Founded in 1973, “NOCCA is a regional, pre-professional arts training center that offers students intensive instruction in culinary arts, dance, media arts: filmmaking and audio production, music (classical, jazz, vocal), theatre arts (drama, musical theatre, theatre design), visual arts, and creative writing.” In 2011, NOCCA broke tradition and added a full-day academic and art program that will probably add to the aforementioned list of luminaries.

Approximately 95 percent of the graduates go on each year to a college or conservatory. Its full-day “academic studio” earned three consecutive “A”s from the Louisiana’s Department of Education in each of the years it has been graded. But don’t pigeonhole NOCCA as just a great art school. The essential principles of NOCCA are worthy of replication.

Like any educational institution, the quality of the faculty is critical. At NOCCA, faculty are required to prove they also work as professional artists. Consequently, they don’t do “professional development” as much as they continue their education and practice their crafts. In addition, NOCCA teachers don’t simply “teach” students technical skills. Like artists, teachers should usher apprentices into a guild.

Somewhere along the way we started to reduce teaching to a small set of technical skills, removing its relational and social elements.

Being a chef is no different than being a social scientist when it comes to mentoring students towards a career.

Likewise, biology teachers should move apprentices toward their respective field just like sculptors. Currently, we have too many math teachers and not enough mathematicians. Good teaching acculturates students in an academic or professional community.

The problem is that we don’t see black and brown students as mathematicians like we do jazz performers.

It’s easier for students to find a community that shares his or her interest when the student is able to see an academic identity that one can become familiar with. At NOCCA, students must audition for their respective program. A cynic will charge that filtering is what makes the school special.

However, filtering in is very different than weeding out. There is much to be said about having schools align with the professional and academic goals of a student. Interest, passion and talent don’t have a race, gender or sexuality. A true magnet school attracts interest that naturally occurs in different ethnic communities. Indeed, diversity is an indicator of how authentic a magnet school is. A lack of diversity exposes fronting niche schools for the gated communities they really are.

Auditions should gauge passion, not privilege. Selective admissions based on test scores can miss this mark. NOCCA makes clear that artistic talent and passion doesn’t show up on a test score. They do show up in a performance. Testing is actually a skill enhanced with practice and resources, but testing is one of the most useless skills anyone can have. Give me the painting, collection of poems or films as evidence of passion. Students (and teachers) of all academic varieties need stages more than testing sites.

Consequently, we should see more high schools that are focused on specific academic areas and professions. Students need to feel like they are part of a professional and/or academic community that goes deep into what they want to do in their lives.

In an era in which curricula and students have been constrained by high stakes testing and accountability, it was eye opening to see student and faculty members’ art shape the composition and form of the schools. When distinct voices of each student and teacher are arranged properly, the organization sings like a sweet melodic song. In great schools, leaders look less like CEOs and more like conductors who arrange distinct voices of teachers and students to perform a sweet melodic song.

As education philosopher Kenneth Strike points out, great schools perform more like church choirs than banks in which students make educational withdrawals and deposits. The metaphor for high school has “progressed” in recent times from a factory to a bank. Now it’s time for schools to play songs of freedom like a great jazz orchestra from New Orleans. NOCCA provides a score for this.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).