LAUSD High School Proves Art Can Link to Higher Scores
Walk into one math class at the Los Angeles High School of the Arts (LAHSA) and you’ll see robots tall enough to touch the ceiling built out of cardboard boxes, cups and plastic bottles. Not far away, you’ll find a group of students immersed in a history lesson, painting murals about poverty in the city. At LAHSA, teachers find ways to channel their students’ creativity into regular instruction. This artistic approach to learning core skills in math, English, and science has resulted in raising the school’s Academic Performance Index (API) score.
Five years ago, LAHSA became one of LAUSD’s first two pilot schools. LAHSA originated as Belmont Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA), a small learning community within Belmont High School. Becoming a pilot school allowed BAPA to separate from the larger school and exercise greater autonomy over staffing, budget and curriculum. At that time in 2009, the school’s API score was 540. After two years as a pilot, LAHSA’s API score rose to 661. The students hope this year’s API score increases to 700 when results are announced in August.
It is not only LAHSA’s API scores that have seen huge improvements, but the California High School Exit Exam passage rate is showing growth as well. In May of 2009, 50% of LAHSA’s tenth-graders passed the exam. By 2011, the figure was 66%. This year, the students have succeeded in having one of the highest pass rates within LAUSD at 87%.
“It’s because of the level of our expectations for the kids,” explained Principal Esther Soliman. “It is the rigor. I think kids come in here and realize this is a different kind of school.”
How is it different? At LAHSA, it’s not about “teaching to the test.” The school’s artistic approach to learning engages students in a way that organically provides them with the standards-based skills and knowledge to achieve academic proficiency.
Jane Bae is the math teacher who had her students build robots to learn about geometry. “Some of the monsters, as we called them, couldn’t fit through the door,” laughed Ms. Bae. The students built cylinders for the arms with two circles and a rectangle, and used the radius to calculate volume and surface area. They rolled and measured cylinders and rectangles to build the robot to scale. Bae explained, “One of the questions on the CST test was how far would a cylinder roll? They knew the answer, not from reading it in a book, but because they had been rolling cylinders and physically testing that theory out in class.”
Soliman says there’s very little time spent preparing for the CST tests. “We do prep on the weekends and we did provide six or seven voluntary sessions. So, most of this success happens organically, due to the work we’re doing with our curriculum.”
If you’re wondering what inspired this different approach to learning at LAHSA, you can credit the principal. She has devoted her career to integrating arts and learning.
Beginning in 1978, she taught English and Theatre at Virgil Middle School. After moving to the East Coast, she taught English and theatre schools in New York City and Plymouth, Massachusetts. She earned a master’s degree in educational administration at New York University and returned to Los Angeles in 1999 earning an additional master’s in theatre directing from CalArts. Shortly thereafter, she returned to Belmont High School where she served as the English department chairperson. Thirteen years ago, she created The Performing Arts Academy. When small learning communities became popular, she embraced the idea of more individualized learning and the school became BAPA. As principal of LAHSA, Ms. Soliman still teaches an AP English class every year and continues to take professional development with her teachers. Soliman also mentors a small group of students, as do all of her teachers.
Becoming a pilot school did much more than to provide her with an opportunity for a more cohesive approach to learning. It created a more defined community of students and teachers, and provided Soliman with autonomies she didn’t have before.
Prior to becoming LAHSA, BAPA was defined as a small learning community. The 450 students were “passported out” to various programs within the much larger high school campus. Now, her students do all their learning at LAHSA with LAHSA teachers and programs. Those programs and the selection of teachers have been redefined as well.
Soliman now has expanded control over budget, curriculum, governance, calendar, and staff selection. Soliman says she loves being part of the District because she receives support that helps the school continue its programs.
How has she used autonomy? To begin with, she has a very inclusive process for selecting teachers. After she and her staff have selected which teachers qualify (LAHSA is subject to No Child Left Behind and Williams Act teacher quality oversight because it receives Title I and Quality Education Investment Act funds) to teach project-based learning, she involves the children in the decision. In the final meeting, the teachers’ potential students question the applicants themselves and help decide which applicants get the job.
Each LAHSA teacher has an elect to work agreement, must go through seven days of training and accept equity and access coaching four times a year. “The coaches ensure that the teaching is personalized and student-centered rather than teacher project-based learning,” explained Soliman. “We create our own curriculum and teachers have to turn in unit maps, which explain what the students in their class will be learning.” Soliman says the teachers are committed to full engagement in all school events and must be supportive of all students.
Having autonomy over the curriculum and calendar allows her teachers to plan college trips. “We say we want to promote a college ready and career ready culture, yet our kids who live in a city with dozens of colleges surrounding them have never stepped on a college campus,” said Soliman. “If we don’t get them out there, they won’t know what it is. They’ve got to have a dream and college expectations, and we have to show them what that is.” Parents are also involved in the college tours.
Soliman says the most exciting part about her new independence as principal of a pilot school is that her entire staff has a say and is energized about teaching students in a different way. “I go home late around seven o’clock and there are many teachers still here,” Soliman said with pride. She says teachers come in on weekends, encouraged by their students’ success. “I don’t feel like anyone is sitting on their laurels. Everyone is working so hard.”
At LAHSA, a project may involve several different classes to complete the task. The ninth-graders wrote stories about a personal hero, created an accompanying scroll, and used what they learned in cultural geography about China to design their scrolls. In acting class, they told the story of their hero and created an ensemble piece representing their projects. In all, five subjects were included in this project: English, acting, math, cultural geography, and theater design.
The project is a model of what’s known as “Link Learning.” Soliman’s school was evaluated this June to get the Link Learning certification and hopes LAHSA will become the first such school at LAUSD. LAHSA is one of only four schools applying to get certified. “We had a very positive response from the evaluators,” exclaimed Soliman. “They’re very excited about our performing arts program and how it’s helped the students express what they’re learning.”
‘Link Learning’ has provided the students with an opportunity to see how different subjects are interrelated. “It also teaches the kids to work together and create together. These projects are huge. They have to depend on each other, correct each other, lead, follow and take responsibility,” said Soliman.
It’s a model that energized not only the staff and teachers but also the students. I sat down with five 11th-grade students to discuss how blending theater and English classes has affected their learning. “I think by us being in a theater class, we learn how to present, how to articulate and how to project our voices,” said Nicole Kim.
Students talked about a project in their 10th-grade English class that involved a mock trial. “It’s not just us writing down and taking notes,” explained Juan Luis. “It’s us doing the presentation and we put a lot of work into it. We research the material intensely so we can perform it correctly.” Kim added, “We have to put deeper thought into it and do research for historical background, so we really understand what we did.” Clara Choy says learning through performing changed her life. “In acting class we build more confidence,” said Choy. “Before I was in acting class, I was really, really shy.”
Chae Lee says she never really understood the importance of math until she applied it in theater design class. “When are we going to use this fraction in real life, I thought?” said Lee. “All the math skills that we learn in math classes, we apply to design classes. We get a lot of practice, and we use math so much that we get comfortable using math. We’re more confident.”
Soliman says hearing from her students and seeing their progress inspires her because she knows they’re learning. She’s impressed by the test scores, but says, “I would prefer the students’ achievements be measured on project-based assessments rather than standardized tests, which are often stagnant and not a clear reflection of their abilities.”
Math teacher Jane Bae says that’s her approach as well. “Right now, I’m trying to get my CST scores to improve, but I don’t want that to be my ultimate goal. I want them to be able to express themselves,” said Bae.
“It is with great pride that Los Angeles High School of the Arts is recognized as a School on the Move,” noted Donna Muncey, Chief of Intensive Support and Intervention. "LAHSA's principal and staff have created a learning environment for students that provides challenging curriculum, meaningful integration across subjects, and authentic and engaging creative projects to deepen and expand students' understanding. This pilot school's innovative approach to learning is both engaging students and supporting increased learning and achievement. These were some of the many reasons our team selected LAHSA as a School on the Move."
Soliman said, “I’m thrilled that we’re making progress because that allows us to keep our autonomies intact, but I must admit I hate that we put so much emphasis on these scores.” Still, the fact that her unique approach to teaching students has resulted in test score improvements provides hard evidence that well-designed project-based learning and engaged teaching are effective in improving college preparedness and ensuring the students are on track to graduate.
By: Stephanie Abrams
Posted: June 20, 2012