'Grand Master' Teachers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The teachers.

Ask students at the Boston Arts Academy what stands out to them about their new school after its first semester, and that's the answer that frequently spills out.

The teachers.

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Common sense says that good teaching improves student performance. For hard proof, look no further than the teens at BAA, most of whom left other Boston public schools to attend this new public high school for the visual and performing arts.

A number of the students were failing or getting C's and D's before they arrived at BAA. Their grades have improved,but so has their view of teachers -people they now refer to as "friends."

New to them, students say, are teachers who care. Who give out their home numbers and expect to be called. Who sit, eat, and talk with them in the cafeteria. Who stay after school to help them. Who are close to them in age. Who can be trusted not to reveal students' personal problems.

Sophomore Jennifer O'Halloran recalls being told by a teacher at her old school that she was not worth anything. Last week, she was one of 23 students who made BAA's first honor roll -after getting C's and D's the year before. "Really supportive," is how she describes BAA's teachers.

In addition, many students say they are finally being challenged academically. "It's like college," says sophomore Sharon Pam. "We take a lot of notes."

Educators like science teacher Sung-Joon Pai (or "Grand Master P" as one student affectionately addressed him during a recent class) and humanities teacher Morgaen Donaldson, for example, find ways to incorporate the arts into their lessons, building energy-efficient model homes or making a huge map of Africa out of food. It's a holistic approach to arts education, similar to one used at other US schools (see story, page 16).

Students tell Mr. Pai they like that he wears jeans to school. For his part, he calls students at home who need help getting their work done to see what they're up to on the weekends.

The result of such personal attention, among other things, is that the attendance rate is "very high," according to Headmaster Linda Nathan. Only four or five out of 160 are gone each day on average. "I look forward to going to school everyday," says ninth-grader Alex Sabater. "I don't even think about skipping," says Hurl Booth, who stayed late for two months so he could juggle being a lead in the school play (a large chunk of his grade) and his academic subjects.

It's good that this commitment to teachers and school is being forged early. It will help as the school grows to its full capacity of 350 students. It will also make a difference as BAA sorts out how to adapt a portfolio-driven, writing-intensive curriculum to new state standardized tests required for graduation. But at last week's pep-rally-like honors assembly, that fight seemed a long way off. Elsa Marvel, one of two teens who got all A's, summed things up later: "I love this school and I love my teachers."

*Send e-mail to campbellk@csps.com

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