For These Students, High School Means Art and Academics

Why the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts is a public school success story

''Doors have opened for me since I came here," says Lance Wade, an art student at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA). His paintings, including one that portrays a friend who was murdered, have won state-wide prizes.

"NOCCA didn't just give me the opportunity to learn what I wanted to learn about art," Lance notes. "It gave me the opportunity to want more, so I can do something when I finish here."

Established in 1974, NOCCA is a public high school that provides intensive training in dance, music, visual arts, theater, and writing. The school is a success story, not just for individual students like Lance, but for the beleaguered New Orleans public school system, which generally ranks near the bottom by many measures of academic achievement.

By contrast, NOCCA students - 17 percent of whom are on public assistance - boast sterling statistics like a 97 percent daily attendance rate, with 98 percent of graduates going on to college or conservatories, approximately three-quarters of them on scholarship.

For a small school (250 students, including a senior class of about 50) in a dilapidated, 95-year-old building, NOCCA grads have snagged a surprising haul of national awards, like presidential scholarships, Academy of American Poetry awards, and NEA and NEH fellowships. It is such a bright spot amid the blight of crime and poverty in the city, that the Louisiana legislature is chipping in $17.5 million to construct a new facility, slated for groundbreaking in June.

High-profile alumni

Of the 180 members of the International Network of Performing and Visual Arts Schools, NOCCA probably has the most national visibility, primarily because many alumni have high-voltage jazz careers. Termed the "young lions" in a Time magazine cover story, the celebrity alums include trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, winner of eight Grammys and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, and his brothers: sax player Branford (until recently, music director of "The Tonight Show" on NBC), record producer Delfeayo, and drummer Jason. Among many other NOCCA musicians with major recording careers are Grammy-winning pianist and actor Harry Connick Jr. and trumpet player Terence Blanchard, who has composed scores for Spike Lee films.

Graduates in other fields also lend glory to the school, as dancers perform with companies like the Dutch National Ballet and Atlanta Ballet. Writers publish books, film criticism, and poetry. Visual-arts graduates are architects, designers, and painters exhibiting in galleries. Actor Wendell Pierce, who appeared on Broadway in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Piano Lesson" and has a major role in the film "Waiting to Exhale," studied at NOCCA. "No other school in such a short time has produced so many artists who are not only successful, but who've actually changed the course of their craft," he says.

Yet, although the school has produced more than its share of stars, "that's not what NOCCA's about," says music chairman Stephen Dankner. "It's an enrichment program for those who might like to try out a career in the arts." Singing instructor Lorraine Alfaro cites the case of a vocal student who decided to pursue medicine rather than music. "This is a success story for us. If a student can find out in high school what she wants, we've done a tremendous service."

Student painter Madeleine Froomer is under no illusion that stardom awaits. "The role of an artist in society is nothing society will reward," she says. "You do it for yourself and to express what you can't express otherwise."

Many students still audition for admission to NOCCA, however, dazzled by the "Fame" mystique. "Fame" was a 1980 movie that spun off a 1982-83 television series based on New York's High School for the Performing Arts, the first arts magnet school founded in 1936. "A lot of people come here because they're intoxicated with the NOCCA image and think we will make them a star," says drama teacher Henry Hoffman. Such pupils receive a reality check. "We hold their feet to the fire on academics. They must see the connection between literacy and art."

The New Orleans model differs from most arts magnet schools, which offer academic and arts classes in one building. NOCCA enrollees take academic courses at nearly 50 schools in the metropolitan area, then attend NOCCA half a day for arts training. Yet the choice offered students is not art or academics but art and academics, since they must maintain a B average. "It's not a goof-off place," says dancer Sara Howland. "You come here to be serious."

Sometimes students throw themselves so hard into training that academic grades nosedive. That's when individual attention from teachers pays off. "When the teachers find out your grades are slipping and they realize the talent you have, they push you," says Collette Williams, a dancer. "It's hard to balance the art and academics because you got the creative vibe going, but you've got to get the intellectual side, too."

Work ethic applies to the arts

In fact, the discipline necessary for a pre-professional arts curriculum seeps over to the 3-R side. Many students' grades climb after enrolling at NOCCA, despite the extra demands on their time. "Art, schmart," says Mr. Hoffman. "If anything, they learn the work ethic here."

Teachers say one problem apprentice artists face is their urge to perform before mastering the basics. "The main thing at first is to hold them back," says jazz teacher Clyde Kerr Jr. Fundamentals of instruction include not only technique but studying the classical literature, music theory, and ear training. "They're cheeky and they want to play at clubs. We teach how to be a wallflower at the orgy. I tell them, 'You have to bring something on stage,' " Mr. Kerr says.

At an age when most teens are more concerned about their next date than their ultimate fate, these young people exhibit striking maturity. As vocalist Carmen White observes, "People my age are worried about little things like what to wear to a party, while I'm worried about my future career." She adds, "It seems like you lose a lot by going here, but actually you gain a lot. You find out who you are and what's important to you." Although Carmen sacrificed participating in activities like student council at her academic school, her training in Italian bel canto singing taught her, she says, "new skills, which you're doing instead of just reading about."

Active rather than passive learning is key to the program's success. The differences are "enormous" between students' academic schools and NOCCA, says acting student Tristan Codrescu, son of poet and National Public Radio essayist Andrei Codrescu. "At my other school they teach people how to be robots. Everyone has these glazed eyes as they march toward their next class and sit in their seats. Here you're blasted into a new world. [In movement class] you're rolling on the floor and standing on your head, making space monsters and fighting them."

Theater department head Raymond Vrazel says, "Any academic school could adopt the methods of an arts school and have great, great results." Yet teaching at NOCCA puts a heavy burden on instructors. For one thing, all faculty are practicing professionals in their fields.

"We're not coming from a little red schoolhouse, apple-on-the-desk background," Hoffman says. "We've been bumped around, and we tool our students to that reality."

Treated like professionals

Not only do teachers serve as mentors and role models, but the technical skills they transmit have practical relevance. It's learning for life, not for a grade, and students say they love it. According to NOCCA principal John Otis, who is president of the International Network of Performing and Visual Arts Schools, "The arts can serve as a model because of our emphasis on authentic learning, as in John Dewey's motto - learn by doing."

Although capable of spellbinding performances, most of these aspiring artists exhibit a becoming modesty. "Just when you think you have it mastered, you're really nowhere," says drama student Richon May. "But you can learn the most from your failures anyway."

Teachers treat their charges not just like adults, but like professionals. Students become very results-oriented and independent. As writer Dolsy Smith says, "We have to explore and search for our own answers here. I've learned how to think more than just how to write."

Many students find fellowship by working with like-minded peers, whom they come to consider family. "At my regular school, people think I'm so weird and crazy, but here I'm just like everyone else," says Richon.

Although they come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, NOCCA students discover common ground in the arts. Inner-city public school enrollment in New Orleans is less than 4 percent white, while at NOCCA student enrollment is 50/50 white/non-white. "Inside these walls," Vrazel says, "is a truly multicultural approach where your human beingness is recognized. The arts are where the races and different cultures come together."

"NOCCA is a microcosm of how our society works," agrees Kenneth Ferdinand, executive director of Friends of NOCCA, a nonprofit group that has raised $3 million to furnish the new school building. Citing New Orleans's rich heritage of multiethnic music, cuisine, and architecture, he adds, "Here, we're steeped in diversity and art."

Redefining local culture

With music grads in the vanguard, NOCCA has already redefined the culture of New Orleans. Just three decades ago, about the only place to hear authentic jazz was at Preservation Hall where octogenarian musicians played "When the Saints Go Marching In" for $5 tips. Now jazz wafts from every street corner like the scent of magnolias. School officials are hoping the other arts will be as highly appreciated.

Between 10th and 12th grades, classes shrink drastically as pupils who lack a true calling exit the program. A two-week decision period after a student is accepted offers a trial session after which the student can withdraw or be "counseled out," a euphemism for returning to regular school. Teachers and counselors meet with students each semester to decide if they've progressed enough to stay.

"It's really all in [students'] hands," says the theater department's Vrazel.

Many of those who stick it out find, as Harry Connick Jr. says of his NOCCA education, "The teachers put the tool belt on me, gave me a hammer and nails. They gave me everything I needed to build what I had to do."

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