Art For More Than Art’s Sake In Queens
By Chuck Wilbanks
This year’s annual Shubert Foundation High School Theatre Festival, providing a Broadway venue to some of the city’s top budding performers, featured student performers from schools few would find surprising: The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Queens, Manhattan’s Talent Unlimited High School, Professional Performing Arts High School and LaGuardia High School for Music, Art, and Performing Arts. All are well-known for their arts offerings.
The outlier in the bunch was the only non-performing arts school: William Cullen Bryant High School in Queens. Out of a group of 25 high schools originally judged, a troupe of Bryant students made the cut and appeared in March at the prestigious Shubert venue, treating the crowd to a performance of Henry’s Law, a tragicomedy about a smart but socially awkward student who falls victim to cyberbullying.
The fact that students from Bryant performed at the Schubert was remarkable not only because the school isn’t one of the city’s famous specialty schools. During the Bloomberg administration, Bryant, a school of about 2400 students where several dozen languages are spoken, was slated to be shuttered. In the last several years, it has clawed its way from the brink of closure to become a vibrant hub in the community.
The school now offers a wealth of advanced placement courses. A robotics program allows students to learn how to design and build their own drone. There is an emphasis on STEAM classes and students can even begin studying law. But one of the most notable achievements the school has posted over the last several years has been its ever-expanding arts offerings, particularly the performing arts. Namita Dwarka, Bryant’s principal for the past eight years, said that new emphasis pays a huge dividend.
“Arts have a way of pulling kids in and you can help them reach their other academic potential, too,” she said.
“We’ve taken kids who weren’t interested in the arts, from rough situations at home, and taken them to museums, the Met Opera, Broadway. Young men in gangs ask when we’re going to another Broadway show. We’re making an impact with the arts.”
Ms. Dwarka, who like other members of her family graduated from Bryant, credits the help of DOE’s Director of the Arts Paul King and Peter Avery, DOE’s Director of Theater for the turnaround. But she offers special praise for her staff. Six years ago, she hired Allissa Crea, who had been working in the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s education department, to help engineer the creation of a robust performing arts program.
“Her vision from day one was to make everything student-centered,” Ms. Crea said. “We shifted the focus from general programing to specific arts programming. We now have a core sequence in each arts subject, so students can take classes from first year on in each arts subject. We have a jazz program, music, choral and band. There is a lot of planning and a shared vision to get that to happen. It would not work without the collaboration between teachers, the principal, the assistant principals and programming. There is a lot of tracking that needs to happen.
“This would not have happened without Principal Dwarka’s push for the arts.”
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