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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Striking the right chord in education - ACAA

Posted On: 2017-11-14 08:47 AM
From AzCentral.com...


Cara O'Donnell, for Edkey® Inc.

One student shows an aptitude for music. Another loves to dance. Both feel an undeniable pull toward the arts, but aren't finding the resources they need at traditional public schools. That's where Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics steps in.

Part of the Edkey® Inc. family of charter schools, which provides specialized elementary and secondary education options for students across Arizona, this K-5 elementary school understands the needs of arts-affiliated children, as does its sister secondary school for grades 6-12. Through an approach that integrates arts and education, students can explore their creativity while also getting a solid, quality schooling in traditional subjects.

"The arts bring them in the door, but the academics keep them here," said Chris Lalley, elementary principal at Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics. "That's our theme, and it's very important. It balances not just the academics, but also the performing arts."

Many Arizona schools are cutting their arts programs. "At our school, we have both because they feed off one another," Lalley continued.

Approximately 225 students attend the elementary school, which is located near Interstate 17 and Bell Road in northwest Phoenix. Depending on the day and the grade, students attend classes for art, dance, music and more – subjects the school calls "specials." Physical education is also a central part of the curriculum. Even "traditional" classes, such as math, reading or history integrate arts into their academic learning.

"As a teacher, I think what's unique about our setup is that there's deliberate collaboration between the general education teachers and the special teachers," said fourth grade language arts and science teacher Lori Aquilone. "Physical education, visual arts and music teachers: We collaborate on different standards, and it's reflected in the instruction in the 'specials' classes."

If students are particularly motivated by music, for example, they receive the additional instruction they need to set them up for success in the areas that mean most to them.

It's all done through collaboration, which is key. Music students preparing for a concert learn about contextual clues in their reading class. Meanwhile, vocabulary lessons focus on lyrics in songs that may be confusing, helping students understand not only the language, but also the deeper meaning of the music at hand.

To better synchronize lesson plans, as they do for music and reading, teachers connect and collaborate. Throughout the school year they embark on special projects to further integrate a topic into both arts and academic classrooms.

"The program creates consistent communication between teachers," said visual arts teacher Helica Vasquez. "I find that's a really special mix because in most schools, the 'specials' teachers are the outliers. In our school, we're all collaborators."

It's created a "really neat" culture, Vasquez described. This collaborative environment has been a mainstay since 2012 when Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics first opened its doors. There are additional charter schools in the area, including three within a two-mile radius, fostering a neighborhood where education shines.

Here's how the school works: there are two classes for each grade level, and while current students are given priority for enrollment, new students are always welcome, regardless of time of year, provided there's room in the class.

Throughout the year, students show their families the skills they've learned in various performances. The Nutcracker is an annual event, as is a spring fashion show, where students imagine and create their own designs.

"Our students have so many opportunities to excel here," Vasquez said. "I have students who are in art, and in the school newspaper, and in The Nutcracker, and on student council. They have so many opportunities. It's a place for them to thrive."

While there's an emphasis on the arts at Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics, the focus on traditional subjects isn't lost.

"I always tell parents that the academics are the foundation – that's what you should come here for," Lalley said. "We use that foundation."

Students are kept on track through a checks and balances system that ensures academic goals are met. It's not an easy school, Lalley noted, but Edkey® Inc. understands how important a good, engaging education is to parents—and their children.

"It's our number one goal," he explained. "A well-balanced culture."

For more information about Arizona Conservatory for Art and Academics, visit azconservatory.org.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.

Photos: Photo: Getty Images