Creating Equity from the Ground Up

Boston Arts Academy is the city’s first public high school for the visual and
performing arts. The Arts Academy is committed to a rigorous academic and arts education for students who are eager to think creatively and independently, to question, and to take risks within a college preparatory program. As a pilot school within the Boston Public Schools,
the Arts Academy is charged with being a laboratory of academic innovation and a beacon for arts education. (From the BAA Mission Statement, 1998)

The work of creating an equitable, inclusive school from the ground up is exhausting, but the rewards are huge. Late one afternoon I was showing a visitor around our school. “There won’t be much to see,” I said apologetically, “because the school day is essentially over.” I was wrong.

Every room we visited was bursting with activity. More than forty students were crammed into the computer lab. Some worked at the machines, others at tables with teachers, college tutors, or peer tutors. One student was helping another finish her math portfolio because both were late for concert chorus rehearsal. The director of the chorus understood—it was the last week of the term.

All the music practice rooms were filled—some with teachers working one-on-one with students, others with students practicing alone. In another room, auditions for the Culture Share and Talent Show were going on. Student government representatives and a faculty adviser were judging the entries.

In the large dance studio, seniors presented their choreography to a panel of dance critics, professional dancers, and dance teachers. Other students crowded the room, listening attentively, as their peers received professional feedback.

The theater rehearsal was just getting under way. Ms. Rodrigues was explaining that they would start after they had a chance to see the eleventh grade visual arts show, “Inferno.” Robert Pinsky, the former U.S. Poet Laureate, was here with students from his creative writing class at Boston University for the “Inferno” opening. He was thrilled that his translation of Dante’s Inferno had been the inspiration for our students’ wood carvings.

The school was filled with purposeful activity. Students rose to challenges as teachers both pushed and supported them. The message in every classroom, studio, and exhibition space was “We adults are here for you, because you matter. We have set high standards for every one of you, because every one of you matters.”

A Dual Commitment

The Boston Arts Academy (BAA) is one of the few arts schools in the United States that has a completely open academic admissions policy. That is, we admit students solely on the basis of an artistic audition or portfolio, without regard to their previous academic record. At the same time, we are committed both to preparing all our students to do college work and to maintaining heterogeneous classrooms, without tracking, in most subjects. To meet both of these commitments is an enormous challenge.

Students audition for BAA in one of five areas: vocal or instrumental music, visual arts, dance, or theater. At these tryouts, we look for “the light behind their eyes”—evidence of a passion for their art. Clearly, this is difficult to judge in a thirteen-year-old, but our audition panels, made up of arts college admissions officers, community artists, and our own faculty, have been successful in selecting a student population that reflects the social, economic, ethnic, and linguistic diversity of Boston.
Many students have little prior experience in or exposure to the arts before coming to BAA. Some may have participated in our Saturday music program sponsored by our partner, the Berklee College of Music; others may have had one art class in middle school or at a community center. But most of them come to our school with the “Fame” fantasy, thinking that dance education means hip-hop all day. (They soon learn that dance at BAA means ballet and modern classes every day, with small doses of hip-hop and jazz.)

Academically, we know nothing about our students before we admit them. Some went to strong middle schools. Others have never read a novel and were taught by substitutes all year. The range of preparation is vast, and the diversity of cultural and family backgrounds is equally broad. We celebrate this diversity. At the same time we must push ourselves to create a truly equitable school that meets the needs of all our learners.

Common Goals

One way we have found to work together in this effort is to make sure that all of us, teachers, students, and families, are striving in the same direction. We named two central goals for the 2002—2003 school year:

  • To practice, demonstrate, teach, and assess seriousness of purpose;
  • To use differentiated instruction to support a heterogeneous group of students.

We develop our annual goals through a yearlong process of observation, reflection, and discussion. It culminates in a leadership team decision in late June about how to frame our goals for the upcoming year. The leadership team includes representatives from all parts of the community (student support, teachers, administration, parents, and students). This policy-making body has final authority to articulate the goals and then link our professional development to those goals. Teachers’ midyear and end-of-year reflections are key factors in informing the entire school community about “where we are at.” We attend closely to what teachers write in these reflections and to what students and parents are saying and experiencing. In some years, the school-wide goal has emphasized assessment in heterogeneous classes; in other years, the goal has focused more on teaching. Although the emphasis may differ from year to year, we maintain a steady focus on some aspect of teaching and learning in heterogeneous classes.

This year’s first goal, seriousness of purpose, also evolved from a focus on shared values. Since the school opened in 1998, we have tried to articulate our community standards. Some of these have to do with sexual harassment or weapons or plagiarism—the usual stuff of school districts’ discipline codes. But unique values emerged in our own unique community. They speak to our core beliefs: the importance of working and learning together as a community and being passionate about the arts.

As with all authentic public documents, our shared values went through many iterations until they became something we were proud to post in all our classrooms and teach to our students. Like our Habits of the Graduate, our shared values help us focus on the attitudes that we want our students to graduate with. The focus on seriousness of purpose emerges naturally from our desire to inculcate and act on these shared values.

Last year’s goal focused on accountability. How are we—students, staff, and families—accountable to our commitments? To deadlines? To the goals we set for ourselves? But that language seemed to limit our discussions to attendance, punctuality, and meeting deadlines. How could we teach about something that spoke to an attitude or a state of mind? For this year, we wanted a goal that helped us describe intangible qualities like passion, dedication, risk-taking, and commitment to practice. Seriousness of purpose was born from this struggle to combine accountability with passion.

As we began the 2002—2003 school year, we asked parents, community members, students, and staff to talk about these goals and give them meaning. Some thought the first goal was about the importance of being passionate about one’s art; some named the need to practice one’s craft outside of school hours. Students discussed the importance of a respectful environment that values all perspectives. Some even acknowledged that it means doing your homework on time.

Still, we worried: would students make the connection that seriousness of purpose existed in the scholarly realm as well as within the arts? BAA features an open honors program, discussed in more detail below, which was developed to give students who needed extra challenge that opportunity, as well as to provide students with the chance to take risks and stretch themselves intellectually. Teachers wondered how many students would accept the open honors challenge.

Seriousness of purpose applies to parents as well. Our parent coordinator spoke about families reading the Community Handbook with care so that they really understand what is expected of students as well as the importance of regular communication with advisers and teachers. We have a very detailed handbook that is our bible. We review it at the beginning of the year. We ask parents to read it carefully and to ask us questions when they are confused, but often, in parent meetings, we realize that we still haven’t found ways to ensure that parents are really digesting all the information we have laid out for them. On the most basic level, we want every parent to know who the student’s adviser is and how to reach that person by e-mail or phone.

Seriousness of purpose should not be confused with lack of humor or joy. When you watch Bill T. Jones’s dancers move, you see both joyfulness and seriousness of purpose. We want to see students, parents, and teachers focused on clear academic and artistic goals. The language of our second goal, “To use differentiated instruction to support a heterogeneous group of students,” had to be “unpacked” before we could talk about it. Heterogeneous means having many different kinds; differentiated instruction means teachers look for different entry points to help students grasp the material as well as different ways they can show mastery or understanding. But this second goal is not easy. It pushes teachers to think and plan differently. How do we challenge all students when they are starting from very different levels of background knowledge? In instrumental music, for example, some students are just beginning and others are advanced. When can all of them play together? When do they need to work separately and with different material? How do we fairly assess both student progress and outcomes? Must the outcome be the same for all students?

In academic classes, all students usually must master the same content, often at the same rate. Given our experiences in arts classes, do we really believe that is good for kids? Our arts classes have helped us be less rigid in our understanding of how students learn. We feel freer in arts classrooms to speak about how students progress at different rates in dance or visual arts or theater. Can we honor different rates of learning, and practice differentiated instruction, in all our classrooms, especially at a time of intensified high-stakes standardized testing?

Mathematics offers a case in point. Perhaps math doesn’t immediately call to mind the question of equity. In fact, however, race, class, and culture have a lot to do with who in our society gets to learn and even enjoy math—and progress in math has a lot to do with post-high school success. Last year, our ninth-grade Level 1 math students participated in a math fair in which they had to discuss math problems with peers and outside judges. Using the model of our one-day science fair, students set up their poster boards, laid out their written papers and other physical exhibits, and got ready to be questioned on their work. All the other math classes visited the fair and did a fabulous job of judging the projects and writing peer reviews. Each Level 1 student was judged by at least two external judges.

The students clearly explained the problems and connected them to other real-world situations. One student explained blue-chip stock trading and how working through this complex math problem would help him work on dense word problems. Another student worked out a rate, time, and distance problem through an innovative toy car demonstration. A third explained slope and “rise over run” more clearly than I have ever heard a fourteen-year-old do it. A fourth used data to show that state college tuition was cheaper than university tuition. Almost every student had made a strong, visually pleasing display. Students spoke well, answered difficult questions, and felt proud of their work. No one could be heard saying, “I can’t do math,” or “Math just isn’t my thing.” For one day, our classrooms and hallways rang with the joy and possibilities of mathematics.

For many beginning teachers, who are just adjusting to the pressures of teaching along with classroom management, evaluating student work, being creative while at the same time “covering” the essential concepts, differentiated instruction feels completely “pie in the sky.” I hear our student interns groan, “I just want to learn how to instruct—I can’t think about how to differentiate at this point.” There is, of course, some truth to this. It is much more difficult to manage multiple entry points into a lesson or a unit than just one, but, in fact, differentiated instruction is what good teaching is all about.

On a recent visit to a senior humanities class, I watched Ms. Clark move from the study of Classicism to Romanticism while providing multiple supports for less skilled students (a gridded notetaking format that followed her lecture, for example) and ample opportunity for extra readings and writings for her open honors students. This teacher has also made it clear to her class that some days the lesson will fit the learning style of those who like lectures and notetaking, and other days it will be more engaging for those who like group work and discussion.

When Ms. Clark plans her lessons and units of study, she is already thinking about the many levels in her classroom; thus, differentiation is part of her repertoire from the beginning. But when the pressures of outside high-stakes testing come into play, many teachers throw out their own thoughtful planning in an attempt to get everyone through the gatekeeper that is the test. We are attempting to do what many schools are unwilling to do—work in an untracked environment—by combining many levels and types of students in one classroom, and to keep the mania of high stakes testing at bay so it does not destroy our curriculum and our students. Our goal is to provide teachers with the support they need to feel more confident with students who have learning disabilities, as well as students who need extra challenges—and to do all of it with seriousness of purpose while still having a good time.

How Open Honors Works

Our initial work in differentiated classrooms began with our open honors program in humanities in 2001-2002. In 2002-2003 we extended it to advisory/writing and science. We did not include arts classes, Spanish, or math.

BAA’s open honors program is based on the elementary school model of heterogeneity. There are no separate honors classes, but students in heterogeneous classes can choose to work at a higher, more intensive level. For example, in our Humanities 4 (or senior level course) students must complete the “A” paper options on all papers. The humanities teachers lay out in a clear rubric what entails an A, B, and C paper. (Lower than a C is not acceptable in Humanities 4.) Students in open honors must always chose the A option, which requires additional reading and research. In addition, students are required to read an extra novel from a given list and write an additional paper that links the student’s interpretation of the novel to ideas covered in class. Given that this is a semester course, and there is already a lot of reading, this is a considerable challenge.

Finally, students must complete an honors reflection as part of the final portfolio. Before the program’s inception, our humanities teachers spent two full days during the summer and held follow-up meetings during the academic year to review their curriculum and define the goals of open honors, which are:

  • To give students a chance to push themselves intellectually
  • To provide more challenge and rigor and to help individualize instruction
  • To encourage a culture of risk-taking by allowing any student to take Humanities Honors as long as he maintains a B average
  • To encourage a culture of achievement

We made two further decisions that proved to be critical. First, we said that open honors had to be a partnership between the student, the family, and the teacher. Parents and students had to decide together that the student would enroll in the program. We didn’t want parents to assume that the decision was solely the teacher’s.

Second, we said that no student would ever be penalized for choosing open honors. It could only help you. In other words, if you found that you needed to drop back to regular status in the class, that was okay. In the first year of the program this was an important part of encouraging a culture of achievement. We did not want only the white middle-class students to choose honors. By making the program easily permeable, we encouraged participation. It worked, though not completely. We got a broad cross-section of honors candidates in terms of race, culture, and socioeconomic status. But there was a huge gender gap: very few males enrolled. Our school is about sixty percent females, but open honors was still disproportionately female in the first year. Perhaps it is still more acceptable in high school to be a smart girl than a smart boy. As we watch this year’s demographics, we will see if those numbers change.

Our evaluation of the program after its first semester found that teachers felt that it helped motivate students, and also that it helped teachers to address a wider range of student abilities. They also believed that the open policy encouraged some able students who would not have chosen a traditional honors class to take on the challenge. Teachers also felt that the honors component gave students an edge in applying to college.

Of course, there were some things we needed to work on, too:

  • We needed to improve consistency among all classrooms and teachers on policies regarding contracts with students, parents signing off on these agreements, and exactly how students would opt in and out of the program.
  • We needed to refine the “more work” versus “busywork” concept. That is, how do we make sure that the honors component of the class is truly about stretch- ing students intellectually?
  • We needed to acknowledge that dealing with multiple assignments can be difficult for some teachers.
  • Male students of color were underrepresented in the program.
  • Time constraints: teachers ended up spending at least another two to three hours a week making open honors work—a significant added burden.
  • Students who were intellectually capable but had poor organizational skills did not follow through.
  • Class sizes were just too large.

This last issue is central to the program’s chances for ultimate success. Some of our humanities classes have as many as twenty-seven students. That’s just too many for a heterogeneous classroom. Ideally, the limit should be twenty. We are working hard to bring our class sizes down. Most teachers feel that with smaller classes, and therefore a smaller total student load, time constraints would diminish considerably.

Our goal is to make open honors an integral part of our school culture. In our first pilot semester with tenth and eleventh graders, approximately 21 percent of the students enrolled. Within five years we want to see 40 to 50 percent of our students enrolled in open honors, representing every race, class, and gender.

If we extend this model to more classrooms, I believe we can create a more challenging curriculum. Think again of the elementary classroom, in which children regularly write and publish books or papers on a given theme. It is rare to see all the books at the same skill level. Some books are short, others long; vocabulary may be very sophisticated or not; illustrations complex or simple. Each book still has enormous value and has pushed the child beyond his comfort level into a new skill area.

As part of our evaluation of open honors, we interview students and parents about their expectations and experiences. This helps to strengthen our commitment to heterogeneity and equity. Students who had dropped the honors option said that they were “too stressed out by the work,” and “I wasn’t ready for the challenge.” One student said, “I thought it was a little weird; all of the honors classes at previous schools were classes of just honor students. It was not integrated; it was easier to keep on track with the work that way. The assignments were delivered to the class and not to random students in the class.”

Other students who stayed with the honors option said that parental support helped: “My parents told me to do the best that I can and to always try new things.” Thirty-three of the forty-two students who took open honors felt that college admissions officers would look more favorably at them. Some students even said, “It felt like I was in a college course with late nights and everything.” Other students said that “it kept me on a strict schedule—I procrastinated less!” Students were critical, too. “It was an interesting concept, yet needs more structure and organization.” And “Quantity versus quality. Is this just about doing more work?”

Finally, we make sure there are many opportunities for students to excel both academically and artistically beyond the traditional classroom. This has also helped our efforts. Our entire assessment structure is based on portfolios and exhibitions. Students are thus able to flex their artistic and scholarly muscles in a variety of ways unrelated to honors credit. This plays an important role in alleviating the pressure that we might otherwise be under to track our students into homogeneous classrooms.

the challenge of differentiated instruction
We have not solved all the problems of creating successful heterogeneous classrooms. Sometimes when the gap between students with skills and students without skills is very large, the best solution is to divide the class into homogeneous groups. At other times, we need to bring more adults into the classroom to provide more direct teaching of small groups. Our Learning Center gives some of our most needy students the opportunity to receive focused attention and support. Our open honors program provides challenges for a wide array of students—those with strong skills and even, at times, those with special needs.

Still, this isn’t enough. We need to continue to push ourselves as teachers to think about how to differentiate instruction—or how to provide multiple entry points for students and diverse ways for students to demonstrate mastery of skills. This requires an extraordinary effort on the part of teachers and lots of time to plan and reflect. We don’t have nearly enough time for any of this. Nevertheless, given our commitment to our schoolwide goals, we decided that we would use our faculty meetings this year to embark on an ambitious initiative to provide all teachers with more skills in differentiating instruction, and the opportunity for teachers to pursue special education certification. This decision was a natural extension of BAA’s four-year schoolwide work on literacy. For four years, each BAA staff member has taught an intensive writing and reading course. We have worked together to plan that course, and we have worked together to seek the professional development we need to implement it.

Just as we all worked to learn and implement the best practices of literacy instruction, we now need to further our understanding of best practices in special education. We hired a local scholar, Evangeline Stefanakis, with expertise in bilingual and special education, as well as a wealth of teaching experience, and had her teach us about differentiated instruction.

As we began our work together, we asked the following questions:

  • What are the biological, socio-cultural, linguistic, developmental, and educa- tional factors associated with learning disabilities?
  • What are some of the challenges of linking assessment and instruction for students who are bilingual or have learning disabilities?
  • What accommodations are needed to support these learners to build on their abilities, not their disabilities?

We used our own students as case studies and supplemented our classroom knowledge with readings and videos that Professor Van, as we came to call her, provided us. We also paired with a local full-inclusion elementary school, the Mary Lyon School, to provide both faculties with another kind of opportunity to integrate and assimilate new professional skills and knowledge.

At the outset of this course we did not plan to become a full-inclusion school, but it is now clear that this is the direction to which we are all committed. It is one thing to just talk about how regular education teachers provide accommodations and adaptations for students. It is another thing altogether to learn how to really do it in your classroom.

The program we designed with Professor Van and Mary Nash, the principal of the Mary Lyon School, is informed by the Massachusetts Department of Education Special Education Standards. All fifty teachers, and approximately ten interns, received professional development and coaching focused on:

  • Understanding developmental processes and what affects them
  • Understanding formal and informal assessment procedures
  • Preparing and using the Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
  • Supporting students’ communication skills (expressive and receptive language)
  • Supporting students’ functional living competence
  • Supporting students’ performance in literacy (reading)
  • Supporting students’ performance in math
  • Supporting students’ social competence
  • Setting up a positive learning environment

Mirroring our open honors program for students, we provided opportunities for an intensive schedule for teachers wishing to pursue certification in special education.

This smaller group—fourteen teachers—receives additional professional development, organized in three Saturday trainings. These sessions focus on the history of special education, legal issues, assessments, literacy interventions, and math instruction for students with special needs. The small group will receive additional support and coaching to become lead teachers for special education curricula and pedagogy at BAA. They will complete a two-day residency at the Mary Lyons School and will work on the BAA model of full inclusion.

As we evaluate our professional development program, we discover, as with all good initiatives, that we have more questions than answers. Our conversations continually focus on how to meet the needs of our most academically unprepared students as well as those in the middle. We want each student to feel special and cared for. Sometimes we feel that we are not doing enough. But when we take time to celebrate our work (something that schools often neglect) we realize that we are making progress.

In light of our policy of admitting students without regard to previous academic performance, the achievements of our first two graduating classes are truly spectacular: more than 90 percent of them have gone on to two- and four-year colleges or professional training. More important, as our students go forward to college, conservatory, or professional jobs, we believe that our Habits of the Graduate are in their minds, hearts, and souls. They know what it means to be inventive, to refine your work again and again, and to connect what you know to other experiences. And they know what it means to own your work and your ideas.

Our graduates are prepared to take their place in the world. They will not be able to change everything that needs to change, or to solve every problem. But they will make the world a more just and caring place. They have come to understand and empathize with difference. They know that art has the power to break down walls and to nurture the fragile and precious seeds of peace. For me, more than anything else, that defines a truly democratic school.

Visit the Boston Arts Academy web site,, for detailed information about the school’s arts and academic programs. On the site, you can find the BAA Community Handbook, mentioned in this article, which contains descriptions of the open honors program, a comprehensive list of community standards referred to by the school’s Shared Values, descriptions of the school’s assessment structure, and much more. The direct link to the BAA Community Handbook is