Young Audiences Opens its First Charter School

As the nation celebrates National Arts in Education Week, Young Audiences is also celebrating the recently opened Charter School in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Young Audiences Charter School is the first YA run school and it brings a newly developed arts integrated curriculum to the Jefferson Parish district of New Orleans. I had the opportunity to discuss some of the details of opening the Charter School with the Associate Director of Young Audiences of Louisiana (YALA), Richard Bates. 


Young Audiences: Starting a Charter School is a long and complicated process. When was the initial idea conceived? Were there any specific inspirations?

Richard Bates: The initial idea to start a charter school was conceived four years ago when we identified a strong need for one at a YALA afterschool programs. Hurricane Katrina’s massive destruction of the majority of the school buildings in Greater New Orleans actually created an opportunity to rebuild a low performing school system. With virtually all public schools in the city closed, local and national educators expressed the need for significant changes to take place. YALA was invited to provide afterschool programs and services to a new charter association that was founded immediately after Katrina. Through our entry into the afterschool arena and our work with every major charter group in New Orleans, we learned about the best practices. It soon became clear to us that while most of the charter groups had made a positive impact on student success in standardized testing, these successes were not reflected in student achievement in high school and beyond. 

RB: We theorized that the reason for this incongruity was that too much emphasis was put on direct instruction and not enough on creativity, innovation, and problem solving-all skills required by employers for our 21st century global markets. We then analyzed our work in afterschool programs and realized that our students were outperforming their peers who were not enrolled in YALA's programs.  We know that the arts are integral to a complete education that would enable our students to be competitive with students in private and parochial schools.  We decided to create a model that was an alternative to the “no excuses” approach that was used in so many other schools.  So the initial idea to start a new type of arts integrated school was conceived four years ago because of our belief that our model would help all types of learners to achieve to their fullest capability.

YA: How much research and development was done to adapt the YA Louisiana residency programs into a year-long curriculum?

RB: Thanks to a generous grant from Young Audiences Affiliate Development Fund, YALA hired a curriculum specialist to work with our teaching artists and classroom teachers to integrate the arts into all subject areas. In our model, teaching artists and classroom teachers collaborate to create lessons that meet grade level and common core expectations that provide students with a deeper understanding of the subject material.

YA: How was the startup team created and who brought everyone together?

RB: Rickie Nutik, Executive Director of YALA, developed the initial model and was assisted by senior staff and key board members. She identified and hired Pam Stewart to write the charter application and to develop a plan for operations that could be replicated in other schools. Ms. Stewart, an experienced administrator, with a rich background working in a successful charter school, was pivotal in transforming the YALA model to conform to charter school expectations. Ms. Nutik also identified Folwell Dunbar as the school leader. Mr. Dunbar had previously worked for the Louisiana Department of Education in the Charter Expansion division and had been a national consultant for best practices for charter schools.  Roscoe Reddix Jr., YALA’s Director of Arts Integration, was selected to oversee and lead the arts integral component at the school. Ms. Stewart, Mr. Reddix, and the four teaching artists are all employed and trained by YALA.


YA: How will this charter school look different from other charter schools in the region?

RB: There are very few charter schools in the region that do not follow the “No Excuses” model. YA Charter School (YACS) seeks to ensure that all students are prepared to pass state mandated tests but also goes beyond this by expecting students to be creative, innovative and able to solve problems. In addition, YACS utilizes established YALA programs to enhance student learning. Mornings begin and end with ART (Art Reflection Time) when students study a specific art form. This serves to start the day in a positive way and to end the day with a greater understanding of the selected art form. Rather than have paraprofessionals assisting the classroom teachers, YALA utilizes the skills of experienced teaching artists who work alongside the classroom teacher to develop arts integration lessons.

YA: The YACS is the only open-admissions elementary charter school on the West bank of Jefferson Parish. Was this part of the mission from the beginning?

RB: We decided early on that YACS would be an open admission school rather than a selective admissions school.  It is our belief that the arts benefit all types of learners and we believe that our school will prove our thesis to be correct.  Our students include gifted and talented, students on grade level, students well below grade level, and students with severe learning and emotional problems. 

YA: Were there any challenges that you had to overcome?

RB: The process of applying for the charter was a smooth one. Technical assistance was provided by the staff at the Louisiana Department of Education Charter School Division; they were helpful and supportive throughout the process. We were impressed that YACS board and leadership were required to meet with NACSA representatives to show their deep understanding of charter schools in general and the model which we had created. In fact board members and school leader were required to participate in performance tasks.

YA: Funding is still tight for large education initiatives. How did you approach the daunting task of funding a comprehensive program?

RB: We were fortunate to receive a startup grant from the Walton Foundation through a highly competitive process. The Foundation selected new charters whose models were solid and grounded in research and evaluation. That said, fundraising is always an ongoing issue and with a high special needs population, we have found it necessary to hire additional staff. 

YA: Thank you for taking the time to discuss this with me and congratulations on all your team's hard work and success.

Below is a timeline highlighting the milestones of the first Young Audiences Charter School:

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