If you could imagine a high school where ninth-grade students can arrive at 9 am to create videogames, film movies, and record digital sound projects, you are sharing that same dream with Marsha Dobrzynski, Executive Director of the Center for Arts-Inspired Learning (Young Audiences Arts for Learning affiliate in Cleveland, Ohio). After years of researching the benefits of a design integrated curriculum, Dobrzynski with a dedicated team has developed their vision of a digital design school. Part of the inspiration came from the strong student reaction to digital learning in CAL's ArtWorks teen job training program.
In partnership with the Cleveland Municipal School District, the Cleveland High School for Digital Arts (CHSDA) opened its doors this past Monday, July 28, 2014, welcoming 116 freshmen students. Each year CHSDA will add another freshman class until it becomes a four-year school. I had the great pleasure to speak with Marsha Dobrzynski of CHSDA about the opening of this visionary school.
Young Audiences Arts for Learning: What inspired you to create a school dedicated to the digital arts?
Marsha Dobrzynski: The Center for Arts-Inspired Learning’s (CAL) ArtWorks program that began in 2005 was the inspiration for the Cleveland High School for Digital Arts. CAL added digital arts to the programming four years ago with game design, recording arts technology and digital film making. I observed how engaged the teens were as they worked in these three areas. These were the kids who arrived early and stayed late, after the program ended to continue working, often working at home, too. They were engaged and took ownership of their own learning. So the high school was a natural extension of ArtWorks.
YA: It has been an incredibly busy and fruitful planning year for the school, where you gathered support, funding, and hired the administrative team. When did you first begin the project and what were its biggest milestones?
Dobrzynski: The idea for creating a digital arts high school began 3 years ago. It was an idea that came to the attention of the Cleveland Foundation and the George Gund Foundation that are both partnering with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District for school reform. The foundations provided seed money to do research and to make site visits to innovative schools around the country. We put together an advisory team that consisted of Dick Deasy, Former Executive Director of Arts Education Partnership; Jack Lew, Dean of Visual Communication at the Laguna College of Art and Design; Andre Thomas; who visited other schools and helped shape the deeper vision and philosophy of the school. With their guidance, we wrote a concept paper that described the school’s mission and how arts integration would be a pillar of CAL’s vision.
The next step came when the foundations again provided funding to begin an implementation phase. We created a local advisory group including leaders from high school education, technology, business, and proponents of school reform, and they provided guidance as the full school concept was designed.
YA: What are the positive benefits of having a student master a skill before moving on to another topic?
Dobrzynski: We all learn at our own pace, with some topics taking longer to learn than others. We designed a system of individualized pacing and this method of learning is more motivating and engaging than traditional approaches for students. The chance to progress at one’s own pace is especially important for struggling students. In a competency-based learning system, students complete courses as they understand the material and feel a sense of motivation and accomplishment more regularly. The method is learner-centric and works to spark an interest in learning and inspire a wide range of students to reach their potential. Students know what is expected of them and exercise a great deal of control over their own learning.
YA: How will the themes be incorporated into each term? The first theme, Get in Character seems like an excellent Ice Breaker/introduction for incoming 9th graders. What will be the central focus of the following themes and how will they be applied to the overall mission of the school?
Dobrzynski: All subjects – core and digital arts – will use the central themes as a means to integrate and focus all areas. They are easy connections for students to understand and are all connected to the digital arts workplace. The other themes are: Special Effects, On Location, and Adaptation and Interpretation. Because they are all elements of working in the digital world, the connection to creativity and engagement is apparent.
YA: Is it one of your goals to make sure that every student goes to college and that the majority of them receive scholarships?
Dobrzynski: Yes, it is our expectation that every student will graduate and have a letter of acceptance to a college at the time of graduation. We say this from the first day of school so that the high standard is known from the start. Most of the students in Cleveland Schools are eligible for free and reduced lunch and therefore most would need financial assistance to attend college. We have created some partnerships with higher education already and will continue to develop more. College readiness is an extremely important part of the school’s model.
YA: That is an incredible goal and congratulations on your achievement! I look forward to hearing more about the school’s success in the near future.