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NORTHAMPTON—After a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Elliot Ross Memorial Jazz Artists in the Schools program has returned to Northampton High School with five guest musicians teaching four sessions to students in the Jazz and Rock Improvisation Workshop. 

The visiting musician teaching program is solely funded through donations from family and friends of the late Elliot Ross, a musician and graduate of the high school. Ross died at age 21 in November 2018. By request of the Ross family, the Northampton Jazz Festival established the Jazz Artists in the Schools program at Northampton High School the following year. 

Donations to the program now top $15,000 and make it possible for students of music at the high school to gain insight, tips and techniques from professional, working musicians. 

Led by band director Paul Kinsman, the program is a collaboration between Kinsman and Northampton Jazz Festival’s creative director and producer Paul Arslanian. 

“I am so grateful for all the guest lecturers Paul Arslanian is bringing in, and the Ross family that has kept this program going,” said Kinsman. “It’s really important that we keep jazz in the schools, and this has really helped us come back strong after two years when we were silenced.” 

This spring, five visiting musicians have visited the high school to teach four sessions each of Kinsman’s Jazz and Rock Improvisation Workshop, an elective scheduled during normal academic hours. Each guest musician has led a clinic and workshopped with the students on various topics around the art of improvisation to help hone their skills. 

“Jazz as a genre of music is so diverse and so wide that having a different guest musician come in every week has really exposed me to different ideas that I can absorb and then incorporate into my improvisations,” said Ilan Bryant, a pianist and senior at the school. “I have also been surprised by how the diversity of the other student musicians around me has helped me grow in this class.” 

The guest musicians have included Evan Arntzen, a jazz clarinetist and saxophonist who received his master’s from the Jazz Arts program at The Manhattan School of Music this spring; George Kaye, a lifelong professional jazz bassist; Gabe Childs, a guitarist and recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music; Justin Esiason, a professional trumpeter and a graduate in music at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and Dave Haughey, a professional cellist, composer, teacher and improviser. 

“For me, starting out improvising, listening to all of the greats play, it was really frustrating to me because it wasn’t as easy to play as they made it sound,” said Bryant. “So, to actually have seasoned musicians come in and break down improvising in all these different parts makes me appreciate how difficult, how complicated and how interesting it is, but it has also allowed me to take steps in the right direction to work on my own solo.” 

The visiting musicians were given the opportunity to teach students different aspects of improvisation given their own professional experience. Topics included melodic variations in improvisation, harmonic considerations in improvisation, the role of guide tones and voicings in improvisation and the role of rhythm in improvisation. 

Education

Grade Expectations

By Elizabeth Sears

 

Rachel Romano certainly understands the importance of providing meaningful education opportunities to a community’s youth. She’s the founder and executive director of Veritas Prep Charter School, a charter-school system that uses innovative turnaround strategies to help students reach their full academic potential.

“Most of our students come into middle school performing below grade level, and the vast majority leave us headed to high school at or above the level of their peers across the state,” she said.

That transformative impact will no longer conclude at the end of eighth grade. Indeed, Veritas Prep High School is set to welcome its inaugural ninth-grade class in the fall of 2022. Now scholars have the opportunity to continue with Veritas, complete essential high-school graduation requirements, and even earn credits toward a college degree.

Veritas Prep Charter School started off in 2012 as a middle school in Springfield holding the belief that all students have the ability to achieve at high levels if given the right opportunities. It has been a decade now since the middle school opened, and since its founding, Veritas has grown more than those who created it could have imagined.

Rachel Romano

Rachel Romano

“Most of our students come into middle school performing below grade level, and the vast majority leave us headed to high school at or above the level of their peers across the state.”

The school now serves more than 370 Springfield students and is one of the Bay State’s top-performing middle schools. Veritas also has a Holyoke middle school in addition to its flagship Springfield location. Dramatic gains have been shown in student achievement, with double the ‘proficient’ and ‘advanced’ MCAS scores than those received in Springfield Public Schools. With such growth and success, the enthusiasm surrounding the opening of the new high school is immeasurable.

“We never had intentions of opening a high school when we started, but year after year, our students who matriculated on to ninth grade and were in high school would come back and say, ‘why don’t we have a high school?’” Romano explained. “So given the parent and student demand for Veritas to open a high school, a few years ago we decided maybe it is time that we expand our charter to serve our students through high-school graduation.”

 

Course of Action

Veritas Prep Charter School was given the approval to open a high school back in 2020. Veritas assembled a diverse design team to create a high school that can effectively serve the needs of its students. The design team was comprised of more than 200 Springfield community members, including current students, alumni, families of students, and stakeholders.

“We really wanted to center the voices of our students, our alumni, our teachers, our families, to design a high school that would meet the needs of our students,” Romano told BusinessWest.

That is where the ‘Portrait of a Graduate’ was developed — something Romano is particularly proud of.

‘Portrait of a Graduate’ was developed through the design team and embodies the vision of Veritas — that all of its scholars will “emerge as woke citizens, innovators, leaders of tomorrow, and learners for life.”

An important element of this mission includes the opportunity to earn up to 30 college credits — two years of college worth — completely free of charge. These college credits can be transferred to any state college or university. Students can even potentially earn an associate degree by the time they graduate high school.

“Too few Springfield students complete college degrees, and since we will have our students through high school, we want to go ahead and give them access to college courses while we can support them to earn some credits, tuition-free,” Romano noted.

Currently, only 26.4% of Springfield residents obtain a higher-education degree, compared to almost 50% statewide. Veritas is seeking to address key barriers to higher education such as access, lack of preparation, and cost.

“Our middle school is always focused on getting our students set up with a vision of themselves in college and pointing them toward high school ready to be on a college prep track. What we learned is that even that is sometimes not enough,” she went on. “We really are centering the need in Springfield for degree completion. We know degree completion is going to significantly increase the earning potential, health, and quality of life for our students and their families; earning a degree has been an asset that’s been pretty elusive for many Springfield Public School students.”

The Springfield community was prioritized throughout the entire planning process. Veritas scholars have played a key role in the planning and development of the new high school, providing input on everything from the school’s design to its curriculum. Students will have multiple areas of study to choose from that cover a wide range of high-impact careers, including health sciences, engineering, education, and more.

“With the right voices at the table, we have been able to reimagine what high school can look like and create a compelling, career-focused, early-college model,” Romano said.

Veritas Prep High School is following a career-focused early-college program. Students will not be able to select any course they want from the catalog, but rather will have pathways to choose from that are aligned with career trajectories. Veritas seeks to place its students on pathways where they can be certain about getting jobs and earning a good living.

“With the right voices at the table, we have been able to reimagine what high school can look like and create a compelling, career-focused, early-college model.”

Not only will students have the option to take college classes during their time at Veritas Prep High School, but they will also be able to get relevant and beneficial certificates — for example, a certificate in Google Suites or a nurse-aide certification for students who are in the health-sciences trajectory.

“We’re really trying to equip them with meaningful experiences in the high-school years that will send them off to hopefully four-year degree programs,” Romano said, while helping those who plan to work immediately after high school access gainful employment experiences while they work their way through school.

Even though charter schools operate a bit differently from their traditional public-school counterparts, they serve the community in a similar way. Charter schools were created from federal legislation with the intention of creating innovative schools within the public-school space while providing parents with choices.

Although students do have to apply to Veritas, there is no selection criteria — as long as a student has a mailing address in Springfield, the opportunity to attend is open to them.

“We’re really excited to open a new campus this August … we will have some vacant seats available for other Springfield students to join our inaugural class as well,” Romano said.

Current eighth-graders at Veritas are guaranteed a place in the new high school, and a lottery will be held to fill the remaining spots. The high school will expand by one grade per year up through grade 12.

 

Class Act

When discussing the immense impact Veritas Prep High School will have on the Springfield community, Romano spoke of the unlimited academic and social potential that Springfield students possess.

Given the opportunity, any student can achieve the goals they set their mind to, she insisted. “Veritas scholars will become changemakers who are equipped to choose their path, challenge inequity, and transform the world.”

Education Special Coverage

Portrait of a Graduate

 

The program is called ‘Portrait of a Graduate,’ and that name pretty much says it all.

But maybe an adjective is in order to get the complete picture, pun intended.

Indeed, what the Springfield Public Schools are focused on now is creating a portrait of a successful high-school graduate, through an initiative designed to gain feedback from a host of constituencies regarding the skills — as in all the skills — that young people will need to not only earn a high-school diploma, but thrive in an ever-changing, technology-driven economy.

And this portrait will become a valuable blueprint of sorts as school administrators go about creating a new strategic plan for the city’s public schools, said Superintendent Dan Warwick, who stressed repeatedly that Portrait of a Graduate is very much a community-driven process that will define success for Springfield students, including the values, knowledge, skills, and work habits they will need to thrive as learners, workers, and leaders.

Among those providing input are members of the business community, said Trisha Canavan, president of United Personnel and current president of Springfield Business Leaders for Education, adding that their commentary will be critical to creating that portrait and then inspiring needed changes to programming and curriculum.

Made possible by a grant from the Barr Foundation, this Portrait of a Graduate initiative is part of a broad movement across the country to involve the community in shaping a school system’s strategic plan and specific programming and curriculum for helping to ensure student success.

The list of communities that have embarked on such programs grows each year, and now includes Lowell, Shrewsbury, and other cities and towns in Massachusetts, as well as Hartford, Conn., Fairfax County, Va., and many others, said Warwick.

In most of those communities, Portrait of a Graduate is used as part of a strategic plan for a specific school system, said Paul Foster, chief information officer for Springfield Public Schools. Here, though, it will help guide development of a new strategic plan, which is an important distinction.

Dan Warwick

Dan Warwick

“Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.”

“Most communities make it one of the activities as part of creating a plan,” he explained. “It’s not as common to create that vision first and then build the plan based on the vision. I think it’s important that we not make decisions on how to change schools until we have that clarity of vision that a portrait provides.”

Warwick agreed. “Clearly, this has become a best practice — communities need to take a look at what everyone thinks our graduates should look like, not only the academic skills, but all the other skills as well.

“Other iterations of our strategic plans were mostly academic-focused, which is what you would expect for a school system to put forward in a strategic plan,” he went on. “But this piece is designed to take a wider look and really get the community to rally around what they want our graduates to look like and what attributes they’ll need, and then we’ll build the actual strategic plan from that profile.”

By most accounts, he noted, it has succeeded in its goal of garnering community interest in helping to create this portrait.

“I think it excited people,” Warwick told BusinessWest. “The community involvement has been tremendous — the breadth of the input from every sector of the community has been significant, and this new concept has helped us with that.”

The acknowledgment that needed skills for success in the 21st-century workplace extends well beyond academics is made clear in the six ‘pillars’ of the portrait — learn, work, thrive, lead, persist, and communicate, said Azell Cavaan, chief Communications officer for Springfield Public Schools, adding that the school system has received more than 1,400 responses to a survey regarding a draft portrait that reflects how these pillars will be addressed moving forward.

All those we spoke with noted that there are few real surprises in the feedback that has been received, and the skills and attributes identified as needed are included in most school systems’ strategic plans. However, it is important to have these sentiments reinforced, and equally important to gain input from a broad, diverse audience, one that reflects the community in question.

“We’ve had hundreds of meetings in every segment of the community, and folks have really stayed with this,” Warwick said, adding that the city has been able to maintain momentum for the initiative even in the middle of pandemic, a clear indicator of its importance to the future of the city and the region.

Paul Foster

Paul Foster

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Portrait of a Graduate initiative, its goals, and why Springfield school officials believe it will pay dividends in their ongoing efforts to ensure that students not only graduate, but can succeed after they do.

 

Course of Action

Foster told BusinessWest that Portrait of a Graduate, or POG for short, is becoming an increasingly popular response to what has a national issue, or concern — helping students succeed beyond the classroom.

He said the movement, if it can be called that, started several years ago in the private-school arena, and was quickly embraced by public schools as well. The basic concept is to ask a question — what skills and attributes will students need to succeed years and decades down the road? — and ask a lot of different of people that question. It sounds logical, but it in many ways represents a new way of thinking about this issue, Warwick said.

“Instead of traditional educators looking at this problem, we have a wider breadth of involvement from the community at large and the business community,” he explained. “We’re getting a lot of input on the skills and attributes that people are looking for that, for traditional educators like myself, wouldn’t have been the first things we would be thinking about.”

What are these attributes and skills? The list includes financial literacy, problem solving, and perseverance — being able to stick with something until the problem is solved, said Foster, adding that what has been most important in this process has been not only hearing such comments, but hearing them over and over, and from different constituencies.

“What I thought was surprising, and important, was how aligned what we heard was,” he told BusinessWest. “We went from conversation to conversation and heard the same things over and over again. For example, we heard ‘financial literacy’ at every conversation. There wasn’t a group that we spoke with that didn’t say that was important.

“It was the same with things like problem solving,” he went on. “It wasn’t surprising that we heard those things; I think it was surprising that we were hearing the same things from every group; we were talking to business leaders, we were talking to parents, and we were talking to teachers, and they were identifying the same things, which is good.”

Canavan agreed, and said one of the broad goals of the initiative is to create a sense of ownership within the community when it comes to the city’s schools, or a stronger sense of ownership, as the case may be.

“Getting the collective wisdom of the community is important,” she said, “because I’m hopeful that one of the things that will come out of this is our community embracing that notion that this is our responsibility — that it’s not just the responsibility of the schools or just the responsibility of the parents — it’s our responsibility.”

The process of gathering feedback from these constituencies began in the fall of 2019, and the seeds were planted for the initiative maybe six months before that, said Foster, adding that the school department has been hosting what it calls ‘community conversations,’ a phrase chosen over ‘focus groups,’ which comes with some preconceived notions, not all of them good.

These conversations, organized by various stakeholders, have been going on continuously, he went on, adding that they have involved the business community, the refugee community, parents, educators, students, alumni, the faith community, and other constituencies. One was comprised of area business owners who are also alumni of Springfield Public Schools.

Traditionally, these groups, when involved in such conversations, focus on what needs to be done differently in the schools. For this exercise, they didn’t start there, but rather with two questions: ‘what are your hopes and dreams for children growing up in Springfield?’ and ‘what are the knowledge and skills that young people growing up in Springfield will need to realize those dreams?’

The feedback was intriguing, and in some cases powerful, said those we spoke with, especially when it came to students, what their dreams are, and what they need to make them reality.

This is reflected in those six aforementioned pillars and how the assembled feedback has shaped the working portrait with regard to how the school system must address each one.

Under ‘persist,’ for example, it notes that the Springfield Public Schools and the Springfield community will prepare students to:

• Remain focused on goals, using coping strategies and flexibility to overcome obstacles;

• Speak up for themselves and the issues that are important to them;

• Engage in self-reflection to build on strengths and weaknesses;

• Evaluate choices and outcomes when making decisions; and

• Give, receive, and respond to constructive feedback.

Under ‘communicate,’ the bullet points include ‘write and speak with clarity, evidence, and purpose’; and ‘know how to listen to others, ask questions, and seek to understand.’ And under ‘lead’ are these points, among others: ‘be curious, creative, open-minded, and flexible in new situations’; ‘advocate for themselves and for others’; and ‘seek opportunities to understand and serve the community.’

Now that the portrait is essentially complete, said Foster, those leading this initiative are pivoting from writing that document to writing a strategic plan, one that will attempt to prioritize what has been learned over the past year or so and create a blueprint for action and change moving forward. The aggressive timeline has the plan being completed in August, in time to implement changes for the next school year.

“We ended this with a recognition that there are some small ways and some big ways that we need to think differently and change schools,” he explained. “Schooling in the United States has been done in a relatively similar way for a very long time, and some pretty significant things need to change; some of those are going to be one-year changes, and others are going to be five-year changes.”

 

Drawing Conclusions

Moving forward, those we spoke with they expect the POG initiative to help introduce new performance measures and ways of evaluating whether students are ready to not simply receive a diploma, but succeed in what has always been the broader goal — success in the workplace and in life.

“You can have someone has mastered English and mastered math who is not ready for the workforce,” Foster said. “So part of the strategic plan will be introducing new performance measures that are not a replacement of but an addition to the ones we have today; we’re thinking about how you evaluate student performance differently.”

Where this thinking takes the school system is a question still to be answered. But the process begins with a portrait of a graduate, and in Springfield, this is still a work in progress and an important step forward.

 

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

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