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The Art of Teaching

At Alma d'arte Charter High School in Las Cruces, art does more than imitate life—it saves lives.

By Jeff Berg

 

I was one of the millions who hated high school. You know the drill by now—not a jock, not a brain, low self-esteem, always the last one picked. Blah, blah, blah. My only claim to fame in high school was that my first "real" girlfriend was the centerpiece attraction of the French Club's homecoming float when I was a senior: "YOU'RE going out with Eva Ritz?" became the standard question from the mystified group of fellow losers whom I quit hanging around with for the two months that Eva and I dated. It took her that long to figure out I was a loser.

But if I had been afforded the opportunity to attend a school like Las Cruces Public Schools' Alma d'arte Charter High School, I bet I would have been a much better student, and certainly not a loser.

Alma d'arte student dancers Rose LeDuc, Nicole Casillas and Amber Ochoa. Photo by Ramon Vasquez.

If nothing else, the educational system of the US has changed enough over the last 40 years or so to reflect a slow realization that all kids are not the same. While this makes education more complex and potentially expensive, in the long run, this change must be seen as advantageous to everyone involved. Especially the students.

At Barrington Consolidated High School in Barrington, Ill., I was offered classes such as Russian History in my senior year. Although it made for some good political debate, I would have flourished much more in an atmosphere that allowed me to pursue my budding creative-writing skills or given me an insight into photography.

Alma d' arte Charter High School offers exactly those types of classes, along with the regular "Three Rs," to a relative handful of students. The school opened in 2004 with 124 freshman and sophomore students. Its current enrollment is 135, and next year, the year-round facility hopes to have nearly 180 diverse learning students, from remedial to gifted.

"We have kids that have not succeeded in a normal school day," says the school's executive artistic producer and co-founder, Irene Oliver-Lewis.

Even Oliver-Lewis' title—which at ordinary schools would be simply "principal"—shows the charter school's commitment to mixing art with all aspects of learning. "This is a different school, so we have different types of positions," she explains.

Oliver-Lewis is a Las Cruces native, whose father was from Mesilla. Her mother is from Dona Ana, and raised her children in Las Cruces' historic Mesquite district, where Oliver-Lewis still resides.

Most recently, Oliver-Lewis was one of nine New Mexicans chosen for the Governor's Awards for Excellence in the Arts. Previous winners of the awards, which were started in 1974 by then-Governor Bruce King, include respected writers Max Evans and M. Scott Momaday, and artist Georgia O'Keeffe. The 2006 awards will be presented in mid-September in Santa Fe.

Oliver-Lewis describes what she felt when she found out that she had been chosen for the award: "Me and Georgia—OK!"

A teacher since 1978, when she began her career in Hatch, she has had a lifelong interest in the theater, which has taken her to Albuquerque and to Santa Fe, where she ran Alma Productions. She co-produced a play there, Santa Fe Spirit. Oliver-Lewis says, "It is a historical musical, and won a music award from the Cowboy Hall of Fame."

After returning to Las Cruces, she was approached by then-Mayor Ruben Smith to help with the Court Youth Center (CYC), the forerunner to Alma d'arte. "CYC opened in 1996 with the concept that the arts affect learning," she says. "The arts are looked at through business, through education and in leisure, so you become an arts consumer."

CYC came into being at the abandoned Court Junior High School, a place that Mayor Smith envisioned as a focal point for youth activities. Since 1995, approximately $6 million in funding has been approved for capital outlay for the facility, from various state, federal and city entities. The 50,000-square-foot building now has a 500-seat theater, a dance space, a gallery, studios, digital arts labs and a culinary arts classroom, not to mention regular classrooms.

As the center morphed into a school, Oliver-Lewis recalls, "We started with a group of six teachers as an advisory group. The first name selected was the 'Youth Center for Creative Learning,' to tie-in with CYC. But that didn't sound right, and test groups thought it sounded like a place for early childhood learning.

"Then one of the teachers asked what the Spanish word for 'soul' was (alma), and instead of making it totally Spanish by calling it 'Alma de arte,' we went with 'd',' which is French. It is also a little more artsy."

The budget for Alma d'arte Charter High School for the 2006-2007 school year is $1.7 million. Oliver-Lewis explains, "We have 37 slots for new kids next year, and if more than that apply, we will have a lottery to choose new students from. This is becoming a prestigious place to go to school."

The enrollment of Alma is 68 percent Hispanic. At the beginning of last year, Alma's first, 23 percent of the students were repeating 9th or 10th grade.

 

Oliver-Lewis and I walk out of her office, whose walls are covered with different pictures, paintings, plaque and 20 awards. I counted. It is of course quite different from the principals' offices that I once spent way too much time in (so much so that I memorized the layout of each one).

My other visits to public schools over the past few years have always felt slightly uncomfortable. The atmosphere of many of those schools felt tense, and at the same time weary and discomfiting. And I never got used to the idea that uniformed security people had to be employed and visible. I could not imagine a scenario in a junior high school where a police officer with a sidearm would be necessary.

But I didn't feel this discomfort at Alma d'arte. It has a balanced, relaxed and welcoming atmosphere. There is no police officer on duty at Alma d'arte, and the discipline problems sound much like the stuff I was used to in high school, according to John Reese, the staff member who handles such things.

"There are no fights, so there are less discipline problems," Reese says. "Our AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) statistics made us the only school in the district that achieved the possible 37 points."

Oliver-Lewis adds, "Attendance averages 98 percent."

As we head out for a tour, Oliver-Lewis is met at the doorway by one of the school's eight AmeriCorps volunteers. Hannah Harvester is from Massachusetts, and was looking for something to do after graduating from Swarthmore College with a BA in theater. She was thinking of going abroad while doing "Bread and Puppet Theatre," which works with different social and political projects. "I was looking to experience something other than the northeast (US)," she says, "and for something in arts education."

Her opportunity with AmeriCorps brought her to Las Cruces, and she says she came here "because of the school itself." She adds, "I got the chance to teach my own theater class when I came here last August. I have had a great experience here, and have been able to do any project idea that I have had. I have been supported financially and the kids are really energetic."

Harvester has also been active in local theater, and directed a one-act play at the Las Cruces Community Theater earlier this year, called Duet for Bear and Dog.

Although Harvester will be leaving soon to go to Poland on a Fulbright Scholarship, she sounds a touch wistful as she says, "I never taught high school before, and this has been the most challenging thing I have ever done."

 

It is lunchtime as Irene Oliver-Lewis and I head down the hall to the gym/cafeteria. The student culinary classes make all the lunches, and there is not a soft drink machine in sight. As in the rest of the school, the cafeteria atmosphere is certainly full of student energy and hormones, but not the high-strung kind that I have encountered elsewhere.

"Tomorrow we will do placita lunches," Oliver-Lewis tells me. "The kids will eat in the homerooms, and at times the lunch will be thematic."

A young man tries to rush by, but stops when Oliver-Lewis asks him to tell me about his recent scholarship award for his pottery work.

Lee Trujillo is a junior. "It makes me calm down," he replies when I ask him what working in this medium does for him.

Trujillo continues, "I have fun, but it also makes me think hard about what I am doing."

Oliver-Lewis smiles at Trujillo. "I think he has found his calling," she notes.

We walk back over to a glass display case that houses Trujillo's work and that of two other scholarship-winning students. Above the case is an adage by Ralph Waldo Emerson: "The secret of education is respecting every pupil."

We continue down to the culinary arts kitchen, which is much more raucous than the other places we have stopped so far. The students are just unwinding from a busy morning.

Laurel Rossow and Ryan Owen are two of the students who have prepared today's lunch. Rossow readily admits that her future is not as a chef. "I couldn't stand the pressure," she allows, but adds that she does enjoy preparing food for groups of people. "It is a lot more rewarding," she says, smiling. "Actually, what I would really like to do is teach at Alma."

She is dressed in an Elizabethan-era costume, but has done so one day early, and so is taking a massive ribbing from her classmates. Whatever the event is that she is dressed for is taking place the next day.

"Will there be any jobs here this summer?" she asks Oliver-Lewis.

"Yes, but I don't have all the details worked out yet," comes the reply.

The other important thing that Rossow has learned in her culinary arts classes is that "doing this helps you realize how much time it takes, and it makes you have respect for those who work at restaurants."

 

No one is smoking in the boy's room as I make a quick stop before viewing the ceramics room, where a number of students are working on different projects with a guest artist. It is too noisy to try to visit with any students here, so we continue upstairs to where the rest of the classrooms are. A large computer lab is empty, as is a painting studio, but down the hall is an interesting display of student projects. One is a combination comb and fake handgun. The comb is attached perpendicular to the end of the gun barrel. As shown in the pictures displayed with the art piece, you hold the gun as you comb your hair. This bit of dark humor might be called the ultimate solution for a bad hair day.

Oliver-Lewis' face pinches up as picks up the student's work off the shelf. "I don't know about that boy sometimes. . . ."

Alma d'arte also offers digital photography classes. But the school soon will be taking a step backward, so to speak, as the Las Cruces museum system has donated all of its obsolete darkroom equipment.

"We are also teaming up with the Creative Media Institute," Oliver-Lewis says. The institute is the new film school of NMSU (see the January 2006 Desert Exposure). Alma also has a small film program, headed by Amy Simpson.

Along with the fulltime operation of the school, the Court Youth Center remains active in helping educate non-Alma students about the arts. After-school programs for high school students, which are free, currently include a drumming class with "improvisational African hand drums," an art class called Puzzle Forms, which allows students to use a variety of media to create art inspired by jigsaw puzzles, and a Human Rights Action Group. The atrocities in Darfur (funny, my computer spellcheck says there is no such word—I guess the world really is ignoring the situation there) are the focus of this week's human-rights class.

The tour of school ends back at Oliver-Lewis' office. She needs to rush off to her next duty, and has already given up her lunch hour (and more) for this interview.

In spite of her rigorous schedule, Oliver-Lewis remains focused on the goals and vision of the school. When the CYC opened, it was not expected to be a school, she recalls. "But the kids said, 'Wouldn't it be great if this was our school and we could come here all day long?' That was in 2003, and the school opened in 2004. This is a community venue, and there is life all over the place," she states proudly.

"I truly believe that if there were more programs like this, schools would have better success."

For more information on Alma d'Arte Charter High School, call 541-0145 .

 

Senior Writer Jeff Berg has
never attended a class reunion.

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