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Maureen Costello

Maureen Costello

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The Secret to Making Schools Great

Posted: 03/ 1/11 02:38 PM ET

Last week, I had a chance to preview documentary films that showed how a strong arts program -- and that could range from mariachi to Shakespeare to poetry slams -- could turn struggling schools into powerhouses of energy and promise. Sunday night, millions of viewers got a chance to see what students from a school that values the arts look like -- on the Academy Awards, no less.

Sixty-four fifth-graders from P.S. 22, in Staten Island, N.Y., ended the Oscar ceremony with a stirring rendition of Over the Rainbow. Each child's body moved with the music, and you could tell that these students hadn't been told to stand still or move in the same direction. Each face showed a belief that music could transform and that a brighter future truly did lie ahead.

P.S. 22 isn't a magnet school or a privileged one. Seventy-five percent of the students at P.S. 22, a Title I school, qualify for free or reduced price lunch. They live in an economically disadvantaged area, and their families struggle. Yet the school can boast successful test scores, a lower-than-average suspension rate and 92 percent attendance.

The man behind the chorus, Gregg ("Mr. B") Breinberg, practices the kind of teaching that makes success seem matter of course. He has high expectations for his students. He listens to them and incorporates the music they love -- like Lady Gaga's Just Dance (with modified lyrics). And because he respects the culture they bring to school, they enthusiastically sing the indie music he loves, like Let Your Love Grow Tall by Passion Pit.

Mr. B's skills go far beyond cultural competency. He started a YouTube channel for his chorus in 2006, and it went viral. His little chorus that could has enjoyed a certain small amount of fame. They've sung with musical luminaries, received a Webby Award and today they appear on Oprah.

Some will say that this is all fluff. And as we well know, arts programs like these, especially those that don't get all this public attention, are the first to go when the budget ax falls. But programs like these are the reason many students show up at school every day. These classes give students confidence, a record of achievement, and self-discipline that helps with academic work.

Every school should have dedicated teachers like Mr. B and opportunities like this for its students.

 

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