|Judy Sirota Rosenthal Photo.|
Stage lights up. Curtains open. Mics on. On your kid’s schedule for today: a social studies lesson on the ancient Greeks, timed with live storytelling and a rehearsal for Oedipus Rex.
The costume department has a last-minute wardrobe change that needs to be checked. The set design is two days behind schedule. And your kid is running a theater company with their peers—all before the final bell at 3:15 p.m.
That’s the idea behind the Academic Theatre Lab On Audubon Street or ATLAS, a new independent middle school that Neighborhood Music School (NMS) is launching for Fall 2019. The school, with which Long Wharf Theatre is a partner, will begin with a single cohort of seventh graders next year. Already, NMS has opened admission, and is spending the fall pitching the program to parents, fundraising f or financial aid, and giving students a day-long chance to try the program out.
Currently, ATLAS has three full-time staff members: Harvard-trained educators Maria Giarrizzo-Bartz and Caroline Goldschneider, and a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) director whose name is not yet public. The program uses a theater-based curriculum as an entryway to problem-solving and academic growth.
“From a mission perspective, it lines up perfectly,” NMS Executive Director Dan Gurvich said in a recent interview at his Audubon Street offices. “At out core, our values are arts-based learning, social and emotional development, and community, which is very much what ATLAS is about.”
“It dovetails with the role that we think NMS can have in the community, which is bringing different segments of New Haven together in a safe way that builds empathy, builds friendships and understanding in a city that is often quite divided and a school system in greater New Haven that’s generally quite segregated,” he added.
The plans for ATLAS began in 2015, just before Gurvich took the helm as executive director (he was preceded by Larry Zukof, who served for almost two decades). In April of that year, he and NMS Programs Director Noah Bloom took a long road trip, which Gurvich recalled “gave us a lot of time” to talk about their work and new ideas for the organization. For a while, Bloom told him, some NMS staff members had been talking about “this real need for a progressive, arts-based middle school in New Haven.”
Maybe, they agreed, NMS could be the one to fill it. NMS already had the space—often a large stumbling block for schools—and it had some of the staff. Now all it needed was a vision.
When he returned from the trip, Bloom told Student Services Director Anne Tubis about the idea, excited to start making it a reality. Staff member Maria Giarrizzo-Bartz, who had been listening in, “jumped straight out of my chair” and into the conversation. She had the blueprint for that school, she told them. In fact, she’d written it.
Giarrizzo-Bartz is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which offers a one-year, interdisciplinary Master’s degree in education that ends with and centers coursework around a final project. As her capstone, she and fellow student Caroline Page Goldschneider had designed an arts-based middle school in New Haven, focused specifically on theater. She loved the Elm City, to which she and her husband Aaron had moved in 2012 while pursuing a degree at the Yale School of Drama. And now, working for its Audubon Arts summer program, she felt a loyalty to NMS.
“This immediately felt like home and such a vibrant art community being involved with NMS,” she recalled. “This was also such a place with a history of education, especially at the high school level. There was really a need and an opportunity at the middle school level.”
In fall 2015, NMS opened its doors to several ATLAS community roundtables, filled with parents of public and private school students, parent advocacy groups, and educators. The groups, which Giarrizzo-Bartz said were intended to both “provide a seat at the table” for parents and give the ATLAS team a chance to ask questions, laid the groundwork for several experiential student workshops that would follow. In those, she and Goldschneider previewed the curriculum, asking students to deploy problem-solving techniques as they devised scenes and deconstructed monologues.
From the beginning, there was also the question of what type of school ATLAS would be. In their work at Harvard, Giarrizzo-Bartz and Goldschneider had initially discussed making ATLAS a charter school or “a school within a public school,” meaning it would accept a small cohort of public school students for a specialized program during school hours. But after research, the two found that being an independent school gave them “the most freedom to innovate.”
There was, in other words, almost no red tape. There were building requirements to be met, hiring practices to be implemented, and curriculum to be developed. But ATLAS didn't need to wait for certification from the state: it could get the ball rolling immediately.
“In terms of opening an independent school, there ultimately is not as detailed a process that you have to go through,” Giarrizzo-Bartz said. “We are big believers in public education and really hope that what comes out of this program is inspiration and some curriculum that other schools can use. Public schools.”’
Since, she said that ATLAS’ curricular development has been guided by “The Five C’s”—middle schoolers who are “curious about their world, committed to their work, creative in their thinking, confident in themselves, and compassionate toward all they encounter.” On an hourly schedule that begins each day with movement and meditation, students will dive into classes that are both academic and highly experiential.
Nearly everything they learn—and how they learn it—goes back to the dramatic works that occupy their studies, including history and humanities, voice and rhetoric, math, science outings, and a stagecraft course (props, sets, costumes, lighting and sound) that employ STEM education. Over the two years that they are in ATLAS, they will produce four plays: a musical, and classic, a devised play and a contemporary work.
The idea in that model is to have students feel like they’re running a theater company, meaning that they’ll direct a great deal of the learning themselves. Giarrizzo-Bartz and Goldschneider have not finalized the texts that students will use, in part because the two are both thinking a great deal about “whose story do we decide to tell,” and in part because they will have students choose some of the material.
Part of that, she and Gurvich said, is cultivating a student body that reflects New Haven’s diversity—despite the school’s $25,000 price tag. In the first year, Gurvich said that 40 to 50 percent of students will be on some kind of financial aid, mirroring an increase in aid to students at NMS in the past few years. To make that a reality, the team has begun a silent fundraising campaign, which it plans to make more public in March of next year.
This fall, NMS is planning to get the word out through a series of community events, parent groups, and digital marketing. Giarrizzo-Bartz said she hopes to see applicants who come various socioeconomic, racial, gender expressive, personal, and political backgrounds.
“The mission specifically for ATLAS is to challenge our students to examine the human experience, so that they can shape their own,” she said. “Theater is a place that can reflect back to the world at its best, and is a place to explore a lot of issues that arise because of being a human and different."
"And it’s the perfect vehicle … especially at this age, for exploring a lot of these really difficult questions through a script.”