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For arts school, first year displays colors of success.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

SPRINGFIELD - For Kate Becker to describe her freshman year as "brilliant" is nothing short of remarkable.

The 15-year-old, who will start her second year at the Academy of Arts & Academics in the fall, went to four different middle schools and succeeded at none.

In eighth grade, she said, "I passed the year with all F's with the exception of the art class. This year I had all A's and B's."

The ingredients for success, she said, are all there at A3, which opened last fall in the downtown Memorial Building and, in its first year, exceeded the expectations of its benefactors at the Oregon Small Schools Initiative.

"I really like how I always have teachers around when I need one," Becker said earlier this month at the school, where she was volunteering as a counselor at a "Wizardry Camp" put on by storyteller Mark Lewis, a guest artist at A3.

A3 teachers expect Becker and all but a handful of her 85 classmates to return this year, along with about 40 incoming freshman and a smattering of sophomores and juniors new to the school. The school also hired two new faculty members, including a Spanish teacher.

"The thing that's cool about this school is the kids are really invested in it, so they want to be part of whatever they can," said Lewis, who had nine A3 students helping with his camp, most of them in full Harry Potter regalia.

A3 calls itself an arts-focused learning community, where visual, video and theater arts are integrated across the curriculum. Most classes are small and schedules are flexible, giving students ample opportunity to interact with teachers and each other. Students also work with guest artists, who logged 3,700 hours last year, and demonstrate much of their learning through projects and portfolios.

In a survey given in the spring, more than three-fourths of students reported feeling "happy" or "kind of happy" at the school, and about 90 percent said they felt "lifted up" versus "put down." Parent surveys found similar results, with nearly 90 percent reporting that their children enjoy school.

There are other indicators that A3's inaugural year was a success. All the core teachers are planning to return, head teacher Mike Fisher said, and officials with both the district and the organization that administered A3's start-up grant said they're impressed.

Karen Phillips, director of the Oregon Small Schools Initiative, visited A3 three times during the school year, once to see a student project exhibition.

"We are very pleased, and they should be very pleased, with the progress in the first year," said Phillips, whose organization administers millions of dollars in small school grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Meyer Memorial Trust, including A3's $312,000 award. "It's a very strong first year, with a very clear program and design, and the teachers and students really work together to make it happen."

A3 also has some achievement data to trumpet. Nearly 80 percent of the school's 23 sophomores - the only grade level required to take mandated exams - passed the state writing test last winter, exceeding the district average by eight percentage points. Fisher attributed the strong showing to the school's focus on writing. All students spend an hour a day in a Writing Workshop, where they concentrate primarily on persuasive essays, reflection and other nonfiction writing.

"The percentages aren't as big a deal for us as it is for the kids who took the test, because so many of them have never been successful taking a test," said Fisher, noting that 62 percent of A3's students are low-income, compared to a district-wide average of 45 percent. Poverty is a key predictor of student achievement.

Year One was not without its bumps, of course, including the November move from the Memorial Building into a remodeled, district-owned storefront at 615 Main St. Officials had hoped the new digs would be ready in time for the start of school, but it didn't happen.

"The move was a drag," Fisher said. "The place isn't well-organized yet ... As teachers, we were down here the whole of Thanksgiving break hauling tables and stuff. It was really stressful."

Fisher said it was also difficult to track and assess projects, and to truly incorporate the school's creed for learning - Explore, Design, Create, Refine, Own, or EDCRO. In a year-end status report, he wrote that, while EDCRO dominates conversations and curriculum development, "in all honesty, it's been elusive in our daily work & structure."

Fisher, who left his longtime gig as Thurston High's theater director to launch A3, said he also found it personally challenging to keep his students busy, as they seemed to move through assignments with surprising speed.

"There's that intensity of time and focus," he said. "There's not the rally squad or all those other accoutrements of a big high school, where there's this cacophony of stuff, things always going on. Kids get so focused. I'll think, OK, it will take them two days to memorize these lines, and they're done by the end of the day. That was tough for me, because it really was hard for me to react to that as quickly as I had to."

Fisher said no one expected smooth sailing.

"We all walked in knowing that we were going to have longer hours, that things would be difficult," he said. "People told us there's no such thing as an easy startup, and they were right - they were absolutely right."

Levi Harris, 15, said he ultimately enjoyed his sophomore year at A3, but it got off to a rocky start.

"There was lots of chaos," said Harris, who also volunteered at Lewis' camp. "At the very beginning, I thought, things must get better, they've got to improve, and they really did."

Harris, who previously attended Thurston, said if he could change anything about A3, "it would be the ugly orange walls."
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Title Annotation:Schools; Students, teachers, supporters have much praise for Academy of Arts & Academics
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 30, 2007
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