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The Arts in Education
Kudos for the Frank Sinatra High School for the Arts, a.k.a. “Tony’s School”

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Can Tony Bennett really be 81 when his speaking voice, clear and strong, suggests 31?  He explains—when you’re taught how to sing, you know how to conserve energy and project. What he’s particularly delighted to project these days is his total delight in the public high school in Long Island City that he founded six years ago with his then companion, now wife, Susan Crow, former Principal of Instruction at the school and now president of Exploring the Arts, a nonprofit arts organization Bennett established with the enthusiastic support of former NYC Council President Peter F. Vallone. The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts (FSHS) bears the name of one of Tony Bennett’s most significant mentors and friends—“Frank and I were good buddies, but I wasn’t part of the Rat Pack”.

The school’s been such a success in its brief six years of existence that, for sure, there’s “A Song In [Tony Bennett’s] Heart”—not to mention Principal Donna Finn’s. FSHS’s dynamic leader has a background in Fine Art, a B.A. and M.S. Ed. from Queens College, a certificate in Administration, and great pride in having found herself in education, after years in the work force and starting college at the age of 32. But, as it’s often said, love affairs started later in life often last for life, and the passion Ms. Finn exudes for FSHS—its mission, students and curricula in dance, drama, fine art, music and film—looks to be forever. Her great enthusiasm for the school is shared, of course, by its founder.

 “Tony” shows up for every graduation, invites students to attend his concerts and TV specials, and tries to attend theirs. Recently, “the kids” performed at the75th anniversary of Radio City Music Hall’s Christmas Show, and it was an especially “wonderful” event, he notes, because they had been invited only three days before. When he comes to the school, he says that he sees “young Americans full of hope—not one drop out.” The data back him up: 90% of FSHS’s 610 students are graduated within the traditional four-year period, and 100% go on to college. “The kids adore him, the parents are thrilled,” Ms. Finn says. They know what he does professionally and what he continues to do for them to encourage their artistic and academic endeavors. It’s a tricky balancing act, of course, to attend to both art and academics, as Ms. Finn well knows. But she is sensitive to those twin needs and tries to hire subject teachers who understand the arts and arts teachers who respect the academic curriculum. That means, for example, finding ways that allow students to participate in performances that may turn up during a school week and not scheduling recitals in June when they’re prepping for and taking Regents exams. Their day starts at 7:15 and ends at 3:20.

Clearly, the school must be doing something right: applications have gone up and admissions have become more competitive, with auditions playing a central part. And how about those awards, Tony points out:  The school’s Wind Ensemble won a Level VI Gold with Distinction medal from the New York State School Music Association, a professional organization that tests secondary students in music, after students performed various pieces on June 1 this year. Music is the largest arts program at the school, though it is likely that in February 2009, when FSHS moves into its own building, a block away from the Kaufman Astoria Movie Studios and the American Museum of the Moving Image, the filmmaking program will expand. And probably the dance and drama programs as well, with overall enrollment expected to grow to over 900.

So what sets FSHS apart from other art and academic high schools? A broad smile comes over Ms. Finn’s face. Three things, she says, in addition to the school’s relatively small size: (1) It’s not enough to be a good performer; a student should also know about the history of an art form, aesthetic theory, interpretative differences in different cultures, and also have the ability to express these in writing. Students are also given a global sense of their discipline and taught to respect each other’s preferences and gifts. For example, those who love classical music come to performances of pop and vice versa. (2) Because education also takes place outside school, partnerships with arts institutions are important: Among FSHS’s many prestigious partners, including American Ballet Theater and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the nearby Queens Museum of Art plays a major role in introducing students to the administrative, educational and business sides of the art world. Professionals visit the school and students visit organizations. (3) Typically, high schools introduce students to professional opportunities in their junior and senior years, but FSHS lets freshmen participate in performances, thus creating, in effect, an internal internship program where students learn from each other.

For Tony Bennett FSHS is simply  “the best.”  “I love this place,” he says, and is especially proud that it is “public” school. That was important to him, and he looks to FSHS to provide a creative arts model for public schools nation wide. “There’s not enough culture in the country today. If there’s more involvement in the arts, perhaps there will be fewer wars.” The arts teach the “history of the world, what it was like at certain times,” an important lesson in humanity and civilization. He quotes Winston Churchill on WW II: “What else are we fighting for?”  Most of all, Tony Bennett wants FSHS students to know that they must “never give up.” His own mother inculcated that attitude in him. She may have made only one cent a dress (”can you believe that!”), but she got her message across: as her son would put it years later in one of his more famous songs, with hard work and faith, “the best is yet to come.”#



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