The Conservatory Lab Charter School (CLCS) serves elementary schoolchildren from the City of Boston through a music-centered curriculum aimed at helping children reach their highest academic potential. Presuming on strong evidence that music learning (performance, symbolic representation, and conceptual thinking) enhances learning across all disciplines, the CLCS helps children develop intellectually and socially through a thoroughly music-infused school program.
The decline in the learning levels of American children did not occur in a single year, but the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk heralded the first alarm. Concluding that public schools had slipped to a level that were “mediocre” at best, the publication called on national leaders and citizens to undertake serious education reform.
Since that report, not much has improved. The 1996 National Assessment of Education Programs (Washington D.C.) reports that 41% of the nation's fourth graders are reading at “below basic” level (the lowest rating) and 43% of high school seniors are “below basic” in science. In fact, American high school students, according to statistics gathered by the Center for Education Reform (Washington D.C.) are among the least prepared of students in the world's industrialized nations.
Social indicators for these students are equally discouraging. The broadly circulated 1989 Carnegie Foundation report, Turning Points, concluded that “roughly one quarter of the 28 million ten-to-seventeen-year-olds in the U.S. are at risk of failing in school, abusing drugs, becoming delinquent or becoming pregnant.” That same study documented that the average American pre-adolescent spends 32% of their waking hours in school and 21% in front of a television or video screen.
In an effort to address what many now regard as a crisis among American, parents and educators have sought strategies that can reverse the ominous trends. One promising strategy has been the creation of charter schools. Developed to provide strong accountability in an environment that demands proven academic proficiency and a responsibly school community, charter schools have become a main current in the forward surge toward education reform.
Massachusetts passed its first charter school legislation in 1993, which has resulted in the opening of 34 elementary, middle, and high schools to date. Funded through the state (with a school's allocation based on the average cost per pupil for the town or city in which it is located), charter schools are thoroughly public with the opportunity to be as good or better than exclusive private schools. Charter schools, initiated by parents, teachers, business people, and/or community leaders, operate independently with the freedom to establish their own mission, curriculum, and pedagogy. They may be as innovative as they wish, but staff must produce the promised results within five years or the charter is revoked.
The CLCS received its charter in 1998 and opened its doors to 60 students in the fall of 1999. While typical of other charter schools in its commitment to reform ideals, the CLCS is the only school in Massachusetts and beyond using music as the fulcrum of the entire academic program. Far from regarding music as an “add-on” or a special provision for the gifted few, the CLCS places the experience of music — its intellectual constructs, emotional appeal, and demand for cooperation with others — at the core of the school program. The “laboratory” aspect requires that the model be documented and studied for replication in other settings.
The CLCS was originally conceived by four colleagues who, in different settings, had noted the value of music as a powerful tool for intellectual and social development. While aware of the conspicuous attraction of music for children of all ages and backgrounds, these researchers and administrators were further impressed with how music learning influenced skill development across subject areas. Two of the founders, Lyle Davidson and Larry Scripp, had worked at Project Zero at Harvard's School of Education. There, in cooperative endeavors with Dr. Howard Gardner, they began explorations of the interface between music and other learning. Drawing on that research and on work in school districts nationally, they piloted a curriculum called “Learning Through Music” in schools in Nahant, Lynn, and Cambridge. The idea of a charter school was a natural extension of this work, and ideal for implementing this curriculum from the very beginning on a school-wide scale.
Larry Scripp, collaborating with Lyle Davidson and the remaining founders, Mary Street and Rhoda Bernard, wrote the original charter application. With the successful completion of the charter application process, final state approval was received in February of 1998. After a year of planning and preparation, the CLCS held its first lottery for students in March 1999. By then, more than 170 families had applied for their children to attend. The school opened on September 8, 1999 with 60 children in three grades: kindergarten, first and second. The charter stipulates that the CLCS will add a new class each year until it has a full complement of students in grades Kindergarten through five in 2002-2003.
The daily schedule of the CLCS is much like that of other schools in many ways, with some striking differences. Academic subjects are comprehensively covered with teachers working collaboratively on curriculum planning. The content of the CLCS curriculum, however, is different because of its grounding in the “Learning Through Music” curriculum, as well as the commitment to a music class for all students each day. Work in academic subjects is also carried out in tandem with music learning — its conceptual thinking, written representations, performance, and reflective processes. In fact, the basis of the “Learning Through Music” curriculum is a structured process whereby students are expected to gain basic knowledge, and then to reflect and question it, to explore its perimeters, and to make new discoveries and connections. The process — an iterative one that is applied to lessons in all subjects — serves to train students in thinking that goes far beyond the mere acquisition o facts or rote memorization. The learning process, in fact, echoes what happens in the arts. Students are encouraged to interpret, revise, and remake for greater perception and deeper understanding.
The CLCS day begins at 8:30 and officially ends at 5:30, with the extended-day portion of the curriculum beginning at 3:30. The extended-day program is an opportunity for students to continue their learning in a more relaxed format, with classes in Spanish, drumming, recorder, movement, visual art, and computer. Every first and second grade student also receives a violin lesson on instruments provided by the school during extended-day, and many special education services are provided during this time.
Testing, Evaluation, and the Lab School
Accountability is a central feature of the CLCS program. Students take the standardized Stanford 9 tests twice each year to measure knowledge acquisition, but they are also required to maintain classroom work portfolios to document their progress with concrete evidence. Portfolios contain samples of compositions, reading comprehension exercises, computation and number work, science projects, social studies lessons, work in Spanish and visual art, and music classes. They also contain a chronology of how students exercise the iterative process of reflecting on their work to make changes and stretch learning for new and broader understanding.
Teachers keep portfolios as well, documenting what happens in the classroom and recording uses of the “Learning Through Music” curriculum. They keep samples of specific lessons, student work, and questions that arise during the course of their work. In professional development groups with the CLCS music specialists and evaluators, teachers review the content of their portfolios and share “best practices” with one another.
All of the testing and documentation at CLCS is directed toward creating a complete curricular model that can be replicated in other school settings. Larry Scripp, the Director of Curriculum and Assessment, is responsible for seeing that this is accomplished, with the assistance of New England Conservatory researcher and faculty member, Lyle Davidson, and Brown University-based evaluation analyst, Martin Gardiner. These individuals, aided by specialists in areas such as cross-cultural music, music and technology, and program management comprise the team that will deliver the findings of the “laboratory” to the education community and the public.
The work of the CLCS is managed by co-directors: an Administrative Director and a Director of Curriculum and Assessment. These tow are assisted by a business manager, an administrative assistant, and other part-time staff. During this first year of operation, teaching staff includes three master teachers, two assistant teachers, two aides, a music teacher, and a special education coordinator. Additional staff include two violin teachers, a computer lab coordinator, a visual art teacher, and a drumming teacher.
The CLCS has a seventeen member Advisory Board comprised of distinguished individuals with advanced degrees and/or national reputations in the fields of education and music. Among the members are: author and cognitive scientist, Howard Gardner, composer, Philip Glass, City University of New York at Staten Island Provost, Mirella Affron, and cellist, Yo Yo Ma.
As a public school chartered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the CLCS is directly accountable to the state for all aspects of its operation. On a day-to-day basis, the CLCS is overseen by a own Board of Trustees, a body of fifteen members who meet once a month to ensure smooth operations, sound financial management, and fundraising success. The Board is comprised of educators, business representatives, scholars, teachers, a physician, and a parent. It is organized into five committees: charter oversight; evaluation; governance, audit; parent and community relations; facility; and development.
The Development Committee has been very active in helping to launch the school and craft a strategic plan for its ongoing development. Before the school had officially opened its doors, members had helped to raise $131,000 to support the extended-day program, successfully met a challenge grant of $50,000, received funding from a national foundation, and approached more than fifteen local foundations. To date, the committee has raised more than $500,000 in private funds.
The CLCS Community
Parents are drawn into a charter school from the very day they select the school as an option for their child's education. Once they are selected through the lottery, they generally join the school community with enthusiasm for making the program a success. This involvement is heightened at the CLCS as parents visit the school for portfolio reviews with teachers, attend musical events, and participate in the various activities aimed at making the school a success. Parents have create a fledgling parent organization and hold regular, theme-based meetings to meet as a group and discuss areas of concern.
Beyond this, the CLCS is part of the larger charter school and education community. It has been assisted by the Massachusetts Charter School Resource Center at the Pioneer Institute, and, as noted above, by numerous friends and faculty of the New England Conservatory. As the CLCS adds a new class of students each year, and as its community seeks a permanent facility appropriate for a music-centered school, its community will continue to grow. Meanwhile, it will be regarded with great interest as a laboratory, documenting how music can inspire children and enhance their intellectual development.