W hen we first meet, Educational Center for the Arts director Jason Hiruo tells me about one of the ECA’s star students, Michaela Coppola. Coppola recently earned a place in the extremely competitive All-National Honors Ensemble on jazz guitar. Next month, she’ll haul her guitar to Nashville to perform with some of the country’s most gifted high school musicians.
While Coppola is an exceptional student by anyone’s standards, among ECA’s sterling student body, she’s more of an exceptional exception. A trained jazz musician himself, Hiruo remembers initially walking down the halls in complete disbelief at the sounds emanating from nearby classrooms. These are high school kids? he thought.
Welcome to ECA, a “half-time interdistrict magnet arts high school”—part of the ACES (Area Cooperative Educational Services) magnet school umbrella—where some of Connecticut’s most talented students enroll in a curriculum defined by five core programs: music, creative writing, dance, theater and the visual arts.
Since 1973, students from surrounding and not-so-surrounding shoreline towns have applied and auditioned to be a part of the program, where they’ll be taught by practicing artists. Regardless of whichever discipline students focus on during their time at ECA, in addition to that core program, the school offers a variety of elective courses to better enrich students’ understanding and overall education in the arts. For example, if a student has enrolled in the visual arts program, s/he can also take classes like Body Percussion (which is just what it sounds like) or Stage Combat to develop a well-rounded set of proficiencies in the arts.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that there’s a distinct feeling of joy when you walk the halls here. Like a proud father, Hiruo says, “ECA is a very unique, special experience. Students come here to be creative and take risks.”
While the environment here is positive and supportive, it’s clear from the get-go that students come here to work. In what could fairly be characterized as a college-level atmosphere of study, rigor and dedication are the norm. It takes dedication just to get there each day: Monday through Thursday, from 12 to 4 p.m. (or later for those involved in extracurriculars), students across the state are bussed from their public schools to ECA for the remainder of the school day.
ECA requires an application from all prospective students. Acceptance into the school requires an audition that proves students’ determination to excel at their crafts. The school brochure states as well that “ECA has a commitment to the identification of students from culturally diverse backgrounds, experiences and interest in the arts.”
With a faculty and board comprised of professional artists and art professionals, and with a location on Audubon Street in downtown New Haven, students have access to some of the state’s most preeminent arts and cultural institutions (including The Arts Council of Greater New Haven, Creative Arts Workshop and Neighborhood Music School), which may offer opportunities to perform and show. Such opportunities provide ECA students with real-world experience, resume-building and plenty of chances to get their names out there.
Not that the students need any coaxing: “We have lots of people, organizations, churches and community groups contact us and say, ‘We’re having this event. We’d love to have someone perform.’ And consistently,” Hiruo says, laughing, “across the board, any chance to perform, our kids jump at the opportunity.”
Further emphasizing the importance of community, he tells me that many graduating students stay in or eventually return to New Haven to support next generations, perhaps as artists-in-residence nearby, or even as instructors. Others join the world stage but find occasion to swing through town, like jazz saxophonist and ECA alum Wayne Escoffery did when he headlined the New Haven Jazz Festival in August.
ECA is a center for the arts within a center for the arts, after all.
Educational Center for the Arts
55 Audubon Street, New Haven (map)
Written by Courtney McCarroll. Photographed by Dan Mims.