First Class

T he oft-recited words of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are fresh and funny as they’re read by students sitting around a large table in the recital hall at Neighborhood Music School. The seventh-graders have just been cast in their roles for a spring production, and they’re speaking their lines for the first time.

“So, quick plot check here,” Maria Giarrizzo-Bartz calls out. “Who does Hermia think is dead?”

“Lysander!” a few students call out. The reading continues.

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This group of 16 students is the first class of ATLAS Middle School, founded by Giarrizzo-Bartz and her colleague Caroline Golschneider and now nearing the home stretch of its first academic year. For the next couple of months, all of the school’s lessons will cluster around the eventual production of Midsummer. When the table read—the English Language Arts lesson for the day—is done, students head down the hall to Stagecraft, where math, science and technology are at play. Billy O’Shea, a longtime teacher who serves as the school’s STEM director, floats from table to table as students dig into projects in costuming, props, set design and more.

The academic day also includes Perspectives (otherwise known as Social Studies), Inquiry (aka Science), Math Lab, Movement, Voice and Objectives—small groups in which students create and execute their own studies and projects—as well as twice-weekly Spanish and a large Community block on Fridays, during which the school takes field trips or meets with experts from the community. Via a partnership with Long Wharf Theatre, students are learning how a professional company works. They’ll perform Midsummer at Long Wharf in late May.

Giarrizzo-Bartz and Golschneider call their vision for ATLAS—which stands for Academic Theater Lab on Audubon Street—“reverse arts integration.” Instead of bringing the arts into a traditional classroom setting to help “bolster” that learning, Giarrizzo-Bartz says, “we look at the authentic artistic process and see where there’s already opportunity for academic work and then bolster the art process with the academic work.”

For example, when the company was working last fall on a production of The Giver, the story of a boy designated by his dystopian society as the Receiver of Memory, students learned about the neuroscience of memory in their Inquiry class. At the same time, while studying the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Perspectives, Golschneider says, one student observed that the “people who have the power are the people who tell the stories.” That led to a conversation that not only connected history and the text of the play but also the power of a theater production in relation to its audience and the power dynamics in society at large. “Lightbulbs started going off,” Golschneider says. “This is high-level thinking, this is really great work that you’re doing as 12-year-olds.”

ATLAS itself wasn’t quite a lightbulb moment. It took longer for Giarrizzo-Bartz and Golschneider to embrace the plan to build a school together. They met on a housing website for the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where both were studying, and shared a Boston-area apartment during the week and rides back and forth to greater New Haven on the weekends. In one another they found “kindred spirits” and shared educational dreams. But when Giarrizzo-Bartz first made the leap to “we should just open a school,” Golschneider says, she balked. It took more conversations for both to realize it was “one way that we can effect deep change.”

In this case, change took years to materialize. After graduate school, both women returned to their respective teaching jobs—Giarrizzo-Bartz in East Harlem, Golschneider in Windsor Locks—while their plans for a middle school simmered. When Noah Bloom, who was then NMS’s director of programs, floated the idea of an arts-based middle school, the two were ready to step into the opportunity. But even once the curriculum was lined up, they waited some more so funds could be raised for financial aid. They knew the school’s $25,500 price tag would be daunting for many, and they wanted ATLAS’s students to “represent New Haven in all its forms,” Golschneider says. About 50% of the first cohort are on financial aid. The ultimate goal, she says, “is anyone who wants to come here, we figure out a way.”

At the same time, the small size of ATLAS is intentional. Student Cecelia Cangiano says she likes it that way. “Everyone knows each other, so we’re all like one,” she says. Her classmate Giada Thomas agrees. She used to attend a much larger school, where students were separated into smaller groups. “Even though it’s… a small space, we all get along,” she says.

That manageable size makes it possible for students to pursue their own interests within the larger curriculum. Student Paul Frahm, for example, is drawn to learning stage lighting. He spends this Stagecraft period experimenting with a sprig of greenery under a small set of lights, the first step in designing lighting for Midsummer’s forest set. “The shadows are really cool,” he says. “You want to have a look?” He points out the way the angles of the different lights interact. “It’s like a puzzle. You have to fit all the lights together,” he says.

Frahm says he had an interest in theater before coming to ATLAS, but he was also simply looking for a change. The school isn’t “just for self-identified theater kids or for anyone who considers themselves ‘artsy,’” Giarrizzo-Bartzsays. “It’s a vehicle for academic work.”

Next year ATLAS will double in size, bringing in a new class of seventh-graders while current students stay on for eighth grade. Even then, the group will remain small enough to work together on a single production. Giarrizzo-Bartz and Golschneider hope that next year’s eighth-graders will become mentors to the new students, who are currently going through the application process. The founders have been asked whether they’ll eventually add sixth or ninth grade to the mix, but they say their plan instead is to hold steady and continue to focus their attention and expertise on this often underappreciated age group.

Giarrizzo-Bartz likens middle school to being in a cocoon. “You need to figure out who you are and who your people are and how to think and learn in the midst of all that’s going on for you,” she says. “And then you can emerge ready for whatever’s next.”

ATLAS Middle School
Neighborhood Music School – 100 Audubon St, New Haven (map)
(203) 624-5189 | atlas@nmsnewhaven.org
www.nmsnewhaven.org/atlas

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2 features Caroline Golschneider and Maria Giarrizzo-Bartz.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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