Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School exterior 1

Arts and Labor

Being sent to the principal’s office isn’t so bad when you know the principal’s got your best interests at heart.

There can be little doubt of that with Frank Costanzo, head administrator at the Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School—that five-story, orange-bricked, generously windowed building that commands the block of College Street between George and Crown. He calls his school “phenomenal” and says “there’s nothing better than leading adults and adolescents who are committed to the arts and who spearhead that vision for the community.”

Vice-principal Val-Jean Belton applauds, first and foremost, the school’s commitment to helping kids express themselves. Her passion, still holding strong after more than a quarter-century as a teacher of visual arts, came through during a tour of the building.

The first stop was a first-floor gallery of student work—photography, ceramics, mixed media, pencil drawings and paintings. During the tour, high schoolers practiced classical dance in a studio that “feels like you’re dancing outdoors.” Other endeavors in progress included making a metal suit of armor, testing how Life Savers candies dissolve in a variety of solutions, getting the jazz band ready for a show and writing plays to submit to a contest at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.

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Last year 800 applicants vied for the freshman class’s 150 spots, which were then filled via lottery, with 65% coming from the city and 35% from the suburbs. Over the years, from 1980, the school has moved from Lake Whitney in Hamden to Newhallville, Wooster Square, East Rock to its assuredly permanent home at 177 College.

Where so many school systems have discounted the value of visual art and music and drama programs, “the Co-op,” as it is affectionately termed, reveres the arts. Freshmen must select one discipline to concentrate on for the next four years: visual arts (like graphic design, painting, pottery, photography), creative writing, theater, dance, choir, strings, winds and jazz band.

These hands-on electives, which students work on for 90 minutes a day, integrate with a more traditional academic curriculum that includes English, math, science, social studies, world language (Chinese, French and Spanish), fine arts, physical education and business and technical coursework. After-school courses allow students to explore a variety of other artistic interests until 4:30 p.m., and more than half of the student body takes advantage.

Computers are everywhere, but these kids aren’t glued to screens. Being situated in downtown New Haven, in a neighborhood shared with higher-learning institutions and teeming with cultural resources, including museums and theaters, has opened lots of doors for exploration, according to Principal Costanzo. For him, “the partnership and support from Yale, the Shubert, Gateway Community College, Yale Rep and Long Wharf Theatre have been outstanding. They are so willing to help and to initiate programs, a true good-neighbor policy exists between us.”

Classes can walk to the Green to measure distances for a math class or travel to the Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Galleries to view exhibits, then carry what they learn back to the classroom. A recent January fashion show featured clothing influenced by a nearby gallery exhibit.

Tyler Hueffman, a senior from North Haven, says, “The Co-op is more than a school. All cultures, creeds and religions are accepted. You can express yourself through art and you won’t be judged.” He’s enjoyed many theater experiences and is looking forward to this year’s musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, being mounted at the school next Thursday and Friday. Tyler currently intends to go to college for video game design, with a little theater on the side.

Theater is also on Mychael Green’s mind. A senior from New Haven, he feels “the school has done a lot for me.” He’s the assistant stage manager for Spelling Bee and hopes to attend the New School in New York for stage architecture.

For Bob Pease, a senior from Madison, the Co-op has helped him “artistically, culturally and academically. Its brilliant diversity has helped me so much.” Pease’s top choice is also the New School, where he hopes to pursue acting, communications and jazz guitar.

The school is “the best,” according to Jayla Payne, a Hamden senior who pursues dance as “a way to express myself.” She’s looking forward to a recital at Southern Connecticut State University this June and wants to attend Spelman College in Atlanta, where she’s thinking about majoring in business, with law school to follow.

Those fields could use a little more art and humanity, no?

Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School
177 College St, New Haven (map)

Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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