Web Sites, Documents and Articles >> Hartford Courant News Articles >

School's Arts Theme Lures Students

Kinsella Elementary, Plagued By Low Scores, Remakes Itself And Now Has A Waiting List

October 31, 2005
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

By virtue of his address, Edwin Oquendo could have enrolled his two young daughters in Parkville Elementary. By most accounts, it's a fine school that generally ranks in the upper tier of Hartford elementary schools on standardized test scores.

But the doting father found what he thinks is a better place for his youngsters: Kinsella Elementary School, clear across town, near Hartford's Colt Building.

To those who know Hartford schools, Kinsella might seem a surprising pick. From the outside, it seems a forbidding place, with high brick walls featuring one lonely row of windows just below the roof.

The school's academic track record is no less forbidding. Kinsella typically ranks either dead last in the city in standardized test scores, or a step or two from the bottom. Last year, just 7 percent of the fourth-graders met the state goal for reading.

It is one of two city schools the federal government has tagged as "in need of improvement" for five years running, a designation that gives Kinsella parents the right to move their children to higher performing schools under the No Child Left Behind law.

But Oquendo and other parents in Hartford are suddenly flocking to Kinsella. The waiting list to get in this year was brimming with 400 names. Some impatient parents have even lobbied school officials to get their names closer to the top.

It's a hunger for art, music and dance that has parents hustling and angling. Test scores are important, they say, but the arts are the stuff of life - and Kinsella is remaking itself as a theme school focused on the arts.

Here, reading, writing, science and math lessons are infused with music, dance and art. Unlike other city schools, where the arts are mostly held to a minimum, youngsters at Kinsella choose from electives such as tap, ballet, drumming and violin in addition to regular art and music classes.

Pamela Totten-Alvarado, Kinsella's principal and the architect of this stunning turnaround, has ambitious plans for Kinsella. Next year, she will convert the school into an interdistrict magnet school open to children from surrounding suburbs. Planned building renovations include construction of a black box theater, a dance studio and other special art spaces.

Totten-Alvarado, now in her third year as principal, moves through the building like a wind storm. Look here, she says, pointing out the intricately carved columns gracing the school's entry. "They're from [a theater in] the Old State House. We cut them to fit."

And look there, in the auditorium where kindergartners are having a tap-dancing lesson. "See the curtains - they're from the Old State House. We had a guy hang them. Boy that was a job. Now we have a theater in-the-round."

"No one wanted this school," Totten-Alvarado says, in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.

She took over, she said, because Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry asked her to do it. In the years before Totten-Alvarado arrived, teachers and parents called reporters regularly to gripe about chaos in the halls and classrooms.

The place was so out of control that teachers sometimes didn't even know where their students were, insiders complained. Principals came and went. The year before Totten-Alvarado took over, the school year started without a principal, and, for months, principals from other schools took turns spending the morning or an afternoon filling in at Kinsella.

The atmosphere is infused with optimism now. "When you add the arts into instruction, every child has a way to learn," Totten-Alvarado said. "It appeals to all learning styles."

Totten-Alvarado is intent on making sure the Kinsella children return her investment by developing a love for learning. Eventually, she promises, the test scores will reflect that love and Kinsella will be a great school.

Parents in Hartford believe her.

At a fair showcasing magnet schools, Totten-Alvarado found Oquendo and told him about her plans. She was straightforward with him about the school's track record as one of the lowest performing in the state.

"They told me that," said Oquendo, father of girls aged 4 and 7. "But this school is going to be upgraded and that's what these schools need. And art and music are very important for kids growing up. My kids are artists."

At Kinsella, all kids are artists.

Walk into science teacher Heather Dinnald's sixth-grade class and see the Kinsella Rappers perform their rap and dance about the eight phases of the moon. Their work sparked hardy applause from their classmates.

Ask the students in the class if they like adding art, music and dance to science, and they answer before the question is completed: "Yes!"

How are you learning?

"You have to memorize to perform," said Jose Jimenez, one of the Kinsella Rappers.

"And you get to be active while you're learning," added fellow rapper Christopher Barros.

A hallway away, students in Christine Tocionis' seventh-grade reading class are acting out scenes from the book "Holes" by Louis Sachar. After the applause, Tocionis leads the class in critiquing how well the actors interpreted the characters.

When the class takes the Connecticut Mastery Test in the spring, she told her students, there will be open-ended questions about reading passages and testers will critique students' answers in much the same way the class was critiquing the actors' interpretation of the book.

"The answers to open-ended questions," Tocionis tells her class, "must demonstrate comprehension of important elements and relationships beyond the text."

And in a second-grade classroom, arts education consultant Allison Abucewicz is demonstrating a lesson for teachers on how interpreting musical compositions that have beginnings, middles and endings can teach students about the structure of a story.

Every performance is greeted with applause, which Totten-Alvarado said bolsters self-esteem. A large showcase in the front of the school shows the picture and work of the writer, artist and musician of the week.

It's too early to say whether the infusion of the arts will improve test scores, because the curriculum is new and standardized tests won't be administered until the spring.

But parents say their children who attended the school last year are thrilled by the changes. Last year, Maribel Gonzalez said, her son hated going to school. Sometimes, she said, he would stand outside and refuse to enter.

"Every morning he would say, `I don't want to go.'"

This year, her son doesn't like to miss school, not even for a doctor's appointment.

Elika Cruz describes a similar transformation in her 12-year-old daughter.

"Last year, she'd give me a hard time with behavior and she'd say, `Yay, it's the weekend,'" Cruz said. "This year she's doing great. She's learning the saxophone and on the weekend she says, `Mommy, why don't we have school on the weekends?

"Yay, Monday's coming!'

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
Powered by Hartford Public Library  

Includes option to search related Hartford sites.

Advanced Search
Search Tips

Can't Find It? Have a Question?