Toby Young

The school of my dreams

The school of my dreams
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My friend Barry Isaacson has just sent me an email about the Renaissance Arts Academy, a Charter School in Los Angeles that he's just been to look at with a view to sending his son there.  Charter Schools are the American equivalents of Free Schools - ie, privately-run, but publicly-funded. If Michael Gove makes it easier for parents/educators to start schools like the Renaissance Arts Academy, then more power to him. This is precisely the kind of school I'd like to start in Acton.

Here's Barry's description:

"This place is an astonishing local institution founded by parents with distinguished teaching experience and very uncompromising standards. It’s a so-called 'Arts Magnet'; it appears that charter schools here are funded according to local requirements for educational specialisms and RenArts emphasizes music, dance and drama. It’s important to understand that Jenny and I do not want to find the Los Angeles equivalent of Dartington Hall – I can think of nothing worse -- and turn poor Nathan into Twyla Tharp.

However, it’s the combination of arts emphasis and an uncompromisingly classical curriculum that appeals to us. The school site is a converted department store in Eagle Rock. Classes take place in large, open spaces, allowing for a certain amount of cross-communication between older and younger children. The space is bordered by soundproofed rehearsal rooms, with libraries, a teachers’ lounge and various other annexes leading off the central area. All 'scholars' (as they are called) must play a stringed instrument and homework consists only of one hour’s required practice per night. There is no academic homework but stringent standards are set by the curriculum, which is taught by a combination of professional musicians and PhDs in the individual subjects with a shockingly good teacher-pupil ratio relative to state school standards.

To counterbalance the Arts emphasis, maths, physics and chemistry is taught to a very high level, as is fine art and literature, with an emphasis on literary criticism. The entire school might be required to read The Iliad, for example, and it is then taught in every grade. There are no 'electives'. Everybody takes Latin, the only foreign language on the curriculum. PE is modern dance and is, apparently, very strenuous and compulsory.  After-school activities are numerous, focused on performance and community; everybody sings in school choruses, plays in orchestras or chorales or performs in dramatic productions. Dance is always accompanied by live music played by scholars.

Various Los Angeles arts/ performance institutions have recognized the unique nature of this school and have given it privileged access to their performances and even rehearsals. Numerous school trips are organized in the evenings to the LA Opera, Philharmonic, etc.; all scholars dress formally for these occasions. There is a loose uniform code (no jewelry, jeans, high heels, etc). The two rather formidable founders say 'We do not do popular culture'; they argue that children are steeped in it already and they see their purpose as supplying a counterpoint, a context for ubiquitous popular culture. In other words, the performance emphasis is not aimed at getting children on 'American Idol'."

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Written byToby Young

Toby Young is the co-author of What Every Parent Needs to Know and the co-founder of several free schools. In addition to being an associate editor of The Spectator, he is an associate editor of Quillette. Follow him on Twitter @toadmeister

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