Pairing a challenging education with the opportunity to try out a variety of artistic pursuits, including figure skating, is what makes the Arts Academy Charter School in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a little bit different than the average school experience.
“The whole school and staff are focused on a philosophy that is more understanding to students with a bend toward the arts,” Principal Jan Labellarte said. “The academics are designed to be rigorous, but still provide the creative aspect.”
In what is called a “consolidated academic approach,” about two-thirds of the students’ day is spent on their traditional core classes and the other one-third is dedicated to their artistic pursuits. In addition to skating, courses include dance, theatre, vocal, instrumental and visual arts, such as painting and sculpting.
The school begins in 5th grade and students have daily workshops that expose them to all of the school’s arts classes. In 6th and 7th grades, they narrow their artistic focus to two areas and by 8th grade they choose one of the offered arts to pursue and it becomes part of their five-day-a-week curriculum.
“These are kids who want to learn and we’re giving them what stimulates them and I think it has a positive correlation to their core classes,” said Bill Fitzpatrick, executive director. Fitzpatrick’s background in skating includes serving on the U.S. Figure Skating Board of Directors for 10 years, being a national-level judge and referee, traveling internationally as Team Leader and Assistant Team Leader and being named PSA’s Skating Official of the Year in 2003. “It’s the perfect blend of physical and creative activity.”
Offering classes on such things as edges, spins and jumps, in addition to regular performances, the figure skating program at the Arts Academy Charter School offers something else for the students: opportunity.
While students come from all economic backgrounds, under the designation as a charter school, there is no tuition and their ice time is covered, which can be a real plus to those who are financially struggling.
“This school has opened a whole new world for some of these kids,” Labellarte said. “We have kids who have a strong interest in the arts but aren’t sure which art interests them. A lot of those kids never would have tried skating, but they have been able to try it and they find love it.”
Skaters from the school range from Basic 5 to pursuing junior moves, but they are expected to work with and help each other, as well as perform in regular shows and exhibitions together.
“This program builds team camaraderie and teaches the skaters the importance of working together,” said Val Nauroth, skating professional for the school. Nauroth has been coaching for over 35 years and has had skaters compete at the regional, sectional, national and international levels. “Each of the skaters is working on the development of their own skills while offering encouragement to the other skaters. There is so much to be said for the team building and the sportsmanship they learn - plus they can still have their regular classroom experience with their peer group.”
Perspective students go through auditions and interviews to get accepted to the school - and there’s a reason for that process.
“It’s a commitment from them and us,” Fitzpatrick said. “We emphasize the importance of exceling at both their arts and education. And it’s such a benefit that the kids and their families can enjoy a traditional educational day and not have to hustle to the rink at 5 a.m. every morning or be on the ice until 7 p.m. every night.”
The way the school is structured, the requirements are the same as a public school, but as an arts-oriented school, there are no extra-curricular arts classes or classes such as home economics, which is how the students are able to keep a normal school schedule.
“I think one of the best things is how we are able to harness their interests and put them to work with their academics,” Labellarte said. “For instance, if a math teacher is teaching circles and radiuses and there are skaters in the classroom, the teacher can make that correlation for them and it automatically becomes more interesting to them.”
While not formally connected, the Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is where 80 percent or more of the students from the Arts Academy continue their education - as well as their artistic pursuits.
“Who knows where these kids can go and what they can accomplish?” Fitzpatrick said. “If you give children chances, Heaven knows where they can go.”