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From Pitts to Art: Turning a troubled middle school into an arts-focused school

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From Pitts to Art: Turning a troubled middle school into an arts-focused school

Classrooms at the Pueblo Academy of Arts were a lot harder to fill three years ago than they are today.

Back then, the academy was known as Pitts Middle School and it was part of a group of under-performing middle schools in District 60 well into turnaround status. Hiring new teachers to work at the school was challenging, and students were struggling to perform well enough to meet the state’s accountability standards.

But today, just three years later, students and teachers alike are migrating to the school.

School District 60-1
Graphic arts teacher Russ Avina holds class at the Pueblo Academy of Arts. The school’s population has more than doubled since its transition to an arts-oriented school.

“I think we recruited five seasoned master’s teachers this year,” said Karen Ortiz, the school’s principal. “Before, we couldn’t even fill our classrooms.”

The student population has also increased dramatically in that timeframe. In 2013, Ortiz estimated the student population was 230. Today, the school has 550 students enrolled.

The recent boom in population can be attributed to the school’s transition to an innovation school, which was part of its plan to turn itself around. After it turned to innovation status, PAA had the freedom to focus on art, a more niche subject.

But why do the kids themselves choose to attend the school?

“I love being asked this question,” said PAA student Cameo Farris, 14.

When Cameo went on a field trip to the PAA as a student at Highland Park Elementary, she saw a theater production of “Aladdin,” at the school, and her decision was made.

In the two years Cameo has been a student at the academy, she said she’s loved the emphasis the school places on the arts and that it provides an inclusive atmosphere.

School District 60-2
PAA principal Karen Ortiz said a grassroots group of teachers designed their ideal school in an effort to turn it around.

When Ortiz and a grass-roots group of around 13 other educators at the school asked themselves what type of school they would like to see in 2013, this was one of the reactions they had in mind.

“We asked, ‘what’s missing in Pueblo?’” Ortiz said. The answer they came up with was arts, and with strong conviction.

The teachers “believe in the arts, and the kids know it,” Ortiz said.

Every day, PAA students attend two arts elective classes in addition to their traditional core classes. Some of these arts-oriented electives include graphic arts, instrumental music, theater, vocal music, art, costuming, dance and stagecraft.

Right now, the school is working on a production of “Annie.” Ortiz said nearly all the elective classes will be working together to contribute to the production in some way.

The stagecraft class, for example, will help build part of the stage, and the costuming class will create the costumes.

For Gabriella Quintana, 13, PAA actually wasn’t her first choice of school, but “it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made,” she said. “You get to be you here.”

Since she has been a student at PAA, Ortiz said Gabby, previously a quiet kid, has come out of her shell.

“It’s our job to help bring them out,” Ortiz said. Today, Gabby’s favorite subject is theater.

PAA is still considered a neighborhood school, Ortiz said, so students who live within the school’s boundaries can automatically attend the school. She also emphasized that PAA isn’t a charter school, even with the high number of students “choicing” in.

And even though the school has a waiting list generated by parents who sign up through school choice, it hasn’t turned anyone down.

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1 Comment
  • Mike Dexter

    Great article, but it leaves out the other important element aside from the arts focus, and that is the agreed on manner in which students and teachers communicate with one another – student to student, teacher to student, etc. There is a culture of respect that flourishes in their new environment. I did some master classes last year in Mr. Bushkovski’s music classes. He demonstrated their communication protocol for me with one of his students. I think you should do a follow up article on this particular aspect of PAA. This protocol could be used in any school, not just an arts school, and would probably help other schools lift their respective games. Check it out!

    BTW, my real name is Phillip Rose (Centennial, 1970), not Mike Dexter. 🙂 I couldn’t log in any other way.

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