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'Blacka' Ellis-backed performing arts school opens September

BY JAVENE SKYERS
Staff reporter
skyersj@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, July 17, 2017

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Jamaica's first performing arts high school is all set to open come September. But unlike its secondary counterparts, its focus will be on traditionally extra-curricular activities such as theatre arts, dance and music which, along with other academic subjects, will form the core curriculum.

The New Approach School of Performing Arts (NASPA) is the brainchild of local comedian and performing artist Owen “Blakka” Ellis and Managing Director of New Approach Learning and Resource Centre Tamar McKenzie.

According to Ellis, the idea for the model of the private high school and its programme came from a school his own son attended in Toronto, Canada.

“So the aim of the programme is to really create a balance between the academics for the kids as well as performing arts, so we are not doing it as extra-curricular activities. I think usually when people think of performing arts they think of drumming or probably dance. We are taking it to another level by looking at theatre arts, technically theatre stage management, audio visual, the whole mock up where the students can actually see a fulsome picture of what theatre arts or performing arts is about ,” McKenzie explained.

She said that another aspect of the programme will facilitate training and certification for established performing artistes as well as those interested in getting into that field.

As a precursor to the curriculum being introduced in September, there is now a programme ongoing called “Summer Beat: Where the Arts Meet”, which is an interim summer school for students 6 to 18, which Mckenzie said will allow parents to experience a trial of the programme.

She explained that for September, however, students will be offered a choice where they can do a ratio of subjects, such as three academics to two performing arts subjects, which will determine their schedule of programmes from grades seven to 11.

According to Ellis, the school has designed a full-time performing arts programme where students and staff will have to audition to gain entry.

“People get thrown into the arts because they are not bright or they not behaving or so on. It encourages persons to see the arts as valuable and not just something you get sent to when you not bright. The aim is Edna Manley College (of the Visual and Performing Arts) will want to have students coming from this school because they will enter the college prepared,” Ellis stated.

He added that students can also leave the school and go straight into the field to hold jobs such as entertainment directors within the hotel industry.

McKenzie noted that, based on registration so far, they are looking at starting out with approximately 25 students between grades seven to nine, and that their market is mainly home-schooled students.

“There is a large group of parents in Jamaica who have removed their kids from the traditional school system because of the unmet needs, so one of the aims of NASPA is to target those unmet needs and fulfil them in a healthy balance between parents, students and administration,” she explained.

McKenzie said that in trying to identify why parents pull their children from the school system, he found out that, for the most part, it was because the child was at a far more accelerated pace than their age level.

She explained that the situation in Jamaica is one where students are ranked because of age and not necessarily on aptitude, and so one of the things NASPA capitalises on is multilevel learning where students are placed based on level of performance, aptitude and learning style.

As it relates to classroom set-up, McKenzie explained that the school's location at units 4 and 6 — 157 Constant Spring Road Units — is designed to facilitate only small classes with no more than 10 students to one teacher, and that they have carefully planned to ensure that if they are oversubscribed for certain classes, repeat sessions can be arranged.

Ellis noted that they have an excellent line-up of teachers both locally and internationally, with their visual arts teacher coming from Montserrat and their etiquette and grooming teacher from Canada.

“We have a core of eight full-time teachers with a part-time complement, and this would be just with performing arts area because NASPA is an extension of New Approach Learning and Resource Centre, where we focus on strictly academic courses from primary level to secondary level,” Mckenize stated, highlighting that the teachers currently engaged at NALRC will be working with NASPA to create a balance between the performing arts and academics.

Ellis added that the teachers have profiles as performers who excel in their field and have the skills to match the theoretical side of the subjects they will be teaching. They will also have to re-audition each year to ensure that they are on par with their area of interest.

“There is this national perception we value the arts but don't value the artistes … just somebody who have some talent, but if you talk to people like a Michael Abrahams, who is at the top of his field in medicine in Jamaica but also has his heart set on being a performer comedian and poet,” Ellis stated.

He said that if people like Abrahams can share his own experiences about how they enjoy what they are doing and can still earn money, then it can help to change the perception.

He noted, however, that the perception is changing, although slowly, and that there is the hope that NASPA will continue to drive that change through the programme's success.

McKenzie explained that one of the main goals of the institution will be to create prestige for the performing arts, where practitioners can be proud of what they do and are respected by introducing a standardised method of certification.

She added that they will also be looking to do exchange programmes with the school in Toronto to expose students to the international level of the performing arts and introduce them to a global space.

McKenzie also shared that starting this month they will be in partnership with TBC (The Breath of Change) Radio where NASPA hosts a show called Raising Parents, which will look at issues facing kids from a parenting standpoint to help target the unmet needs of both parents and their children.

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