The New City School: Visual and Performing Arts Festivals « Center on Educational Governance (CEG)

The New City School: Visual and Performing Arts Festivals

Practice Area: Arts-Themed Education

The New City School:
Visual and Performing Arts Festivals

The New City School

Long Beach, California
Founded 2000
190 students
Grades K-8
68% Hispanic, 19% White, 8% African-American, 2% Asian, 3% Other
45% English language learners
5% Special needs
63% Receive subsidized meals
Teachers not part of collective bargaining unit

Source: Center on Educational Governance, 2006.

The arts-themed New City School groups its K-8 students into three multi-age clusters in which students are taught by the same teacher for three years. New City also eschews traditional grades to evaluate achievement. However, neither of these is the designated promising practice.

Instead, we examine the school’s three signature Visual and Performing Arts Festivals, where students share their creativity and performance skills with
their peers, families and neighbors.

All NCS students must demonstrate achievement in autonomy/independent thinking, English/Spanish oral proficiency, community participation, reasoning/problem solving and creative expression. The visual and performing arts festivals incorporate all five.


To demonstrate their talents and skills, all students are required to participate in three annual festivals.
Held in late October or early November, the Fall Harvest and Mask Festival features a parade of masks worn by the students who made them. Begun very early in the school year, the masks’ themes reflect areas of study. While learning about Watts Towers, one student cluster made masks using found objects gathered during a camping trip.
The parade also includes dances the students learned in elective classes, from traditional Middle Eastern dance to hip-hop. The festival ends with a potluck where parents, friends, and community members socialize and enjoy harvest-themed foods.
The Evening for Peace and Human Rights, held in late December or early January, has its foundation in United Nations Human Rights Day and Eleanor Roosevelt’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Original theater, music and dance pieces present freedom, equality and humanity themes drawn from a three-week mini unit in each cluster.

For example, one year the youngest cluster drew on literature to create a play about oceans, pollution and environmental justice. The middle cluster performed skits about the Underground Railroad while the oldest group’s work concerned the unsolved female kidnap/murder cases in Juarez, Mexico. A silent auction fundraiser, with items donated by local community sponsors, rounded out the evening.

The Spring Garden and Dance Festival celebrates May Day, the school garden and spring themes, and is held in two parts. An outdoor event of skits and performances resembles the fall festival. An evening of musical performances, both interpretational and original, is held in a more formal, indoor setting and reflects a year of preparation by the performers.

The school has nine regular teachers and one music specialist. The teachers teach in pods of three; each pod has at least one art specialist. Two of the nine teachers are also 50-percent administrators at NCS. One co-director handles budgeting, staff planning and other administrative tasks, while the other co-director is the school’s public face.

Each three-grade cluster studies different themes for an entire year. All students receive two hours of music instruction a week and must take elective classes in the visual arts, dance, drama and creative writing. Elective classes are taught two days a week for 50 minutes each. The products from these classes are performed and exhibited in the festivals.


NCS’s annual festival budget is $1500, which does not cover most materials, such as paint and other craft supplies, which are donated by local community businesses. An end-of-year auction of student artwork targets a $10,000 profit.

Also in a separate budget, the music program and community outreach to local artists are integral components to the festivals’ success. The music program’s $60,000 budget includes equipment and a full-time music specialist’s salary, covered in part by a $20,000 grant from the Nissan Foundation. An additional $20,000 is spent to bring in visiting artists and performers.

The festivals are held in the schoolyard’s large grassy area. The music portion of the spring festival takes place in a nearby community facility, such as the community church, though the NCS staff would like to find an indoor performance space of its own.

Each August during a two-week professional development session, the staff decides how they are going to address the five school outcomes, including creative expression, in the upcoming school year; they map out units, themes and the festivals. During the school year, staff members discuss the festivals on an as-needed basis during their two-hour weekly meeting and at additional meetings as the festival dates draw closer.

Lessons Learned

Initially, festival planning was done on the fly, without a firm template. Now months of work go into each festival: a full year for the spring event.
Reflection and experience helped the staff develop appropriate timelines. “The first year there were 80 kids, so we squished into the front music room,” the co-director said. “The next year we moved outdoors.”

Not only have the festivals grown and evolved over time, so has the staffing, with a diminished role for the co-directors. “There was an initial, maybe necessary, sort of public personality when you start an organization, where the leaders had to be out in front,” said one co-director, who now only emcees the festivals and writes and prints the programs.

As NCS faces budget issues, the school is now pursuing alternative forms of funding, such as foundation support and fundraising events.

Facilities for the spring concert have presented difficulties. The school yard suits the other festivals, but its sound quality does not befit the year of preparation behind each student’s musical performance. Various community stages have hosted the event, which solves many issues but allows for minimal rehearsal time. The staff feels a strong need to acquire its own indoor performance space that could accommodate 200 students and their families.

NCS teachers have mentioned the need to document the festival beyond snapshots and informal video. They would like to record and publish data about the festivals’ accomplishments while capturing the intangible factors of artistic creation. Future graduation requirements may include electronic portfolios of students’ festival contributions. The staff also would like to provide parents with DVDs or videocassettes of the festivals.


NCS’s festivals focus on cooperation instead of competition, creativity instead of rote memorization. The students take ownership of the festivals; they run the sound equipment, choreograph some of the original performances, clean up the yard, and pass out flyers. Not only does a sense of community develop within the school, but parent volunteers, business sponsors, and dedicated citizens are all necessary components of successful festivals.

Through the years, the NCS staff has learned how important the festivals are to the students. “Kids love to perform, to be appreciated and to be taken seriously,” one co-director has said. “They just smile, smile, smile through the shows, and you can see how proud they are. There’s this authentic reason to do it.”

In the two weeks leading up to the festivals, the absence rate is typically zero. During the 2005 Fall Harvest and Mask Festival, all but one of the 190 families attended. And in 2005-2006, nine of 20 middle-schoolers (45 percent) decided to attend the visual and performing arts magnet high school the following year.

According to NCS’s co-director, qualitative research supports that self-esteem, self-confidence, and self-efficacy all improve when people participate in artistic endeavors. The number one benefit of the festivals is for the students to build confidence, she has said: “If you can get out there and salsa dance in front of 200 people, you can come into the classroom and tackle a math problem.”


Center on Educational Governance
Rossier School of Education
University of Southern California
3470 Trousdale Parkway
Waite Phillips Hall, Room 901
Los Angeles, CA 90089-4039

Phone: (213) 740-0697
Fax: (213) 740-4184
Staff Directory