PAVE-ing the Way for Future Artists

    In today’s climate of ever-shrinking funding for the arts, one need only turn to a city in southern Westchester to understand the power of vision and commitment. 

PAVE students taking in a recent show

   The ethnically and economically diverse school district of New Rochelle serves nearly 11,000 students. Seven elementary schools and two middle schools feed in to New Rochelle High School (NRHS), where the almost 3,200 current students in grades 9 through 12 represent over 60 countries. (There is also an alternative high school in the city).

   This month, New Rochelle will be recognized as an outstanding district by the Westchester Arts Council. In 2005, the city was named one of “The Best 100 Communities for Music Education in America” for enriching the lives of children and advancing student achievement. Nowhere is that enrichment more evident than at NRHS, where the spotlight shines on its Performing And Visual Arts Education program — PAVE.

Program beginnings
   The vision for NRHS, according to retired principal, Donald Baughman, was to “attract and hold those students who may have interests not represented in math, science, English and social studies.”  That vision became a reality in 1999 with PAVE’s inception. The program’s goal, as its syllabus explains, is to “prepare talented students to meet the demands necessary for success, both academically and professionally, by providing them a broader knowledge, scope, insight and balance in a comprehensive program of creative and artistic works.”

   You cannot discuss the creation of PAVE without talking about Baughman, who, in addition to being the principal at the time of PAVE’s creation, had been an educator in New Rochelle for just on 40 years. The program grew out of a vision, he explains, that was “part educational philosophy and partly my own personal interest. New Rochelle has a long history of people living in the community in the performing arts. Since we have that base, why not build that reputation and services in tribute to the city? It makes for a better education for the kids.”

   In 1997, Dr. Domenic Guastaferro, an accomplished artist, joined the district in a role that today is called “supervisor of performing arts and visual education”. With the support of school superintendent Linda Kelly and the Board of Education, Baughman and Dr. Guastaferro conducted a year of research that included visiting school districts throughout the country. When PAVE was launched, the program had 50 students and five teachers; today it includes 315 students and 12 teachers.

   In order for a program like PAVE to take root, support needs to come from all the schools in the district. Dr. Guastaferro explains, “We knew we needed to sell the middle school principals on the program since we were going to require eighth-graders to audition. To develop and deepen the skills, everything had to be moved down into the elementary school level.”    

PAVE in action
   Each year, at the end of March, competitive auditions are held for each artistic discipline — vocal or instrumental music, visual arts, theater and dance. Auditions are open to all student hopefuls, including those from area private schools.

   Once in the PAVE program, the real work begins. “Classes are conducted before school so they do not interfere with academic courses,” says Dr. Guastaferro. Students are required to participate in their daytime ensembles, and to maintain at least an 80 in their PAVE course. High school seniors completing the five units of the program receive a diploma bearing the purple and gold PAVE seal, a signal of their accomplishment.

   Rosemarie Fraioli, a senior PAVE student majoring in ceramics and sculpture, transferred to NRHS specifically to be a part of the program. “I want to become a professional artist and teacher,” she says. “This has made me a better artist.”

   Commitment to the arts also has a physical embodiment at NRHS, with the recent addition of an 80,000-square foot wing comprising 17 new classrooms, a 200-seat auditorium, and a satellite cafeteria. Art rooms are devoted to computer graphics, photography, and sculpture, and a clay room contains multiple kilns. The dance studio has spring wood floors; the choral and band rooms are massive.

Open to the community

   In the center of this artistic wonderland is the newly created Museum of Arts and Culture (MAC), with two galleries open to the public during school hours and two evenings per week.  Museum director, Theresa Kump Leghorn, believes it “inspires educational excellence by providing an onsite experience for students and the community.” The inaugural exhibit in October featured the works of Norman Rockwell, a New Rochelle resident for 25 years. Future plans are to exhibit student artwork and to organize traveling exhibitions.

   Leghorn, parent of a recent PAVE graduate and a current PAVE student, is emphatic in her praise: “It’s phenomenal! The opportunity to excel and be part of a group of kids in the arts is important. That socialization aspect is very valuable. A lot of people look at private schools when looking at high school. I tell people to look at NRHS like a private school.  Our social and ethnic diversity is an engine for creativity.”

   The current NRHS principal, Donald Conetta, continues the commitment. On April 25, over 400 NRHS student musicians will perform at Carnegie Hall. In May, PAVE students will perform for one another and the best will be selected for an evening concert for the community. And for the first time, on June 9, 60 PAVE alumni will return to perform a program of their own creation.

   “Our goal was to make New Rochelle the performing arts center of lower Westchester County,” Baughman says, “but actually it’s become much more than that. It’s the pursuit of excellence.”

A PAVE student artist take on Norman Rockwell’s classic cover