“What NOCCA excels at is seamless shifting from class to class. With the Academic Studio, you never leave your academic classes, or your arts, for the other. It’s an environment where the arts are utilized in every core subject and where many classes are intertwined to form a relationship between two seemingly unrelated subjects. We learn how everything that we know — and will discover — can be connected. And shouldn’t that be the goal of education: learning about the world as an integrated whole?”
— Grayton Newman, Academic Studio student
NOCCA is one of America’s preeminent high school arts conservatories. It has also been home to one of the most successful learning pedagogies since its founding in 1973.
For most of its history, students have attended on a half-day basis, taking academic subjects at public, private, parochial, and home-schools, then traveling to NOCCA for arts classes. Several years ago, NOCCA and the NOCCA Foundation set out to create a new academic curriculum that would allow students to spend their entire day studying at NOCCA.
We developed this curriculum — dubbed the Academic Studio — with a series of domain partners. These experts come to us from renowned universities and learning centers across the globe, including Harvard, Stanford, University of Melbourne/Australia, and the Exploratorium.
We required our experts to support arts-training through academics. For instance, we wanted to help Media Arts students understand sound waves and Culinary Arts students understand changes in states of matter. To meet these needs, our curriculum designers crossed boundaries within academic subjects, across academic subjects, and across the arts.
Within academic subjects, the Academic Studio math curriculum begins with a focus on number sets, statistics, and probability in order for students to understand the basis of our number system and be better prepared for later subjects. Yet, even as students advance to algebra, geometry, and calculus, they will continue to explore how those elements interact. Likewise, the science curriculum begins with the nature of scientific thinking and integrates biology, chemistry, physics, and environmental science.
Breaking boundaries in history has been especially exciting. Social studies domain partner Dr. Michael Wallace realized early on that the arc of human history — which he believes reflects a maturation process rather than a progressive process — mirrored the maturation of young artists.
Using a four-year arc rather than semester or year-long courses, his curriculum examines the expansion and intensification of human interaction over time. The chronology runs as follows:
- Year one: Deep history to 1400 CE
- Year two: 1400 – 1700
- Year three: 1700 – 1900
- Year four: 1900 – future
Just like historians work, Academic Studio students explore geography, world history, American history, and civics concurrently within these specific time frames.
“I know of no high school other than NOCCA that is doing this,” says Dr. Wallace, who has developed the curriculum in consultation with a 26-member international advisory board made up of historians from Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and UCLA, among other educational institutions. All are keen to participate because they see true transformative value in the framework being developed at NOCCA.
Academic Studio in practice
The Academic Studio program launched in August 2011. Students are admitted solely on the basis of their arts audition, meaning that the Academic Studio includes young people from a range of educational backgrounds, from 4th grade to college-level readiness.
And yet, in year one of the Academic Studio, 73% of students scored excellent or good on the Louisiana End of Course Algebra I test. These results were among the best in the state. Just as importantly, Academic Studio students are developing the same passion for math, science, and humanities as they have for music and dance.
Our goal in launching the Academic Studio was not just to close the academic achievement gap, but also to help each student develop the habits of mind and work critical for leadership in the Knowledge Era’s global, creative, and innovation economies. NOCCA’s unique approach to learning is allowing us to do just this.