The East Syracuse Minoa Central School District prides itself on educating the whole student — every student. Its educators say this dedication to excellence through cross-disciplinary and inquiry-based learning forms the core of its identity and values.
Fifty-three of the district’s high school students and eight faculty members and parents traveled to the U.S. Department of Education (ED) in Washington, D.C., recently to showcase the district’s comprehensive education — one with broad offerings that include art, physics, music, English composition, computer programming and automotive technology. As evidence of this integration, the group opened its 105-piece K–12 student art exhibit and showed a student-made film on all of its career and technical education classes to myriad D.C.-area arts educators, leaders and advocates, one of their Congresspersons’ staff members and ED staff.
“We have students who take AP [Advanced Placement] art in the morning and go to auto tech in the afternoon,” said Matthew Cincotta, chair of the high school’s art department. He described a class in which students merged information from art and biology to inspect a dissected cat. “We talked about connective tissue,” Cincotta explained. “You have to understand anatomy to understand how to draw hand and body parts.”
The artwork at ED, which will be exhibited through August, includes two works from rising senior Amanda Szatanek — a self-portrait and a ceramic Buddha. Amanda, who is leaning toward a career teaching ceramics, is passionate about art and science, and has completed classes in both areas. The exhibit also includes a charcoal sketch of a golden retriever, whose creator, rising sophomore Helaina Scolaro, said her family selected this breed for a pet because the color of the dog’s hair matches hers (and her younger brother’s). “Luna” sports soulful eyes and abundant whiskers. Helaina is considering a career in interior design.
The district’s high school is one of only 11 in New York State designated as comprehensive; it provides career and technical education classes that range from fashion sewing as part of Family and Consumer Science to TV news as part of Communication and Media Studies, a broad range of academic classes, including many AP offerings, and a student-led credit union. College-level courses are available in conjunction with area higher education institutions. In addition to the numerous classes listed in its 54-page high school course catalog, faculty provide classes on request from even just one student.
During the program, Grenardo Avellino, executive principal of the high school, explained the district’s philosophy. The 21st century requires graduates skilled in “critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, collaboration, creativity and innovation,” he said, all of which he views as “essential for success in college, career and citizenship.” ESM students develop these abilities as well as their leadership capacities both inside and outside the classroom, and provide their voice in all the school does by representing their classmates on various committees. Students also learn practical ways to apply their studies. For example, ESM carpentry students have been building new homes and additions for residents of the school district for more than 30 years. The program has saved homeowners thousands of dollars on labor costs, while improving the community and educating its local students.
Avellino noted several points of pride for the school district, including a graduation rate that rose to 92 percent in 2017 — an 11 percent increase in just one year and 12 points above the statewide average— and five consecutive citations for being among the 583 “Best Communities in the Nation for Music Education.”
Many students, teachers, administrators and ED officials praised ESM’s education model and the important role the district assigns to the arts. Cassianne Cavallaro, the student speaker, noted the opportunities she had at ESM, from participating in the jazz band to taking 10 college-level courses. She graduated this spring, and plans to pursue a college degree in illustration.
“The faculty at ESM have definitely provided the most impact on my development as a student,” Cavallaro said. “My teachers have given me helpful real-world advice, supplied extra tutoring, or, in general, willfully gone beyond the expectations of a teacher for the selfless benefit of their students.”
The program included a performance by the high school’s chamber choir of six varied compositions. The 16-member choir, mostly student-run, was led last year by Cooper Pokrentowski; he is headed to college in the fall to become a music educator. Lorien Beaulieu, an elementary school music teacher who accompanied the group to ED, said that many students participate in multiple activities.
Choir members, too, described wide-ranging pursuits in their classes and extracurricular activities. Maria Markert, a rising senior, plans to take AP calculus and SUPA (Syracuse University Project Advance) biology next year and is interested in engineering. She sees an overlap between her STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) interests and her love of music. As with science, she explained, “There’s a lot of problem-solving and figuring out how to fix different problems that come into music.”
The importance of the arts in education resonated strongly with Michael Wooten, ED’s acting assistant secretary in the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education. With a focus on a main lesson of the day, he noted how science and the arts go hand-in-hand.
“STEM is critically important in helping us build our houses,” Wooten said. “But art helps us make our homes. STEM is critically important in helping us construct great bridges and great buildings. But art is what helps us design the great monuments and the great edifices — the great signatures of our landscape that tell the world who we are.”
Ellen Schoder is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education
Nancy Paulu is an editor and writer in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the U.S. Department of Education.
All photos are by U.S. Department of Education photographer Paul Wood. More photos from the event may be viewed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/departmentofed/albums/72157698916949835
The Department’s Student Art Exhibit Program provides students and teachers an opportunity to display creative work from the classroom in a highly public space that honors their work as an effective path to learning and knowledge for all. To visit the exhibits or for information about exhibiting, contact Jackye Zimmermann at [email protected] or visit https://www.ed.gov/student-art-exhibit/.