Head of the Class

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Test scores and union battles dominate our news about schools, but every day, from Woonsocket to Westerly, hard-working students, teachers, parents and volunteers prove our future is in good hands. Kids learn, excel, create exciting projects and build better communities. Here’s how they do it.
By Mary Grady, Photography by Peter Goldberg

Classical’s Amber Johnson 
Gives Voice to Poetry
Poetry, like the script for a play, lies dormant on the page until a strong voice brings it to life. Amber Rose Johnson, a junior at Classical High School, spent countless hours practicing, to discover that voice in herself. She pored through hundreds of poems, sensed emotions in the words and struggled to convey them. After winning a state contest in poetry reading, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to compete, and in April, Amber won the title of 2010 Poetry Out Loud National Champion, the top honor in a field of more than 320,000 students. “It was amazing, when they kept calling my name, cut after cut after cut,” she says. She won with a poem written by a young black woman, Margaret Walker Alexander, in 1942...“For my people standing trying to fashion a better way...Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born....” Amber found the beating heart in words on paper, and made them live out loud.

TV Time
Just thirty seconds to go, and it’s quiet on the set. The talent is ready, the lights are on, the tech crew readies the teleprompter and watches the clock. Countdown…three…two…one, and seventh-grader Rachel Cloutier leads the salute to the flag. It’s a routine, chaotic morning in the TV production studio of Kickemuit Middle School, where an enthusiastic group of sixth, seventh and eighth graders produces a live video version of the morning announcements. The five-minute show appears in each homeroom over the school’s internal network. Principal Michael Carbone has been building the infrastructure since 1999, collecting second-hand gear off eBay, pestering local experts for technical help and creating a hands-on experience that clearly captivates the youngsters. After all, as one seventh-grade newscaster says, doesn’t everyone want to be on TV?

Shea’s Interns Go Places
By the time she was a senior at Shea High School, Bella Koudriavtseva had an inkling that a nursing career might be right for her, but after completing an internship at Memorial Hospital, she’s much more certain of her choice. “The nurses that I worked with were so inspiring,” she says. “You could tell they really loved their work.” Bella and her Pawtucket classmates in Edward Kostka’s public administration course are taking part in an experiment that’s the first of its kind in the nation. It places seniors in internships two afternoons a week in state agencies, courts and hospitals. Julio Ferrage, who wants to be a veterinarian, gained experience in a microbiology lab at the state Department of Health. Djelisa Duarte knew she was interested in the law but after spending time in court she’s focused on becoming a criminal lawyer. “These are not go-get-me-a-doughnut kind of internships,” says Kostka. “These are real opportunities to engage and participate and explore.” 

The Met School’s 
Alex Hurley Meets the Reel World
It’s not only in the schools that students find life-changing experiences, but out in the community. Alex Hurley was a junior at the Met School in Providence and searching for a final project for biology class when an after-school program at Roger Williams Park Zoo provided inspiration. Alex chose to make a short film about the wallaby Vincent, an “animal ambassador” who was born at the zoo with a birth defect, and hand-raised by staffers. “The idea of the film was to be a sort of commercial, to help raise funds for the zoo,” says Alex. That experience led to a senior-year internship at Wutup Productions, a local video production company. Now Alex plans to pursue filmmaking as a career and has been accepted into the New England Institute of Art.

Eastern Exposure at William Winsor
Officials in smithfield schools are among many in the state who have discovered a rich source of talent, opportunity and support by tapping into local institutions of higher learning. At William Winsor 
Elementary School, language teacher Ann Short and Principal Bridget Morriseau found a powerful partner in Bryant University’s Confucius Institute. The nationwide program supports the study of Chinese language and culture in public schools, and Winsor is the first site to develop a program for elementary school kids. The popular after-school program includes Chinese history and geography, and even the kindergartners practice calligraphy and can count to ten in Chinese. The curriculum that Short and her colleagues are developing will become a model for similar programs across the country and around the world.