Contra Costa School of Performing Arts, Walnut Creek, CA – December 4, 2017

by George J Elbaum

Contra Costa School of Performing Arts (SPA) was quite a surprise for me.  Before speaking at a school for the first time I try to learn a bit about it – is it new or old, its enrollment, its “flavor”, etc –  by visiting its website.  However, except for the “Performing Arts” in its name and in its mission statement (“The mission of Contra Costa School of Performing Arts is to provide a distinguished, pre-professional experience in performing arts within a college and career preparatory setting. We believe in fostering a culture of excellence with the core values of rigor, relevance, resilience and relationships.”) its website did not give me many facts or feeling about the school, and many of the positive descriptives were similar to those of many other schools. (Yes, I also learned that, in addition to standard academic fare, “SPA offers pre-conservatory style training in 5 Arts Majors: Dance, Instrumental Music, Production and Design, Theatre and Vocal Music.”)    I therefore made a list of questions, even asked a few of these* when met at the entrance by Stacey Wickware, the school’s Instructional Coach (*Answers: school opened last year, so the 2017-2018 school year is only its 2nd year; current enrollment is 404), and we agreed to continue this discussion after my talk to the 10th graders.

This follow-on discussion was, for me, a fascinating eye-opener about the birth pangs of starting a charter school, for which we were joined by SPA’s founder and Exec. Director, Neil McChesney.    After several applications to the local and the county school boards, the fledging school held its first classes (6th through 10th grades) in a sub-divided gymnasium, moving into its current quarters this year, and will have its first graduating class of 23 students in June 2019.

The purpose in founding the SPA was to provide a quality educational environment aimed at students with interest & inclination in creative arts to prepare them for college and for the competitive arts world.  Because many students of performing arts have not only a personal passion but also enhanced sensitivity (which is both positive & negative), they benefit from personal mentoring to prepare them for the culture and behavior in the adult world.  This led to SPA’s focus on SHINE: Show responsibility, Have Respect, Invest in Yourself, Notice Others, Encourage Excellence.  All students get a mentor and a Chromebook to allow learning at their own pace, and each day starts with a one-hour “Spotlight” class of students/mentor interactions as needed, plus a weekly one-on-one session with the mentor.

My talk was introduced by Social Science teacher Karen Montgomery who also managed the Q&A, which I particularly appreciated because the questions were focused on my experiences and on our current society, such as “What can we as individuals do to fight indifference, hatred and racism today?” and “How can we help people with PTSD?” and “What one thing would you like us to get out of your visit today?”  Also, two small but very personal touches: immediately after the Q&A a student gave me a little card with “Thank You” and a lovely flower she drew on it, and another student asked if I like butterscotch, and when I answered “Of course” she gave me a butterscotch popsicle.  Very, very nice!

The event was arranged by Jack Weinstein of Facing History and Ourselves and organized by Stacey Wickware and Lisa Kingsbury, SPA’s Director of Curriculum and Integration, along with Karen Montgomery and English teacher, Veronica Woods.  Attending it also were SPA dance instructor, Katherine Orloff, instructional assistant, Christopher Totah, and Peg Borbely Covert, Campus Security Volunteer.

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