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Article: "CATA gives art students a voice", The Sound

Article: "CATA gives art students a voice", The Sound

This article was first published on May 16th by The Sound. 

The American high school experience has been immortalized countless times in books and songs. A viewing of any one of John Hughes' iconic movies shows the angst and inherent contradiction of that particularly tricky phase of adolescence crystallized on screen.

In classrooms across the country, students have very little input in how the material is taught or how mastery of the material is measured. The social pressure is intense, and only those with spectacular luck manage to emerge unscathed. For many, high school is a time of immense stress and the fervent wish to survive the pressure cooker just long enough to escape to college. 

For a group of 62 students in the Seacoast, however, high school is a vastly different experience. There are no lockers, teachers are viewed as friend instead of foe, and being in a jazz & rock band will get you credit toward graduation. 

Welcome to the Cocheco Arts and Technology Academy (CATA). Established in 2004 and located just off the beaten path at the Seymour Osman Community Center in Dover, the public charter school is a haven for those who haven’t found a good fit in a traditional public school environment. With a heavy focus on visual and performing arts, CATA has become a magnet for students interested in pursuing a less standardized educational path.

“Students come here and stay here because they feel like they have a voice, they’re not just a number,” says James Friel, CATA’s Director. “They are welcomed for who they are, instead of feeling pressured to conform. This group of young ladies and men are as open and nonjudgemental as 60+ teenagers could be.”

A seasoned educator and administrator, Friel saw something special in CATA when he took the helm three years ago. “The more that I found out about the school, I realized this really is a place that is very unique and has a lot of character and potential.”

Even with the dynamic and rewarding nature of CATA mission and student body, Friel's job is challenging. The school's shoestring budget imposes restrictions on operations, and stewarding the school's growth under such limitations requires creative thinking from Friel, as well as CATA's staff and board of directors. As the students begin to look forward to summer, the administration is hard at work fundraising to meet the goals of the annual fund. If the fundraising goal is hit by the target deadline, CATA will nab two matching donations offered by anonymous supporters, which will further support the thriving school community.

With a goal of nurturing creative thinkers, independent learners, and active citizens, the typical day at CATA begins with morning circle, an opportunity for the kids to sit together as a group and discuss issues facing the school community. 

“The students talk about things like being nonjudgmental and respecting each other on their own and without adult input. It’s not always perfect, but we work towards understanding and developing levels of tolerance,” says Friel. 

In a room tightly packed with musical equipment and students, ten teenagers practiced the songs they’ll perform at an open showcase on May 20th. Music teacher Eric Turner’s Jazz/Rock Band, one of the signature offerings included in CATA’s mission-based curriculum is warming up. The band opens with Amy Winehouse’s Valerie before moving on to Agua de Beber, a bossa nova jazz standard, and then finished up with Etta James’ At Last

Turner skillfully leads the band, stopping the students every so often to fine tune a note or give a student a pointer. Each student has a level of mastery that is enviable, most on multiple instruments. 

Turner believes much of the success of the Jazz/Rock Band program, which he developed, is in the flexibility allowed at CATA. "The songs they’re playing - it’s all over the spectrum. Kids just don’t get that in a public school setting,” he says. “Also, we focus on instruments that you might not find in a public school band class.” 

The flexibility carries across all departments, according to Turner. “This school is much more of a problem-solving, skills-based program. Kids are given a curriculum, but within that curriculum, it’s up to them to figure out the best way to complete it,” he states. “Having choices empowers them.” 

That sense of empowerment is obvious, almost tangible, in the students. Teenagers are notoriously reticent, but the students at CATA are confident, poised, self-aware, and eager to share their opinions. 

“CATA is about taking control of your education,” says a junior named Saren, whose long, lavender-streaked hair hung over her face as she played the bass. "I think the biggest difference I notice is that the students, as well as the faculty, want to learn. Instead of dreading school every day, you want to go.”

Zachary, a fedora wearing 10th grader playing the saxophone, agrees. “I came because I wanted to be somewhere that I didn’t fall through the cracks,” he says. “Until you experience it yourself, you don’t realize how close everyone in a school environment, especially a high school environment, can be. I came for the music, the community, and the teachers, and I’m really glad I did.”

“This is my first year here and I came to pursue music, which is my passion,” says Alex, a junior who played the guitar with a serious and intent focus. “It’s been a quality education.”

As the school year draws to a close for the students, the window of opportunity to take advantage of a matching donation looms for the administration and board. CATA’s annual fund goal was to raise $40,000 this year, and if they hit that number this spring, two private and anonymous donors have promised an additional $10,000.

“The goal of the annual fund is to cover the gap between state funding and what we need to fund the students’ education. We’re currently a little over halfway there,” says Friel. “Hitting that fundraising goal will ensure that everything, educationally, is taken care of. That’s the challenge for charter schools in general, because of the low level of funding we get from the state.”

When asked how grants and corporate support play into CATA’s fundraising and development goals, Friel says, “We look at all opportunities. We have a lot of energy on our board and they are, individually and as a board, looking at a variety of options and trying to find as many different opportunities as possible.”

Friel believes that as the school continues to make progress with their outreach and fundraising goals, there will be potential to grow significantly. “I would like to see us reaching and exceeding, with the state’s approval, what our charter was initially set to be.” 

But with an expansion past the charter’s 100 student limit, there will come new challenges. 

“When we originally came here three years ago, it was understood to be a temporary arrangement and we still have a couple years left on that agreement,” says Friel. “I think we’ll max out this space if we hit 80 students. If we were to have a sudden influx of students, we would need to find a larger space much more quickly.”  

With classes like Webcomic Creation, Digital Portfolios, World Drumming, and the aforementioned Jazz/Rock Band, in addition to the slate of core academic classes offered, it’s hard to imagine a teenager who wouldn’t jump at the chance to attend CATA. The issue of growth beyond the current location’s capacity seems almost inevitable. For the time being, the students prize the intimacy and comfort of the CATA community. 

“There are so many positives at this school. But one thing that comes up is the question of what happens when there’s conflict. We have been taught to be responsible, respectful, kind, and patient. I think that carries over into life in general,” says freshman Adeline, who sings with a clear, sweet voice; a flower tucked behind her ear. 

“That’s the magic of this school,” says Friel. "It really is a very unique educational environment. We’ve been able to show the kids that having a beautiful, grand building and unlimited materials isn’t how you get a quality education. You get an education based on what you’re taught, what you’re exposed to, and what’s expected of you. They are amazing teenagers. They really are an enjoyable group of kids to work with.” 

To support CATA by helping “Keep CATA Weird”, click here.

Article: Bentley University & Team Lunchbox