ASCEND School is a unique K-8 school located in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. It is one of a growing number of small autonomous schools in the Oakland Unified School District in Alameda County. The school is an arts-integrated, Expeditionary Learning school that prioritizes family and community partnerships. Arts integration means that students participate in instruction with objectives in an art form and another content area — for example, math, English or history.
In “New Beginnings,” Spark visited ASCEND as it transitioned from temporary classrooms to a new building and dropped into a class in which students were learning the art of storytelling. They began by reading several Native American myths. What resulted was the students’ own theatrical production, “Raffa and the Gold Volcano,” a morality-hinged musical created by combining attributes taken from the various Native American mythic and legendary sources they had studied. As the students prepared to stage their musical, they learned that storytelling incorporates much more than the spoken word, that stories could be told through music, movement, costumes and setting and through an understanding of how character traits inform actions.
Founded in 2001 with fewer than 100 students, today the school has more than 250 students. The first priority at ASCEND is student literacy — teaching students to be fluent and comfortable with the written and spoken word, technology, contemporary culture, history, media, mathematics, science, arts and the environment. The inquiry-based model employed in the school curricula pushes students and teachers alike to grow and change, maximizing student performance and providing valuable professional development and personal growth for teachers.
ASCEND is one of more than 30 arts learning anchor schools, which is part of a larger initiative spearheaded by the Alameda County Office of Education. The first phase of implementation of a new countywide strategic plan will provide equitable classrooms through arts learning for every child, in every school, every day. ASCEND aspires to grow into a K-8 learning community and family center serving 380 students with 40 to 44 students, at each grade level.
Although it is a local model, ASCEND is also exemplary of a national movement in which schools all over the United States, in rural, suburban and urban communities, are addressing seemingly ever-increasing problems with solutions that put a more holistic approach to student learning at the center, despite the conflicting mandates from the state and federal education systems requiring increased standardized testing, with fewer resources. In their mission and philosophical approach, these schools are actively responding to a growing body of research that continues to reveal the critical importance of arts study and learning to the growth and development of all students throughout their education and throughout life.