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Passion and Discipline: The Arts Program at Kennedy Catholic

Johann Sebastian Bach famously chalked his success up to sheer effort, opining that “anyone who works as hard as I did can achieve the same results.” But for Ines Boston, it’s less about perspiration and more about passion.

Mrs. Ines Boston, Chair of Kennedy Catholic's Arts Department

Mrs. Ines Boston, Chair of Kennedy Catholic’s Arts Department

“Passion is the key. I am passionate about the kids. I am passionate about the arts in general,” Mrs. Boston explained. In her 7th year as Chair of Kennedy Catholic’s Arts Department, her passion has translated into an advocacy that permeates Kennedy’s curriculum and after-school activities, and has contributed to the music and performing arts program’s wild growth. The school, once known primarily for its rigorous college preparation and science/technology programs, has begun to attract new students by the sheer virtue of its arts and music curriculum.

Before her arrival at Kennedy, Mrs. Boston’s passion led the German-born music educator throughout Europe. A classically trained opera singer with a master’s degree in voice from Dresden University, she made her living training other professional singers. Upon arriving in the U.S., Mrs. Boston discovered her true calling: training – and inspiring – high school kids.

At Kennedy Catholic she found a school with a robust after-school theater program but otherwise in need of a shot in the arts arm of its curriculum. So, as J.S. Bach would have appreciated, she got to work.

The chorus numbered 7 voices when Mrs. Boston arrived in Somers, and now boasts 54 singers. The concert band, under Mrs. Martha Belardo, has nearly doubled in size. The string ensemble – a rarity in any high school music program – didn’t even exist at Kennedy. Now, under 37-year music education veteran Mr. William Ostrovsky, it’s become a sensation. No longer confined to their own individual arts silos, each of the programs are more integrated, with greater collaboration among all the singers, musicians and artists.

Mr. Frederick Ostrovsky conducts Kennedy Catholic String Ensemble

Mr. Frederick Ostrovsky conducts Kennedy Catholic String Ensemble

The performing arts are not for every child, but the arts program at Kennedy Catholic most assuredly is. Those not enrolled in chorus, string ensemble, concert band/jazz ensemble, or theater/acting in their freshman year find themselves in an Art/Music Appreciation course.

But make no mistake, the emphasis is on performance. As the ex-diva explained, “You can appreciate music in your home and living room, but going up there and performing for other people? That builds up personality. It takes courage to do that, trust in yourself, belief in yourself. It takes a lot of effort, discipline and willpower to be a performer.”

“It’s not simply about talent,” Mrs. Boston said, echoing Bach’s – her favorite composer’s – sentiment. “There are a lot of talented people out there. They will never make it because they are not disciplined enough or they do not put enough work into their field.”

For Mrs. Boston, that means a good decade of dedication. “It takes about 10 years to develop a strong competency on a musical instrument, with daily practice of 3 hours,” she explained.

For Kennedy students, 40 of those 180 minutes daily are covered by focused instruction in the classroom. But the remaining time is at home, and there is a lot of competition for it. “It is becoming harder for everyone to focus because the distractions – phones, iPads – have become bigger,” Mrs. Boston said.

Of course, if you can’t beat ’em, you join ’em, and the Arts Chair has a strategy for that as well. The music program at Kennedy Catholic is one of the very few among local schools to be using the SmartMusic app. The iPad-based software allows instructors to listen in on, and grade, their students’ music homework.

Mrs. Katie Glembotzky preparing for the Annual Kennedy Catholic Art Show

Mrs. Katie Glembotzky preparing for the Annual Kennedy Catholic Art Show

Here’s how it works: Students are assigned a section of music as homework, and the app allows them to record their work and submit it to their music teachers as if it were just another page of trigonometry problems. The program also provides its own evaluation, letting the students know if they failed to hit the correct notes. Teachers decide, lesson by lesson, how many tries their students are allowed for each assignment to get it right.

The technology has been liberating for Kennedy music teachers because, as Mrs. Boston explained, there is never enough time within one class to teach all the music parts. Every group of instruments in the band, every range of voices in the chorus, has its own drill. By planting the SmartMusic app into their pedagogy, educators can spend more time teaching sight reading, introducing music theory and just building better musicians.

Earlier this year the work of Kennedy’s Advanced Visual Arts students went on tour locally, exhibited at the Katonah Arts Museum and Garrison Art Center. Now Mrs. Boston has plans to enter the school’s music arts groups into competitions, both domestically and internationally. After all, no rock star worthy of the name is happy until she has taken her show on the road, and Kennedy’s own Meistersinger is no different.

“We want to go where the music was composed,” she said with a twinkle, assuring for perhaps the first time in American high school history that a chorus would be thankful for its predominantly classical European repertoire.

But before any plane tickets are purchased, there is more work to be done, Ines Boston told us, to ensure the students have met the “right standards.” The gold standards.

Her standards.

Mind, Body and Spirit: The Quest for New Students with Mr. Bruder

We caught Brian Bruder at a Bad Time. It’s the eve of Kennedy Catholic’s Accepted Students Day, which for the Director of Admissions is like the week before Christmas for Santa Claus. Every child who was accepted into Kennedy gets an invite to the big blowout the night of February 1st, and it’s the last opportunity for admissions, guidance, faculty, coaches, and student volunteers to communicate the message about why someone should elect to go Kennedy Catholic.

Mr. Brian Bruder, Kennedy Catholic's Director of Admissions

Mr. Brian Bruder, Kennedy Catholic’s Director of Admissions

“But out of all the groups helping out, our best salespeople are our current students,” Mr. Bruder points out. “They symbolize to a mother or father in attendance that night, ‘That could be my son. That could be my daughter! This is the right fit for us.'”

This is Mr. Bruder’s second year as Kennedy Catholic’s Director of Admissions and spit polish pit boss. He joined the school in 2014 and has been teaching Global II, Civics, and Economics for ten years. He attended down-county rival Iona Prep before getting his marketing degree at Fordham University and his master’s in education at Mercy College.

So by training Mr. Bruder is a marketer and marketers, of course, sell things. From a marketer’s point of view, then, what’s Kennedy’s biggest selling point?

“The best selling point is that we are college prep, we have great facilities here, we are generally affordable in the marketplace, we reinforce Christian values, and we are unapologetically Catholic,” Mr. Bruder told us. “There is also that small matter about the return on investment: Our students consistently secure scholarship dollars to top academic institutions around the country including military academies. Last year’s class garnered over 29 million dollars in scholarships.”

Marketers all have “elevator pitches” and we wanted to hear Mr. Bruder’s. Let’s say you have just five minutes to spare. You can’t give a prospective student a tour of the whole school, so where do you take him?

“I will take him to the heart of the school, and that’s St. Mary’s Chapel,” he explained “It communicates the spirit and Catholic heritage of our school and how it started and how that translated. It was purposefully built right in the heart of the school.”

Outside of the run-up to Accepted Students Night, the Admissions Department also gets busy when Kennedy brings in transfer students This usually occurs towards the end of the 1st semester and later, closer to June. Five to ten percent of the Kennedy Catholic student population at any given time are transfer students, and that’s kind of a big deal, Mr. Bruder told us. They come from public schools, other Catholic schools in the area, and, as of this week, they come from Russia.

“For the first time in Kennedy history we have two students from Moscow,” he explained. “One is a 9th grader and one is a 10th grader. They are both hockey players, and apparently heard about the great education that (Kennedy Alumnus and NJ Devils’ defenseman) Steve Santini got here, how he was able to balance hockey and academics. Their parents want them to be educated in the United States. One has already signed a commitment letter to attend the University of Connecticut.”

When not planning a year ahead or dealing with a sudden influx of Soviet students, the Admissions Department handles the highly successful “Gael for a Day” Program.

“It’s an opportunity for interested 7th or 8th graders to come and visit Kennedy Catholic for a day,” Mr. Bruder told us. “They are paired up with a current 9th grader who might be from the same town or went to the same school, someone who can shed some light on their daily commute, or may have the same interests in sports. They go and visit class to class; they meet the teachers, the coaches; and instructors in the Art Department, conductors of the orchestras and bands. I like to tell them when they come in, ‘don’t be nervous, just be a sponge, and absorb the day.’ We want it to be the right fit, we want them to walk away from Kennedy Catholic saying, ‘Y’know what? This is where I need to be. This is my home.’

I always tell an 8th grader that we are not only going to develop your mind and body here, but we are also going to develop your spirit. We are not only go to make you into a good student, but we are going to make sure you are prepared to be successful in life.”

Sitting atop the admissions mountain, Mr. Bruder is in a unique position to discern what ties all the students accepted into Kennedy together. What connections do all these students – many traveling many miles away daily – share?

“We are all linked by a common faith, we are all linked by the desire to excel, and we all want to be, as our motto says, ‘We are courageous, we are compassionate, we are Kennedy Catholic,’” Mr. Bruder says. But he urges us not to mistake the Kennedy student body for the Kennedy community as a whole, for that is grander still.

“The Kennedy community is anybody who ever walked through these doors: alumni, family, parents. It is current faculty and past faculty. The Kennedy Catholic community is a strong one, a loyal one, it’s one that future graduates are going to be proud to be part of.”

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Flying First Class on the Cartesian Plane: 3D Modeling and Robotics with Ms. Jenkins

Kennedy Catholic’s course in 3D Modeling is a little over two years old, and no one is more excited about sitting at that nexus of Art and Science than its teacher, Ms. Antonia Jenkins.

“Yes, it’s fantastic! My background is in Art, but what I am teaching is the foundation of a lot of other things,” she enthused. “You can take what you’ve learned here and apply it to architecture, to engineering, to design. It’s the basics that you need to help grow.”

Currently, 3D Modeling students use Maya, the same industry-standard software used by Hollywood animators. That’s right in Ms. Jenkins’ wheelhouse, having more than a few short films and commercials under her belt. She studied Computer Animation at The School of Visual Arts.

Ms. Antonia Jenkins teaches Robotics, Computer Programming and Computer Modeling at Kennedy Catholic High School

Ms. Antonia Jenkins teaches Robotics, Computer Programming and Computer Modeling at Kennedy Catholic High School

“With 3D Modeling, students start out making simple things, working with the space, getting familiar with the interface, then going on to actually making things, making objects.”

This marriage of aesthete with concrete is emblematic of other courses offered to juniors and seniors at Kennedy, as well. It’s a big component of the Robotics curriculum, taught, again, by Ms. Jenkins.

“I try to blend a lot of the creativity and the science together by having students come up with creative ideas, like telling a story. One of the projects we do at the end of the year is to have the robot tell a story, and then have the robot act it out. So we have the creative side of writing a story and the more scientific side of programming the robot to move, and to change its voice, and to narrate the story, and to make it come to life.”

Students use an application called Choreographe to program the robot. The application breaks the robot-controlling program down into a series of boxes that each manage a different part of the robot’s programming. The students also need to write their own custom code to make the robot perform various tasks.

“Robotics class starts out with basic things,” she explains, ”like making the robot talk. Then we proceed onto making it move and working with its different sensors and do more complicated things.”

The Robot

The Robot

On the horizon? Yanking some of those wireframes and software models out of cyberspace with Kennedy Catholic’s new 3D printer.

“We’ve got some other software that we are working with, including 123D Design and Meshmixer, and we’re going to be learning how to make things in 3D space, how the printer works, and how you what you create digitally translates into reality.”

Ms. Jenkins agrees that making robots tell stories and sculpting objects from aether hits the sweet spot for many Kennedy students who are Math and Science-oriented.

“There is a lot of Geometry that goes into 3D Modeling. So you need to know about the Cartesian plane, basic geometric principles, and the different components of an object. You get to work with that and through that you get to create some amazing things.”

But if it’s a little bit Art, and a little bit Science, what’s the benchmark for success? How does a teacher know that she has the pistons firing on both the left and right sides of a student’s brain?

“When they keep asking me ‘what to do?’ and ‘what to do next?’” Ms. Jenkins explained. “I had a first year student who was really into it, she was always on top of her work, and she always wanted to know, ‘what’s the next step?’”

…and the next step for that student was…?

“I have heard back from her and she is studying to be an architect! That’s fantastic because architects work with a program called Auto CAD, another 3D software program. So I have given her a nice foundation to continue working in 3D.”

Conjugating Verbs on The Bleeding Edge: AP Computer Science Principles with Mr. Anderson

In another of those “quiet firsts” for which Kennedy Catholic has become famous, the school launched an Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles class this year. It’s the first time this course has been offered in the nation, and Kennedy is one of only 450 high schools in the country that are offering the class.

So… so far, so good…?

As with anything else, when you’re on the forefront of something you’re on the ‘bleeding edge,’ but we handle those hiccups,” Allan Anderson, Kennedy’s AP Computer Science teacher, laughed. “We’ve gotten excellent support to help us. I actually adopted the curriculum that was developed by Berkley University, it’s called the ‘Beauty and Joy of Computing,’ so everyday I get emails off a discussion board from Berkley folks who are using this across the country, so if we do run into a problem, we’ve got other people to collaborate with.”

Mr. Allan Anderson, in Classroom

Mr. Allan Anderson, teacher of AP Computer Science Principles at Kennedy Catholic High School

Mr. Anderson received his Masters in Computer Science in 1970 from Purdue University, at that time only one of three schools in the country to offer such a program (We’re sensing a pattern here…). After grad school he spent 23 years at IBM, later working as a network integration consultant in New York City, before moving into academia where he currently serves as Professor of Computer Science and Department Chair of Technologies at Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Connecticut, in addition to his work at Kennedy.

Last year Mr. Anderson taught a class at Kennedy in the popular computer language Python that was extremely well-received. But with AP Computer Science Principles, he is casting the net a bit wider.

This class is meant for everybody going to college,” he explained. “Computing innovations have impacted everything in the world, and they will continue to impact everything in the future. So it’s important for everybody to understand what computing innovations are all about.”

One thing they are not about, Mr. Anderson believes, is exclusivity. He feels his peers haven’t been very effective at involving everyone in Computer Science education.

Let’s face it, the Computer Science population has been predominantly white male individuals. We’re trying to get minorities as well as females involved in Computer Science. And that’s one of the things the Computer Science Principles course is focusing on. It’s not just for nerds.”

Most high school computer classes around the country are fighting a losing battle against their aging hardware, but the computers in Kennedy’s Computer Science Lab are all brand new as of last year. So what kind of obstacles does AP Computer Science Principles face? Are there networking issues, run-time errors, corrupted databases…?

“The obstacles have nothing to do with Computer Science,” Mr. Anderson explained. “They have to do with being able to write well, and to be able to research, to come up with appropriate credible references. It is reinforcing what students probably already learned in an English class.”

It seems that students really aren’t expecting their Computer Science teacher to be hammering them about their grammar. But then, this is Kennedy…

It’s like, ‘Well, I don’t have to use those techniques here, I can treat it more like a ‘texting’ environment,'” Mr. Anderson elaborated. “The answer is ‘No!’ The number one requirement for employers is that their employees be able to communicate: written, orally, and definitely electronically!”

Note to students: Complete your brackets AND conjugate your verbs properly in Mr. Anderson’s class. As Morpheus admonished Neo in The Matrix, “Welcome to the Real World.”

Grammar aside, Mr. Anderson believes the old canard about Computer Science being intimidating for any student to learn is now officially played out. He cites the marketing efforts of one of the country’s largest toy manufacturers as supporting evidence.

Three of my five grandchildren are 3 to 3 and a half years old,” he said. “Fisher Price has a ‘Code-a-Pillar™’ that teaches beginning algorithm development. To a 3 year old! It’s a forty dollar toy, and these grandchildren are going to get one as a Christmas present. The five year old will be getting an Osmo system but that’s another story.”

AP Computer Science Principles makes use of an array of online tools, including Blackboard and a collaborative discussion board. Perhaps surprisingly, many students are a little slow to wrap their minds around the virtual meeting rooms, “…but it’s important for them to learn that,” Mr. Anderson made clear, “because that is what they are going to encounter, not only in their education facilities, but in their future careers, wherever that may take them.”