New England School of the Arts to Call Lebanon Home
When career educators Jennifer and Carl Chambers first met in New York City twenty years ago, they shared a passion for an experiential style of teaching and for life’s great adventures. These mutual interests eventually led to their marriage and a move to the Upper Valley to continue their teaching careers in both public and private school settings – Jennifer in music and Carl in English and administration. Now the couple is dedicating themselves to an exciting new venture – realizing their dream of opening their own school on the mall in Lebanon this fall.
The New England School of the Arts (NESA) will offer an integrated curriculum of science, technology, engineering, math, languages, physical education, and humanities, all with an arts focus. After decades of experience spent refining their educational philosophy, Jennifer and Carl have settled on a collaborative, project-based model of education that offers students a highly successful and meaningful learning experience. By partnering with existing arts organizations and businesses in Lebanon and around the Upper Valley, the pair plan to create a community-based campus and learning lab, where students can receive an arts-focused education and give back to the community as well.
The choice to settle NESA in Lebanon was inspired by the many non-profit arts organizations located in the downtown area which offered the opportunity for collaborative alliances, as well as the welcoming support of the City’s Arts & Culture Commission. “The organizations and the City couldn’t have been more welcoming to us,” says Jennifer. “We’ve felt welcomed by the private school community too, and to have access to visiting artists and other programs will be a wonderful opportunity for the students.” Jennifer also credits John Hochreiter, whose family owns the space above the Women’s Health Resource Center where NESA will be based, for fully supporting the mission and vision of the school and helping with fundraising strategies.
What does project-based learning look like? According to the Buck Institute for Education – a national non-profit providing professional development, research, and conferences – project-based learning offers students real-life experiences such as engaging with local organizations, faculty, and fellow students on personally meaningful projects. Jennifer notes that co-creating the curriculum with students and faculty is a cornerstone of the NESA philosophy, and collaborative projects and experiences rule the day. “When kids are making connections to real-world authentic experiences and are able to connect one subject to another, they come to discover why an area of learning is important to their life,” Carl says. “We want to convey that the arts can bring joy to their lives. We want to provide student choice and student voice.”
Starting a school from scratch is a lot of work, but rewarding at the same time. “It’s a process and a labor of love, and definitely a grassroots effort,” Jennifer says. “We have learned a lot of things like website design and programming, and we’ve been hosting open houses and parent nights, meeting with different organizations and partners, and speaking at schools.”
NESA board chair Amy Good – a 32-year veteran educator and learning specialist – is excited about supporting the new school. “Jenny Chambers is a force of nature,” she says. “As soon as she made a decision to start NESA, I was right behind her. This is going to offer students an educational experience I wish my kids could have had. I have lots of faith in the other board members and we have support from a number of arts advocates and education philanthropists.”
Jennifer notes, “The number one thing that sets us apart from a public school system is our ability to meet the physical, emotional, and intellectual needs of our students. While I’m a big supporter of public schools, the system has been around for decades, and it’s hard to repair because the system is entrenched. Often, transformative leaders try to impact public school systems but they don’t last long. We can evolve our curriculum and have the capacity to be nimble in responding to student’s needs and interests.”
Another feature of project-based learning is the classroom layout, which will be less conventional with furniture arranged in circles and gathering spaces for collaborative work and less time spent listening to lectures. Local arts organizations will potentially provide performance space and supplemental classrooms.
Carl – who will serve as head of school while Jennifer will serve as associate head of school – says that the curriculum is a living, breathing document within state guidelines, and it will evolve to be aligned with a lab school culture. Amy Good looks forward to the magic that will be created by working together with NESA’s fellow educators and supporters.“When we connect education requirements with the things that make us light up, it’s less stressful and feels more like an opportunity for the students to follow their particular interests,” Good says. “Emerging from the pandemic, we need to find a way to make sure our children’s mental health, happiness and well-being is cared for.”
Carl and Jennifer hope that NESA will add to the growing arts scene in the Upper Valley and expand focused arts education to interested students from as far away as they want to travel. “We expect to reach students within 30-60 miles, and want to give students who have school choice an opportunity to attend a school like ours,” Carl says. The school will have the capacity for 150 students, but Jennifer and Carl plan to start small and grow slowly to maintain the integrity of the school’s vision, so the current enrollment goal is 30 students. A robust fundraising effort is underway to help students defray tuition costs if needed. Already, the Jack and Dorothy Byrne Foundation has contributed $30,000 outright, and is offering another $50,000 in matching funds.
NESA is currently taking applications for both students and faculty members. Jennifer and Carl emphasize that teachers must have a passion for working with students, embrace a collaborative and experiential learning culture, and be comfortable with making mistakes as a component of a progressive educational model. In studying other arts-focused schools around the country like the Chicago Arts Academy, Interlochen Arts Academy, Art Student League in New York City, and The New School for Social Research, Jenny and Carl have incorporated various elements into their ‘City As School’ vision such as a student centered learning environment and hiring top notch faculty.
Jenny emphasizes that a high quality education is possible within a ‘low stakes’ environment. “Everything doesn’t have to be graded,” she says. “We’re aiming for immersion in the subject and a calm learning environment. Peers working together is more powerful than listening to a lecture.” Class placement will be determined with a portfolio submission. “We’re looking for kind human beings who want to be part of a team, and we’ll also provide opportunities for students who want to explore the ‘high stakes’ world of the arts professions by preparing them for auditions and other real world experiences necessary to succeed in an arts career,” Jennifer says. NESA will operate under the same state guidelines as a public high school and students will attend full-time. Students from other schools may be able to take specific classes as capacity allows.
Jennifer and Carl are both passionate educators, and as artists in their own right, hold the belief that the “arts make life worth living.” From their early days as educators in New York to discovering their mutual love for helping students take risks, grow, and thrive together, the pair are poised to make the New England School of the Arts a fantastic new addition to Lebanon and its arts scene.