Adults sitting at desks in a circle, smiling and gesturing to each other
Photo by Clark University

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An educational program hosted at Clark University this summer asks young people to explore social issues and create projects that will inspire change in the community. The Audre Lorde Transformative Art School started as a summer program, but organizers hope it can become a new public school that challenges the standard approach to education.

“I have seen so much growth among all the youth in the program, even if it’s only been five weeks,” says Emily Truong, an ALTAS program facilitator and a rising senior at South High Community School in Worcester. “It’s been pretty amazing to see how much more involved they are in the community and how much more informed they are about current events.”

ALTAS organizers want to reimagine school as we know it and create a center of community revitalization, where the city becomes part of the classroom and youth focus on collaborative projects that benefit the public. They envision ALTAS operating within the Worcester Public School system and hope to bring a proposal to the Worcester School Committee and the city’s new superintendent, Rachel Monárrez.

“I think artists, like science fiction writers, people with imaginations, and people who can see the world in different ways, are who will actually lead us to changes that are required globally,” says Eric DeMeulenaere, a Clark education professor and a member of the ALTAS organizing team. “We look to artists like Audre Lorde who thought outside the box. We designed a program that was for the kids who don’t always enjoy school but who can develop their critical consciousness and radical imagination.”

How ALTAS began

The idea for ALTAS came to fruition several years ago following a series of community meetings, recalls Joseph Corazzini, the vice president of government and community affairs at Clark.

“ALTAS organizers have been relentless in pursuing this dream,” he says. “I think the work the team is doing in trying to center learning around students is critical to reimaging what education should and can look like. I’m proud to see the project continue through free summer programming piloted here for youth.”

As a full-time school, ALTAS would likely serve children from grades 7-12. The curriculum would be based on “the realities of today and the challenges of tomorrow,” DeMeulenaere says, and the approach would be holistic, weaving health care and criminal justice reform into education.

Youth participants and adult facilitator sit at desks in a circle
WriteBoston coach Liz talks with ALTAS youth participants. Photo by Clark University.

“I’m deeply aware of the ways our schools are complicit in systems of colonialism, white supremacy, and maintaining the social inequality that capitalism demands,” DeMeulenaere says. “If we want to address the realities that face our planet, whether we’re talking about climate change, social inequality around the world, or global migrations, we’re going to need people who are willing to reimagine the way our societies function. We have the capacity to create change.”

This summer at ALTAS

Three students sit at desks in a circle, poring over a piece of paper.
Photo by Clark University

About 30 middle school-age children are participating in ALTAS this summer, getting a smaller-scale taste of this education model. The program, which started in early July and ends Aug. 11, is free for participants. ALTAS received funding through Clark innovation grants in conjunction with support from the City of Worcester Division of Youth Opportunities, the United Way of Central Massachusetts, the Worcester Community Action Council, The Greater Worcester Community Foundation, WriteBoston, and the Aspire Community Academy, allowing organizers to expand beyond the scope of a pilot version offered at the YWCA last summer.

Christy Dang ’20, MAT ’21, who teaches fourth grade at the City View Discovery School in Worcester, is an ALTAS facilitator this summer and appreciates that the program challenges the traditional classroom hierarchy. She refers to the children in ALTAS as participants rather than students, and they’re allowed to call her by her first name.

“ALTAS has made me think a lot about students I’ve had in the past who have seen teachers as authority figures and rebelled against them,” she says. “It’s worthwhile to rethink our relationship by being patient, trying to give them more time and less pressure, and trying to foster curiosity.”

Art for change

Andy Jimenez ’23, another ALTAS facilitator, has been inspired by participants’ creativity. Jimenez is working with a group to plan and build a community art gallery that examines gun violence.

“Rather than focus on statistics, they wanted to create an art gallery with a mural as the centerpiece. The gallery would have different sub-topics of gun violence, like police brutality and school shootings,” he explains. “The group wanted to do something that would bring emotions back into the conversation.”

Mural painted in bright colors, depicting anti-gun violence signs and symbols. Two children frown over a gravestone in the center of the mural.
Anti-gun violence mural by ALTAS participants.

Darlene Mintah, an ALTAS participant and rising seventh grader at West Boylston Middle/High School, is part of that group. She wanted to focus her art on gun control in cities because she feels passionate about supporting families and communities in their pursuit of justice.

“A lot of families lose someone they love because of a firearm, and sometimes the people who caused that outcome aren’t arrested,” she says. The mural includes phrases such as “keep safe” and “stop hurting us.”

Jimenez, who plans to get his Master of Arts in Teaching at Clark, says ALTAS is the most fulfilling work he’s done.

“Being able to mentor young people and help them think more deeply has been a cool experience. We don’t sit down all day doing worksheets and reading excerpts from a textbook. A lot of our program is about contemporary information and includes recent articles and art installations,” he says. “I think learning in a way that ties back to real stories, real people, and real emotion has a larger impact on the youth compared to reading numbers and facts.”

Kiah Foskey, a rising ninth grader at Doherty Memorial High School in Worcester and an ALTAS participant, has drawn inspiration from personal experiences to create a comic book about microaggressions that relate to natural hair.

“People aren’t aware you shouldn’t touch hair. We want people to realize some things they say are offensive and we want to share how we’re feeling,” she says. “People should know our natural hair is normal. I often have an afro and whenever I take out my braids, and people ask me to straighten my hair.”

Working with ALTAS youth has encouraged Dang to make learning authentic, engaging, and interactive.

“The collaborative nature of ALTAS shows us we can include more youth voices in spaces where they’re typically silenced,” she says.

Khloe Kapinos, a rising eighth grader at Our Lady of the Angels Catholic School in Worcester and ALTAS participant, is elevating their peers’ voices by compiling audio clips about why public schools need to hire diverse educators, particularly people of color and young teachers.

“There are a lot of white teachers at my school and it’s hard to communicate with people who don’t go through the same experiences,” Kapinos says. “It’s important to have someone relatable to talk to.”

ALTAS is a collaborative effort of a number of local agencies, funders and institutions, including WriteBoston, Worcester Division of Youth Opportunities, Clark University, Greater Worcester Community Foundation, Aspire Community Academy, United Way of Central MA, and Worcester Community Action Council.