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Higher Learning: New Design High School uses its scenic rooftop to help save arts programs

By Gabrielle Woodenfeatures
May 28, 2008 - 11:15 PM

The following photos were taken by Tone (www.photobytone.com) of TheNewPop.com to aide New Design High School with fundraising. To see the full slideshow of Tone's photos, click here.

High school, man. You sit there in that chair carving dirty words and ball sacks in the desk, you strain your peripheral vision trying to cheat, and you read the posters with catchy success quotes like you haven’t read them 50 times already. You dream of a school where the classes that are offered aren’t confined to science and math and you anticipate for that bell to ring so that you and 30 other kids can pour out the door like it’s going somewhere.

New Design High School, located in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is pretty much the school that every kid in high school wishes they went to. Imagine that way cool art school in the movie "Step Up," minus the posh reputation and the whole, you know, “ballet” thing. Underprivileged students get a chance to learn and partake in college preparatory classes and activities that focus primarily on design and hip hop-inspired arts, such as turntablism, spoken word, stomp theater, b-boying, graffiti and music production. These unique classes are taught by teachers who master in their craft, allowing students to learn subjects that they would most likely learn elsewhere right there at school. Though the school’s unique range of classes aren’t considered a part of the core curriculum, they are offered as after school electives as a part of an “extended school” day that are taken by a majority of the students. The faculty feel that creativity through music and art is a fundamental aspect of developing well-rounded students.

“We believe that integration of the arts is beneficial to the student experience. In order to shape students emotionally, socially, and academically, it is important to cultivate their artistic side as well,” says Sarah Baltazar, faculty member and fundraising advisor at New Design High School. “Essentially, it makes the learning experience more interesting and aids the students’ ability to balance out education with the arts.”

Unfortunately, the state of New York has experienced a $180 million dollar school budget cut this year, with millions more expected to be cut next year, causing recent riots amongst public school protesters and giving little hope for much needed art programs to survive. In attempts to relieve the school's programs from such intense budget cuts, New Design High’s officials have offered to rent out their school’s graffiti covered rooftop to benefit design related programs. Anyone from photographers who want to conduct photo shoots to people who want to host events are allowed to rent out the aesthetically-striking, street art-adorned space at a sliding scale of $2,500-$10,000.

The school, which used to be a prison decades ago, resides in a building that houses different schools on each floor, some occupying more than one level. Some may find the roof of the building—equipped with basketball courts, murals, and tags galore—to be a graffiti heaven. The dean of New Design High, graffiti artist Jessie Pais, started the graffiti project Rooftop Legends in order to give the kids a safe place to tag. School officials figured that by offering students the opportunity to tag freely on the school’s roof, they could keep the kids off the streets and from tagging illegally.

“There is a great difference in vandalism and graffiti art and how graffiti fits into the urban art world,” Baltazar says. “Our students see graffiti transcend into a major marketing tool through companies such as Vans, or Nike, or Urban Outfitters, and our goal is to help them turn their passion for sketching and tagging into something beyond graffiti. We want them to see how their creativity can play into something they can maybe one day monetize.”

Similar to an outdoor museum, Rooftop Legends is an event held twice annually (spring and fall) at New Design High that exhibits the work of urban artists, students and staff. The spring exhibition focused mostly on the fine arts aspect of graffiti, veering from the typical uses of the spray can and “name-tagging” strategies. Famous artists from all over the world such as Shelter Serra, whose diverse works have appeared in galleries across the globe, and Brazilian artist Eder Muniz came to artistically aid and endow the rooftop with their socially conscious murals.

The school has come up with many other dope ways to raise money for the jeopardized programs. They partnered with Rooftop Films, a weekly summer film festival and production collective, to premier short films every Friday, giving independent filmmakers a shot at the spotlight and donating half of the proceeds to the school. On June 7, New Design High and Rooftop Films will present Krush Groove: Fundraise the Roof, an event featuring music, poetry, dance and artwork from renowned artists and DJs in the heart of New York City.

New Design High’s overall goal? To raise $70,000. The best case scenario if their goal isn’t met is that programs that are normally held daily will be cut to once a week; the worst case, a majority of the programs will face cancellation.

Other similar programs, such as VH1’s famed Save the Music Foundation, which includes celebrity spokespersons John Mayer, Mariah Carey, and John Legend, have similar goals in fundraising for art programs that are gradually being revoked in grade school because of budget cuts. These programs address that words and numbers are only two of the seven ways to communicate information, the other five being movement, sounds, images, objects and spaces—all of which are provided through the arts. And they protest that without art programs, the delinquency and dropout rate greatly increases.

To learn more about New Design High School and their current situation, visit the school's blog at newdesignhighschool.blogspot.com. If you are interested in hosting an event at New Design High’s Rooftop Legends or if you just want to make a donation to the school, contact Sarah Baltazar at New Design High School at 212.475.4148 ext. 429.


Gabby Wooden is a sassy bad ass high schooler who ain't afraid to speak her mind and strut her stuff. Check out her blog at saffirerain.blogspot.com.

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