By Jessica R. Sims
The Richard J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts was built on 65 Van Block Avenue of the South Green neighborhood of Hartford in 1973, occupying 2.16 acres. It was constructed of primarily brick on the exterior and drywall on the interior of the building with a combination of different materials for the flooring. The foundation is made of concrete with a steel frame and a roof cover consisting of tar and gravel. Its most recent sale date was on December 19, 1999 and is publicly owned by the City of Hartford Board of Education. Access to the school is available to the public because it is connected with many other institutions from the area including the Charter Oak Cultural Center, the Hartford Symphony, the Hartt School (University of Hartford), and many other establishments. According to the current property assessment of the fiscal year 2008, the building’s value is $3,365,210 along with its land value at $250,260; the total value for this institution is $3,640,770. Although the city of Hartford rates this as a “Good +” and the building condition as average, it is undergoing a lot of renovation that can be viewed on the school’s website at http://www.rjkinsellamagnetschoolofthearts.org/ under “News and Events”. Pictures of this much-anticipated new building can also be monitored on the website, which are updated on a daily basis.
The designs for the new two level building were carried out on June 5, 2007. Both floors include rooms for the arts, academics, core space, administration and special education resources, and support space. The first floor is projected to be more arts-oriented than the second floor with a large auditorium, dance studios, instrument rooms, and the Black Box Theater. The second floor has a lot more classrooms and administrative offices, as seen on the perspective blueprint plans accessible on the school’s main website. The old building had full heating through the fueling of gas and only 11% air conditioning, which is expected to be omnipresent with the new renovations. The total dimensions of the first building were 273 by 203 feet with a finished area of 115, 500 feet including the parking lots.
The South Green demographics where the R.J. Kinsella Magnet School for Performing Arts is located are 17% Black non-Hispanic, 14.7% White non-Hispanic, 0.2% other race non-Hispanic, and 63.9% Hispanic. According to Juan Flores, the Latino or Hispanic community includes a strong impact, both real and potential, on what the United States is doing and what it will ultimately do. However, as I turned onto Van Block Avenue in my car, I was very confused to find a non-functioning building instead of a welcoming elementary school. The area immediately surrounding the building was very barren and did not appear very inviting; I did not get a sense of any type of personality or culture. However, this feeling could be due to the metal fences and construction signs that covered the area due to construction. There were not many people walking around the region, very few cars drove by, and there were only a few little shops on the surrounding streets. The one exceptional building in the immediate area is another magnet school here in Hartford, the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy on 280 Huyshope Avenue. The bright colors of the building and modern aspects of the institution are beautiful and SMSA has been voted one of America’s best high schools according to U.S. News & World Report. Although there did not seem like there was much of an interrelationship between the building and its surroundings, this could just be because of the school’s temporary vacancy until August 2009 when it is supposed to reopen. This could also imply that the surrounding community is dependent on the school, so without it there is no center or activities to participate in.
This school does, however, offer many opportunities because it is located just a few blocks south of city hall. As stated above, the Kinsella Magnet School has numerous connections with other theater and performing arts institutions throughout Hartford and the state that both parties use interdependently. Specifically, this magnet school has partnerships with the Northeast Utilities Foundation, Hartford Steam Boiler, Hartford Stage, the Bushnell, Connecticut Opera, Hartford Symphony, Hartt School of Music, and Pilobolus. This interdependency and reciprocity supports Suzanne Keller’s work on communities because “when directed toward common goals – let us say, support for schools or recreational programs – social interaction can become a source of unity”. I think it would be a very memorable experience to revisit the school once the renovation is complete later on in 2009.
The principal of the school, Pamela Totten-Alvarado, has been a very influential leader in her six years in office at this institution. The R.J. Kinsella Elementary School was not always a magnet school here in Hartford. After being asked by Superintendent of Schools Robert Henry to take over the unwanted school, Totten-Alvarado has played an active role in both the architectural planning and the reopening of the original Kinsella Elementary School as an interdistrict magnet school of performing arts for children in the surrounding suburbs.
A magnet school is a “publicly funded school operated by a local or regional school district, regional educational service center or by cooperative agreement involving two or more districts”. The purpose of a magnet school is to reduce, eliminate, and/or prevent racial, ethnic, or economic isolation of public school students (Connecticut State Department of Education, 2008). In the case of the R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts, this aspect is very fitting to its place of existence in Hartford because those who reside in low income areas are given an unjust disadvantage in terms of education and access to performing arts tools such as theaters, art supplies, instrument lessons, and dance instructors.
This external and internal renovation project is particularly important to Totten-Alvarado because of her devoted interest and investment in the prosperous outcomes of incorporating performing arts skills into institutionalized education. Her fellow coworkers also agree and share the same passion that “performing arts have the ability to motivate and inspire students and to increase insight into the human condition…to see a vision come together in all areas of performance, learning, communicating, and growing”. Instilling confidence by increasing self esteem and self expression is also a major advantage of this type of schooling.
In the past, this elementary school has been one of the city’s worst performing schools: especially in standardized testing. However, since the hiring of Totten-Alvarado, the curriculum has been intertwined with art, music, dancing, and acting to help integrate children and increase their desire to learn. This past summer, test scores noticeably increased in both math and reading, which elated the principal. Although the test results are steadily improving, not enough students are achieving proficiency and the school thus has not met the federal No Child Left Behind law (Hussey, 2008). Nevertheless, the positive fluctuation of testing is a very encouraging start to the teaching staff and administration at the R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts. Totten-Alvarado has also taken structural measures into her hands to gain more prestige. For example, she has acquired curtains and beautifully carved columns from the Old State House Theater and has used them to add a historical element to the project.
The R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts currently contains 550 students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The mission statement announces that they will “provide children with an enriched educational environment, which fosters artistic, independent, and critical thinking through performing arts integrated instruction…and celebrating student, staff, and community diversity while promoting life long learning, a love of the performing arts, and developing persons of commendable moral character” (Mazzarelli, 2008). This has been very appealing to parents and potential students throughout Connecticut, as there has been a waiting list of over 400 names since 2005 (Gottlieb, 2005). The institution has a very friendly website that can be accessed through http://www.rjkinsellamagnetschoolofthearts.org/ as well as a temporary location on 245 Locust Street that is accessible during school hours 8:00 A.M. – 2:30 P.M. Monday through Friday. Like the curriculum and improving test scores at the R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts, the building construction itself is also a work in progress.
 Flores, J. The Latino Imaginary: Meanings of Community and Identity.
 R.J. Kinsella Magnet School of Performing Arts. (2008). [Brochure]. Hartford, CT: Kristina Mazzarelli.
 Keller, S (2003). COMMUNITY: Pursuing the Dream, Living the Reality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
 Gottlieb, R (2005, October 31). Kinsella Elementary, plagued by low scores, remakes itself and now has a waiting list. Hartford Courant.
 Public School Choice in Connecticut(2008). A Guide for Students and Their Families [Brochure]. Hartford, CT: Connecticut State Department of Education. http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/lib/sde/pdf/equity/choice/choice0809_english.pdf
 Interview with Mr. Duran. (2007, October). Kinsella Courant.
 Hussey, K (2008, July 27). Statewide tests show ‘uneven’ improvement. The New York Times.