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Adrian Walker

An uplifting chorus

By Adrian Walker
Globe Columnist / May 17, 2010

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Choir practice starts early at the Boston Renaissance Charter School — at 7:25 a.m., to be precise, when a group of bleary-eyed students begin taking the no-nonsense direction of Evelyn Lee-Jones.

On Friday morning, about three dozen students filed in. Most are in third grade, though they range up to sixth grade. There are no auditions; anyone willing to put in the time can be in the choir. And they can sing, though their performance does not always satisfy their teacher.

Friday morning, Lee-Jones was not in love with the some of what she was hearing, and didn’t hesitate to let them know. “Come on,’’ she urged. “We can do this.’’

It’s not an accident that choir practice takes place before school. There’s precious little class time for it in a curriculum largely built around preparing students to pass the MCAS. At many schools, arts were among the first things edged out by the demands of high-stakes testing, though the Renaissance school has taken a different approach.

“It’s an integral part of what this school is about,’’ said Lee-Jones, who directs the visual and performing arts department. “Taking out the arts would be a tragedy here.’’

Lee-Jones was attracted to Renaissance 11 years ago by Roger Harris, the school’s renowned superintendent. They had previously worked together at the Timilty Middle School in Roxbury.

Lee-Jones found her vocation early. Born in 1961, she grew up in Montgomery, Ala., in the middle-class black neighborhood of Mobile Heights. Her father was active in the civil rights movement and sang for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Lee-Jones grew up singing in church, and even then was the type to take charge. “I’ve been directing choirs since I was 10 years old,’’ she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a choir director.’’

She grew up while Montgomery was still in the throes of segregation, one of the first two black students in her elementary school. She was a high school student in 1977 when the black members of her racially mixed choir were not allowed to perform at a concert hall in downtown Montgomery where the stage was still segregated.

“We sat outside on the steps while the other kids performed,’’ she said. “I think what stunned me was that my choir director went on with the concert. I never let anyone mistreat my kids.’’

She came to study voice at the Boston Conservatory, and started teaching in 1983. She has worked for Harris — one of the state’s great champions of charter schools — for a total of 17 years. The choir, “Voices of Renaissance,’’ has performed all over the East Coast, including once for President Bill Clinton.

Renaissance is in its last year at the corner of Stuart and Arlington streets. Its building, which once housed the University of Massachusetts Boston, is old — the cafeteria and gym are clearly improvised.

In fact, the gym doubles as the auditorium, and it was recently pressed into service as a recording studio, when the choir recorded its first CD, which will be released in the next few weeks. It features both current students and alumni, and was years in the making, Lee-Jones said.

Lee-Jones’s students are held to a high standard. She has been known to drop by their academic classes to see how they are doing, and stays on top of their progress.

“They know they can’t get suspended, they can’t go to detention, they can’t get C’s,’’ she said. With a laugh she added, “I wouldn’t really kick them out, but they don’t know that.’’

Next year, Renaissance is moving to a fancy new building in Hyde Park. It promises, among other amenities, much better facilities for the arts classes, choir included. But you get the feeling that not much will change about choir class.

Especially its core lesson, which isn’t about music at all.

“I think they take away the feeling that they’re part of a great team,’’ she said. “The thing they take away from this is confidence.’’

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com.

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