Angel of the Arts Boston Arts Academy founder Linda Nathan keeps on creating

Arts, Features

Linda Nathan


By Matt Robinson

Massachusetts is fortunate to be the home of many of the world’s foremost minds on education. Even so, it is difficult to go too far down that list without coming to the name Linda Nathan.

Known locally as the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy, Boston’s first public high school for the visual and performing arts (and one of the district’s most acclaimed and awarded schools, with a 94 percent graduation rate), Dr. Nathan is known and admired internationally for her bold and progressive ideas about and perspectives on education.

As she has inspired so many others to go out and fight the good fight on behalf of the arts, it is interesting to find out who inspired Nathan.

“I had the privilege of growing up in Cambridge, MA during the Civil Rights movement,” Nathan recalls, “and I met Jonathan Kozol at a young age.” Immediately drawn to the famous education writer and reformer, Nathan began to work with Kozol when she was in fifth grade. “It made a huge impression on me,’ she recalls, noting that her own mother was also an educator who had a profound impact on her upbringing and philosophies. “I thought she was God-like in her ability to teach very troubled young people to decode and read,” Nathan says.

Teaching and tutoring everyone from neighborhood kids to her own brother throughout her elementary and high school years, Nathan was oft cited as being “born” to teach by many of her favorite educators. She soon began to work with students with special needs and institutionalized adults, even volunteering at the Perkins School for the Blind. Despite all this early training and a clear passion for the classroom, it was not until Nathan attended the University of California – Berkeley, she says, she was “truly bitten by the teaching bug.”

“I thought I was going to do education policy and that’s the way I’d change the world,” Nathan recalls, “but I realized in my first graduate school class that I knew nothing compared to my colleagues.” Dropping out of graduate school for a time, Nathan  garnered her  bilingual certification and started working as a teacher’s aide in a bilingual middle school program. It was here where her passion was rekindled and her direction set. “My mentor teacher was extraordinary,” she explains, noting the importance of inspirational teachers. “She let me be as inventive as I wanted [or] needed to be.”

It was also while working with this extraordinary elementary teacher that Nathan began to see the importance of the arts in education. “We built an entire medieval village in that classroom,” she explains, “and put on a medieval fair.”

Since that time, Nathan has gone from success to success, always working on behalf of those who needed a bit more support. After working in rural Wisconsin, Nathan taught for a time in Puerto Rico, where her eyes to educational injustice and inequity.  As a teacher and union representative in the Boston Public School system, Nathan continued to fight for her colleagues and especially for underserved students, doing all she could to broaden horizons and offer new alternatives to plans and programs that were not working as well as they could. “I brought a group of union activists from Central America to tour schools,” she recalls, citing just one of the many ways in which she helped bring new ideas and energy to the nation’s first school district.

While she offers extensive lists of colleagues who made a difference for her and helped her make them for others, Nathan is perhaps unsurprisingly especially keen to mention the more theatrical teachers she had. From her Madison mentor and her medieval fair, Nathan went on to work with such stellar scholars as Steve Seidel (who is now head of Project Zero at Harvard) and Emerson educator Carol Korty. “Theatre was part of my teaching from the get go,” she explains, noting that this theatrical bent has helped her bend around obstacles throughout her career. As she is so involved with the arts and especially theatre (being a fan and friend of recent Exhale cover woman Diane Paulus), it also makes sense that Nathan is being recognized by the American Repertory Theater ( as the latest in a distinguished line of A.R.T. Angels.

“The A.R.T. Angel Award…[is] awarded to people who have made lasting contributions to the arts in Boston,” explains A.R.T. Community Education Program Director Brendan Shea  As the A.R.T. and B.A.A. work closely together to support their students and the area arts scene, Nathan was a natural choice for their annual award. “Linda was chosen due to her work as the founding headmaster of Boston Arts Academy…giving local youth who are called to the arts an opportunity to grow and train as artists,” Shea says, noting that A.R.T. staff teach a year-long elective at the Academy and also sit on their theatre audition committee.
Next month, Nathan will be feted again; this time by her colleagues at the Academy. At a special event on March 11 at the Citi Performing Arts Center, Nathan will be recognized as a leader in the arts and academic communities through a special cocktail reception at which a new academic support will be established in her name. Funded by anonymous donors, the Linda F. Nathan Fund for Teachers will be used to pay for summer professional development courses and programs of study for B.A.A. teachers. (more information is available at

Nathan’s latest venture builds upon the success she and her staff and students have enjoyed at the Academy and elsewhere. Known as the Center for Arts in Education, this new institute fosters what Nathan terms “transformative education” by empowering students, schools and communities through artistic and academic innovation. Though it is but a few years old, the Center is already an internationally-recognized provider of professional development and other innovative programs.

“We at the center are running at amazing program called Alumni Creative Corps,” Linda says, mentioning just one of the many progressive programs she is now promoting. “We are training our alums to be teaching artists and to work alongside teachers in other schools….It’s like a City Year for the arts!”

In addition to her work as a school administrator, Nathan is also an acclaimed lecturer and author who strongly supports arts education, equity, and teacher support.

Her 2009 book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School, is still used a guide for many school administrators in urban and suburban schools alike. Nathan is also a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she teaches a course on building democratic schools. “I teach a course called Building Democratic Schools at HGSE,” she explains, noting how proud she is of all of her many students who have gone on to change and improve existing schools or even form new ones. “Their energy gives me enormous hope for the future,” Nathan says.

Among Nathan’s forthcoming speaking engagements are a TEDx talk from the Calhoun School in New York on “Why Arts Matter in Schools” March 4, a presentation on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics (STEAM) at B.A.A. that will be part of the 2013 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit which will be held March 16-18 in Chicago, a workshop at Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves on March 26 called “Facing History with the Arts” and a second TEDx talk on arts education and creativity that will be delivered April 26 from the Fenway Center at Northeastern University.

“My Tedx talk will focus on the importance of creativity and risk taking for urban youth,” Nathan explains. “Testing has become so much the norm now in our society that we have lost sight of the important role that arts play in youth development. We are reverting to didactic teaching and suspensions and resegregation of our schools.”
While many people have theories about how to best handle the added pressure of high-stakes testing, Nathan offers a rather simple and time-tested solution.

“The arts show us a way out,” she says, suggesting that, if students had time to prepare for tunes instead of tests, they would be far better off. “I believe that the arts can revolutionize our schools,” Nathan observes. “Imagine schools where instead of test prep and double math and double English classes, students learn to play the flute, or violin, or sing or dance. What would school look like then? What would happen if rather than continually reducing the number of arts classes in urban schools (or any schools for that matter), we increased them?”

According to studies, such scenarios actually lead to higher test scores and more balanced and successful students. This is, at least in part, why Nathan does all that she does.

“Students…have literally survived because of the arts in their lives,” Nathan explains. “They have found success and success begets more success. We need to find ways to engage kids more fully in their lives, in their communities and their schools. The arts can do that in more!”

Regardless of how she delivers her message, however, Nathan’s message has been consistent and vital to the academic and arts communities in Boston and far beyond.

“What I’m most proud about in my work is the way I’ve been able to mentor young leaders, teachers, and students,” she says, citing as proof of her “good work” the many B.A.A. graduates who have gone on to their own successful careers in both fields. From Argentinean education reformers to Boston Public School teachers and principals to principle dancers in the world-famous company of Alvin Ailey, B.A.A. alumni make a difference, just as their founding headmaster does! “I’m proud of the folks I’ve helped mentor, work with and believed in,” Nathan says, explaining that, for all her accolades and awards, the greatest and most meaningful mementos of her efforts are the “thank you” cards she has received from students and colleagues over the past 35 years.

“That’s quite a reward,” she says.


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