For Isra Abdullah, art is a release — almost like the steam from a teapot.
A native of Kurdistan, and a Sunni Muslim, Isra’s family escaped the sectarian violence in Iraq a decade ago. A relief agency in Turkey resettled the family in Kansas City, Missouri, when Isra was a third-grader. Along with her parents, she has two older brothers and two younger sisters.
But Isra, now 17, was bullied and bitter. It was as if she was a citizen of nowhere — unaccepted by her adopted homeland and run out of her native country.
She has eased that anger through a project where she blacked out a room, like a movie theater, and had computers showing her photos and playing her poetry. A projector played home videos.
Visitors, Isra said, “were able to feel all the criticism that you get here in the U.S. for being from the Middle East, and they were able to feel the pain that I felt.”
She is also in the planning stages of a piece that will highlight her life along with the difficulties faced by young adults who are gay, poor and living amongst violence, or a female with a negative body image.
Those stories, in fact, are based upon the experiences of some of her classmates at the nontraditional public high school in Liberty that allows at-risk students to pursue their studies in ways that fit their passions and learning styles. (Isra, for instance, is earning English/Language Arts credits through her poetry.)
The school is Liberty Academy, and even though it is small and serves a specialized population, there are those who believe it is a model for the project-based, experiential learning that is needed for all students in the school of the future.
Proponents say this is the way to cultivate the “entrepreneurial mindset,” which means being able to solve problems, learn from failure, and do all the other things required of well-rounded workers, whether they are starting their own business or working for someone else. Skeptics wonder if it is rigorous enough to teach students all the basics that are part of a standard curriculum.
Isra said Liberty Academy is exactly the kind of atmosphere she needed; she is on track to graduate in December. She was a freshman when her parents moved the family to Liberty, but Isra struggled in the traditional high school setting.
Part of it was due to her continued frustration with feeling out of place.
But it was also because the structure of an 8 a.m. start and homework conflicted with the Walmart warehouse job she works to relieve her stay-at-home mom and delivery-driver dad of some financial responsibilities. Isra sometimes works until midnight.
Liberty Academy starts at 9 a.m., and there is no homework.
Having to work means Isra has to give up things she enjoys, but she has accepted what is not an ideal situation.
“I am not angry about it,” she said. “I understand things have to be a certain way, and this is the way my life has to be.”
Take Note is Kansas City PBS’s multi-year education reporting project. In this season, we are examining all aspects of the school of the future. Keep an eye on the website and join the conversation at #TakeNoteKC.