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Photo by Harold Shapiro

“I’m having the most incredible experience,” the Newtown High School student told assistant principal Jason Hiruo. “ECA is the best part of my day. I’ll remember it forever.”

It was early 2013 and Hiruo had responsibility for helping to manage the recovery process for Sandy Hook School in the wake of the shootings. He had initiated the conversation with the girl because she was in a good mood. What was lifting her spirits at such a troubling time for the community?

“ECA is a saving grace for me,” she told him, referring to ACES Educational Center for the Arts, a half-day arts magnet high school on Audubon Street in New Haven. Newtown is one of more than 20 communities in the state that send students to the rigorous magnet school, which has programs in theater, music, visual arts, creative writing, and dance. “It’s only because I get to go to ECA that I’m able to find reward and value in everything in the world right now.”

The conversation was a revelation to Hiruo, who visited ECA shortly thereafter. He went to ECA just to understand what students from Newtown were experiencing there.

“But as soon as I walked into the building I was sucked in,” Hiruo tells me in an interview at his ECA office where he is now director. “It knocked my socks off — the level of engagement not only by the students but by the staff. The level of mentoring that was taking place and the enthusiasm and energy of the building when you walked in was overwhelming to me.”

That night, Hiruo told his wife it would be “literally a dream to get to work in a place like that.” A month later, he learned of an opening for the director’s position. He took over in July 2013.

Chief among Hiruo’s priorities for ECA are globalizing the school — building educational exchange relationships with similar arts academies in other countries — and expanding and deepening its programming. Hiruo also aspires to connect the school more deeply to the community through summer programming and adult education.

Hiruo brings to the position not just a background in school administration and teaching. He is also steeped in the arts. He studied world literature in college and is a longtime musician who began learning the drums while in sixth grade.

During his college years, Hiruo toured and recorded extensively, mostly with modern rock bands but also with jazz groups. In his music career, he has played with Wide Black Sky and Mrs. Mason’s Sofa, and, more recently, with Daria Musk, and has opened for such luminaries as Weezer, Marilyn Manson, and The Roots. Hiruo performed at New York City clubs, including the Village Vanguard, CBGB’s, and the Knitting Factory.

“While teaching, I was still in the industry, still a working drummer,” Hiruo says. “It was quite an awesome life. I was able to balance my excitement for teaching and my students and my excitement with playing out and getting in the studio.”
His experience in finding a balance between practicing his art and working as an educator comes in handy when mentoring students. ECA students have to balance the demands of their rigorous ECA curriculum with the requirements of their sending schools. This tightrope act is training for the likely need in later life to balance the demands of making art and making a living.

He authored a Tweet popular among students: “You don’t always get what you wish for but you get what you work for.” He urges students to reflect on what is of value to them.

“A lot of students are random and abstract in their thinking as artists,” explains Hiruo.

“We have to have a discussion on how to structure and organize” their priorities.
As assistant principal at Newtown High School — he was named to the position in 2006 when he was 30 — Hiruo oversaw the arts, music, English, and special-education departments and was the assistant marching-band director. Recognizing that the school community “needed more global perspectives and diversity,” Hiruo was the founding program coordinator for the Newtown International Center for Education, or NICE, a K-12 educational exchange program. Under his leadership, NICE developed sister-school arrangements with schools in China, Japan, France, and India.

“The experience was life-altering for students,” Hiruo recalls, “being able to meet their peers and find there are more similarities than differences on the other side of the world.”

“The program also changed my life. It made me realize, in coming to ACES, that it’s very easy to connect culture to the arts here,” Hiruo says. Whether it’s African hand drumming or French painting, instructors delve into not just the art form but also the culture from which it emerged. Out of this, “students are finding more personal, individual relevance for themselves,” says Hiruo.

“At ECA, we strongly encourage students to take risks and create. In doing so, they’re sharing a piece of themselves,” says Hiruo. “Students are starting to pull from within their own cultural understandings and putting it out into their artwork.”
In the past year, ECA has already established relationships with some of the best art schools in China. Hiruo’s goal is to connect with five countries in five years — China, Japan, Germany, France, and either England or Ireland. This coming April, more than 20 ECA faculty members will pay their own way to China to connect on a professional level with colleagues in their sister schools and to work on how to collaborate.

While Hiruo maintains his drumming chops — and keeps an African djembe in his office to play after hours — he is not currently performing.

“My art form right now is leading ECA,” he tells me. He is pooling his experiences in music, writing, and education to fulfill the time-intensive demands of running the school.

But like the students of ECA, drumming for him “is not just an outlet but a personal need. It’s just who I am.”

Hank Hoffman 

This story appears in the November issue of The Arts Paper. Read more online here