He left his heart in Queens

During a trip to Chicago in 1998, crooner Tony Bennett, known the world over for his Grammy-winning music, saw a public park that had employed local students to paint benches and murals and put on live performances. The site inspired him to begin a similar program in his hometown, New York City.

When his friend and colleague Frank Sinatra died that same year, the Astoria-native decided to create an arts school in Queens as a tribute to the legendary singer, actor and philanthropist.

So in 1999, Bennett, along with his wife, Susan Benedetto, founded Exploring the Arts with an eye toward that goal. Through the foundation, he gathered funds, allocated a budget for the school and organized educators and artists to develop an arts education program. In the meantime, the foundation began promoting arts education in New York City public schools by developing new curriculums with the Department of Education, while raising funds from private donors and institutions.

The Frank Sinatra School of the Arts opened its doors in Sept., 2001, in a temporary building in Long Island City. Eight years later, the school moved to its permanent location in Astoria at a site donated by George Kaufman, chairman of the Kaufman Astoria Studios, which sit across from the school on 35th Avenue between 35th and 36th streets.

“The school is a fabulous facility for the arts. We have state of the art dance studios, vocal instrumental rooms, technology appropriate for film programs, two art studios and two black box theaters,” says the school’s principal, Donna Finn. “We have the beautiful Tony Bennett Concert Hall, which is an 800-seat theater where the American Ballet Theater and the Martha Graham Dance Company have had performances.”

Bennett and the school believe in cultivating a student’s artistic skill instead of placing emphasis on the success of fame.

“The idea of ‘Craft Over Success’ is very important to Tony,” explains Benedetto. “When he started out, record companies really helped groom artists. Now, they build you up and then they dump you. If you don’t have anything to fall back on, you’re in trouble. He really wants the kids to be able to focus on their craft, so they can have a whole lifetime in the arts, or at least be appreciators of the arts.”

Benedetto, who holds degrees in history and administration, as well as an MA from Columbia University’s Teacher’s College, taught social studies at the school, and worked as an assistant principal. She has worked at the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, and was one of the driving forces behind the foundation’s emphasis on academics.

“The idea that the academics are still very important, that was important to me, because being a history teacher, it wasn’t just a typical vocational school where it was ‘Hey, learn this craft and get a job,’ ” she says. “It’s really rigorous on both ends — both academics and art. Donna and the staff prepare a student to go off to Juilliard just as easily as to Columbia. We have a super-high attendance and a super-high graduation rate. The kids all want to be there.”

The memory of the Chicago park inspired Bennett to adopt a philosophy of commitment to the community. In order to graduate, students need to complete 60 hours of community service.

“Tony is really interested in getting these kids to perform or show their art to other people while they were still learning, so they had the opportunity to really hone their craft,” explains Benedetto. “It was two-fold. It helped their art form and, more importantly, it helped them as people to realize, ‘Hey, you’ve been given a lot and, therefore, you have to give back a lot.’ ”

To be admitted, students must audition in one of the six art majors offered at the school — vocal, drama, dance, instrumental music, and film and media. Applicants must also have a strong academic record.

“We look at academics as well, because it’s a very challenging course of study in both the academics and in the art forms and it’s an extended school day,” said Finn.

But Bennett and his wife’s foundation isn’t only about the Frank Sinatra school.

Exploring the Arts is constantly developing new art programs in a growing number of city public schools. It offers students apprenticeships to work with professional artists, brings artists into the classrooms, and provides teachers with fellowships to develop their artistry and teaching skills. It also helps fund the Department of Education’s Summer Arts Institute program, which prepares students for advanced studies in the arts.

According to Benedetto, the foundation is hoping to grow beyond New York City borders.

“With all the budget cuts and the national focus on testing, people just need to continue to keep that in the forefront — the importance of the arts and of an overall quality education, especially in our public schools,” she says. “You shouldn’t always be getting this in private schools with the people who can afford it. Every child deserves a quality education and you have to have the arts.”

Frank Sinatra School of the Arts [35-12 35th Ave. in Astoria, Queens (718) 784-2264]. For info, visit http://schools.nyc.gov/SchoolPortals/30/Q501/default.htm.