The floor-to-ceiling windows at Frank Sinatra School of the Arts are etched with the names of history’s great artists: Vincent Van Gogh. Marlene Dietrich. Frank Lloyd Wright. They form a fitting backdrop for a chat with the Astoria public high school’s co-founder, Susan Benedetto, FCLC ’90, GSE ’05, a longtime educator who has focused her career on history and the arts. But not before she focused her personal life on another name engraved on those panes: husband Tony Bennett.
The couple founded the Sinatra School in 2001 based on a mutually held principle: “We believe that every child deserves an arts education,” said Benedetto, who took Bennett’s real last name. “They might not be a star, but they might be interested in set design, or they might be a curator. It broadens their horizons.”
Indeed, with state-of-the-art dance, music, fine arts and theater facilities, including the 800-seat Tony Bennett Concert Hall, students can explore several artistic disciplines. The school also boasts some of the highest graduation and college-admission rates in New York City.
“Tony always likes to talk about how art eliminates prejudice,” Benedetto said, adding that students of vastly different backgrounds tend to bond over their work. “When you learn about those who are different than you, you learn about yourself. And the arts facilitate that.”
It’s only natural that Benedetto quote her husband when talking about the school. They were in on it together from the start. Ask the Astoria native if the school would have been built without his wife, and he answers, “No way!”
“It was an idea that we both shared,” Bennett said, “and we were determined to see it through to completion.”
The couple called on friends in the community to help, including George Kaufman, who gave them the plot of land across the street from Kaufman-Astoria Studios, and former New York City Council Speaker Peter Vallone Sr., FCRH ’56 and LAW ’59, who was instrumental in securing the $70 million needed to build the school from the city’s education coffers. “Susan was the prime mover on the project,” said Vallone. “If not for her persistence with both Tony and me, it might never have happened.”
Despite the large sum of money from the city, Benedetto knew they needed more to create a top-notch performing arts school. So she and Bennett founded Exploring the Arts (ETA), a nonprofit whose mission is to strengthen arts education in the city’s public high schools. The Frank Sinatra School was their first project, “the model,” she calls it, for which they raised $4.5 million.
The extra funding ensured ample space for the spreading of young wings at the school’s permanent site, which opened in 2009. The school’s facilities—including two black box theaters, a roof garden and a film studio—are “huge,” Benedetto said, in bolstering students’ self-esteem. “They walk in, the shoulders go back. They feel proud to be here,” she said. “When you feel bad is when you think of kids who don’t have schools like this.”
To help change that, in 2008 Exploring the Arts began supporting arts programs in other New York City public high schools. As of the summer, ETA was serving seven schools, with plans to be in seven more by the fall.
Bianca Feliciano recently graduated from Talent Unlimited High School in Manhattan, one of ETA’s partner schools. She’s now studying violin performance and music business at Hofstra University, for which Exploring the Arts awarded her a $10,000 Tony Bennett Scholarship. Through ETA, she also completed a yearlong apprenticeship with Sweet Plantain, a professional string quartet.
“I helped them record tracks for their CD, which got me interested in the business side of music,” said the Harlem-raised teen. “The whole experience helped build my confidence.”
Benedetto loves to give young people an early start on their professional paths, but for her, that focus did not come till later. One thing the San Francisco Bay Area native always knew, though, was that she adored the Big Apple. “I loved New York primarily because I loved the entertainment world,” she said. For her 16th birthday, her parents took her to the city for the first time. “We stayed at the Plaza and we saw shows: My One and Only, Annie, Sweeney Todd.” Back home, her parents brought her to see Tony Bennett perform at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, where she got to meet the singer several times.
Bennett was performing one night at a private event in Nob Hill while Susan was in college. “I called him and asked if I could go to the show,” she said. “He said, ‘Sure, come on up and be my date.’ I didn’t realize he meant that quite literally.” They married in 2007 and have been together for 26 years.
During a break from college, Benedetto secured an internship at the White House, but she couldn’t resist New York, where she eventually finished her undergraduate degree in history at Fordham.
Teaching began to appeal to her. “With a little maturity,” she laughed, “I decided I should really love what I do.” She earned her teaching credentials at Columbia University’s Teachers College and taught history at the Fiorello H. La Guardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, incorporating the arts in her lessons.
“When we were studying the civil rights movement, I would have the acting kids do a mock sit-in,” she said, “or for the Jazz Age, the musicians would learn some great jazz number. The most important thing for the kids is that they can just learn about something more deeply.”
Benedetto left LaGuardia to teach at the Sinatra School in 2001. She also wanted a formal leadership role at the school, so she enrolled at Fordham’s Graduate School of Education, where she earned a master’s degree in teaching administration and supervision. Donna Finn, principal of the Sinatra School, described Benedetto as an “inspiring” teacher and an able administrator. “The kids would say she was the best teacher they ever had.” And as an assistant principal, Finn said, Benedetto “gave the teachers really good feedback.” She retired from the school in 2007 to focus on Exploring the Arts, her second greatest priority.
“My most important job is being with Tony and taking care of him,” said Benedetto. This fall, the singer is releasing his second Duets album in conjunction with his 85th birthday. And true to the mission he shares with his wife, he plans to celebrate with a concert at the Metropolitan Opera that will benefit Exploring the Arts.