Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Douglas Anderson School of the Arts

By Lynne Irvine
What do words like inspiring, challenging, rigorous, creative, productive, sensitive, culturally diverse, and equitable have in common? They are all words found in the Vision and Mission statements of four national exemplary public schools. Each small learning community implements a research-based, student-centered approach to learning, with impressive results.

The award winning Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (DA) in Jacksonville, Florida has brought faculty and students together with a common bond—a love of the arts for nearly a quarter of a century. DA has turns dreams into reality in state-of-the-arts studios; providing pre-professional opportunities in visual arts, dance, theater, creative writing, and media arts. At DA the arts support a rigorous academic curriculum, which places DA among the top schools in the nation. DA graduates attend an impressive list of colleges nationwide. Principal Jackie Cornelius believes creative students learn differently, and require special education. “We work to fan and spark our students’ passion, risk-taking and natural curiosity, and applaud their success in creating their own unique tapestries of learning.”

According to Cornelius, teaching is not a job, but a calling. Excellence at DA begins with her exemplary commitment and leadership. In 2009 Cornelius was named Arts Administrator of the Year by the Florida Department of Education. Over the past twenty years, Cornelius has worked tirelessly to make DA one of Florida’s top 50 High Performing High schools, and an A+ Florida school for the last eight years with ACT and SAT scores 50+ points above national averages.
In 2008 alone, DA recognition includes: a National GRAMMY Gold Signature School Award, Best Academic High School by Newsweek, US News & World Report, and the College Board, 13 youngARTS Scholars, 2 Florida’s First Lady Arts Recognition Scholars, National Service Learning School by the Department of Education, National Leadership School by the International Center for Leadership Education, 3 National Merit Scholars, the NAACP National ACT-SO Award in the Arts, 2 US Congressional District Art Awards, Third Place in the Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition at Lincoln Center, 2 National Council of Teachers of English Achievement Awards in Writing, and recognition as a Top Exemplary Arts High School by the Arts School Network.

The Fine Arts Center

The accomplishments of students at the Fine Arts Center in Greenville, South Carolina also support the role of the arts in fostering high student achievement. As Director Dr. Roy Fluhrer conducted a tour of the Fine Arts Center’s museum-quality facilities, students vibrated with pride and excitement, “Five of us got in to Eastman!” and “I got the scholarship!” Dr. Fluhrer echoed Cornelius’ approach to excellence by encouraging students to take risks. “A man who makes no mistakes makes nothing,” explained Fluhrer. In a recent Fine Arts Center Newsletter, Fluhrer quotes author Stephen Nacchmanovitch’s book, Free Play: Improvisation in Art and Life, saying, “Education must teach, reach and vibrate the whole person rather than merely transfer(ing) knowledge…it takes a teacher who has a passion for people building, whether in the sciences or the arts.”

The spirit of innovation at the Fine Arts Center is clearly paying rich dividends in student outcomes. Students attend nationally prestigious schools like the Eastman School of Music, the New School, Julliard, and the University of Chicago in music, dance, theater, visual arts, and filmmaking as well as academic subjects ranging from medicine to law. The best schools in the nation seek Fine Arts graduates for their discipline, early exposure to professional-level training, and state-of-the-art instruction from highly skilled teachers. All teachers at the Fine Arts Center hold advanced degrees and are practitioners of their craft. Dr. Fluhrer lobbied to exempt South Carolina’s three Arts Academies from teacher certification requirements, believing college-level qualifications in their respective disciplines would serve them better in a hands-on studio environment.

After occupying an old elementary school for twenty years, Fluhrer’s vision for the Fine Arts Center facilities was realized two years ago. Fluhrer facilitated opportunities for each specialist to work with the architects to design their studio spaces. He believes the professional atmosphere raises the bar for students, agreeing with Sir Laurence Olivier, “A building is an outward and visible sign of an inward and probable culture.” More than eight hundred students audition each year for four hundred openings in the intensive half-day pullout program in this culture of excellence.

Greenville Technical Charter High School

One of the schools where Fine Arts Center students return for their academic classes is the Greenville Technical Charter High School, located on the campus of the Greenville Technical College. Seventy percent of students dual-enroll in college classes, graduating from high school with up to an Associates Degree, tuition free. According to Principal, Fred Crawford, “There are many new and innovative ideas that are used to help students adjust to high school, plan for their futures, and allow for student and faculty growth.” Greenville Tech has received ‘Excellent’ ratings from the state of South Carolina, including a 98.9% graduation rate with 97.2% proficiency in South Carolina’s High School Assessment Program (HSAP). As a Coalition of Essential Schools member, Greenville Tech offers Mastery Learning, Common Planning, Senior Projects, Critical Friends Groups, and Family Advisories.

During the tour, a faculty advisor shared notes from a Senior Project journal where the student wrote, “To be honest, I am very proud of myself, and whether or not my grade reflects it; I have succeeded in my mind. It doesn’t matter any more what others think about how I act or uphold myself. I am my own person, and I am going to start living my life that way from now on. Senior project has changed my life, and I think it was definitely for the better!”

Concord Montessori & Community Schools

Authentic learning was also observed at the Concord Montessori and Community School in Mancelona, Michigan where parents are literally a regular part of the landscape. Director, Steve Overton points with pride to an organic community garden growing in the school yard as a symbol of his efforts to extend learning and service to his community. Concord embraces the research-based methods of Dr. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence and Dr. Maria Montessori’s hands-on methodology. Teachers differentiate to meet each student’s needs in an arts-integrated curriculum. Concord utilizes dance, drama, visual arts, creative writing, and music to bring learning to life. A thematic approach ties lessons together across disciplines, while making the content relevant and real to students. Whether writing, producing, or acting in a historical play, or incorporating music and math, the academic curriculum and the arts curriculum, developed by Concord Academy founder Kim Overton, are uniquely intertwined. The Concord Academy in Petoskey, Michigan was named a 2008 US News and World Reports Bronze School for their academic accomplishments.

According to Steve Overton, the success in Charter Schools is leader-intensive because they are people-oriented as opposed to systems-oriented. His success started small, with teachers literally meeting in parks when the first school began in 1997. “I remember interviewing one of our first teachers,” he explained, “When she told me she was a teacher, and she could teach with a newspaper on a tree stump, I told her, You’re hired!” Director, Steve Overton leads with a down-to-earth approach believing, “Leadership is about logic and love.”