Arts Empower Education

Throughout our area, public and private schools
support expanded arts programs.

By Don Vaughan

Mixed Media (Cut paper and Acrylic paint), 16x20, BY BRYANA HENN OF TRINITY ACADEMY

Mixed Media (Cut paper and Acrylic paint), 16x20, BY BRYANA HENN OF TRINITY ACADEMY

While some North Carolina school districts struggle with funding, support for arts education in Wake County is flourishing. Increasingly, folks agree: The arts are an integral component of a well-rounded education, equally as important as math, language, and science. Arts funding has been a difficult issue in recent years for some North Carolina school districts, but Wake County is enjoying significant growth in both the public and private sectors.

“The education leaders in our district really grasp the importance of arts education,” observes Freddie-Lee Heath, director of arts education with the Wake County Public School System. “They have tried to ensure that class-size legislation has as little impact on arts education as possible.”

From elementary school on, Wake County students are exposed to an exciting array of arts programs, including theater, chorus, musical instrument instruction, visual arts, and literary arts such as creative writing. According to Heath, elementary school students are offered an art component every week, and middle school students may choose from as many as three art offerings. Opportunities are even greater for high school students.

“We do not have any public schools that are specifically arts schools, but we do have several magnet schools that have the arts tied to their theme,” Heath reports. “Wendell Elementary School, for example, has creative arts and sciences as part of its theme. On the high school level, Enloe High School and Southeast Raleigh High School both have very strong arts programs. But all of our schools have arts programming across the board, from kindergarten through 12th grade.”

The arts benefit students in a variety of ways, say educators. In addition to developing fine motor skills, they can enhance social skills and self-expression. “The arts also help students see things from different perspectives, to step out of their area of comfort and try new things,” notes Dale Hardin, fine arts department chair at St. David’s School in Raleigh. “Exposure to the arts helps a student appreciate excellence, effort, process, and perseverance in themselves and others.”

“The arts teach students to synthesize ideas from multiple streams into a cohesive whole, and also to think abstractly about problem solving,” adds Kevin Ferguson, chair of the fine arts department at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh.

tech theatre at cardinal gibbons high school / Photo by azul photography

tech theatre at cardinal gibbons high school / Photo by azul photography

But perhaps most importantly, the arts can help students find their people and their place. “If you are a student who is disengaged or is not being successful in other areas of your academic life, the arts sometimes will make that connection,” Heath explains. “I tell our teachers all the time: If we can just get students through the door and build a relationship, then the arts can help them be successful in all of their subject areas.”

The United Arts Council collaborates with the Wake County Public School System in advancing its eclectic arts programs. Last year, Heath reports, the agency provided 252 assemblies, 80 workshops, 54 weeks of writer residencies, 10 bluegrass programs, 17 days of high school master classes, 11 school project grants, 56 field trips, five three-hour arts integration workshops, and a weeklong arts integration institute.

“One of the things the United Arts Council does is fill in the gaps,” Heath says. “They help us provide programming to schools that may not have a strong PTA, or have a PTA whose focus is not on the arts. Through them we are able to give a well-rounded arts experience to all students in Wake County.”

The arts programs in Wake County’s private schools are equally robust, with many providing arts education starting in kindergarten. “In our art studios, music rooms, and on our stages, students are exposed to a variety of experiences in the arts,” says Emily Nelson, director of marketing and communications at St. David’s School. “Our youngest students are sculpting and firing clay creations for Mother’s Day gifts, learning traditional folk music for an upcoming concert, or creating models and dioramas in art class to complement lessons learned in their classroom curriculum. Middle school students are afforded more opportunity to probe the arts through a one-year exploration, where each student spends a quarter of the year in an art studio, the band room, in the theater, and in the choir room. Upper school students can continue their studies through more challenging and deeper studies in their chosen field.”

At Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, students can be involved in a fine arts program from kindergarten through their senior year, says Dr. David McChesney, director of fine arts. The school offers musical instruction starting in kindergarten, as well as a program that provides one-on-one instruction from a faculty member. A professional staff accompanist enhances the school’s musical arts programs by allowing instructors to concentrate on conducting.

“More than 80 percent of our students stay with the arts through their senior year,” McChesney reports. “A primary goal of the program is to ensure that students understand and have an anesthetic appreciation for the arts. We provide the fertile ground and the potential pedagogical background for students to be successful in college and beyond.”

Ravenscroft school’s musical production

Ravenscroft school’s musical production

Students at Cardinal Gibbons High School have access to programs not commonly offered, such as percussion, strings, musical theater, and technical theater. “We also have one of the area’s largest dance programs, and a choral program that offers both men’s and women’s ensembles,” Ferguson notes. “The extensiveness of the curriculum underscores the school’s commitment to the arts, allowing them to thrive.”

Students participating in the arts enjoy a variety of opportunities to spotlight their talents. Foremost is the Wake County Public School System’s annual Pieces of Gold student talent showcase, produced in partnership with the United Arts Council. The showcase has been a staple for more than 30 years, and includes more than 1,000 student singers, dancers, and musicians.

Private schools also offer community outreach that showcases the talents of the artistically inclined. Student productions typically enjoy strong public support in addition to that of students and families, and many schools have brought the arts to their communities with public installations and more. Students from Ravenscroft School, for example, were asked to provide artwork for the examination rooms and the youth entrance at WakeMed Hospital, reports McChesney, and many school choral groups perform at area retirement homes and elsewhere.

“The future is bright across the board for arts in Wake County,” says Heath. “I have been in Raleigh for 30 years, and the arts landscape has changed dramatically. Now, we have so many amazing arts organizations that are willing to partner with area schools. That helps to make our work easier, and it helps reach every child every day.”