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Harrisonburg Makes Fine Arts Education a Priority

Beginning in elementary school, arts education is often a hit-or-miss opportunity, available to some students, some of the time.

Amid budget cuts, some schools, including Harrisonburg High, are making the fine arts a priority in education.  WMRA's Margee Greenfield has the story.

[Sound of school bell]

Fifteen students stroll into a cavernous music room, joined by five teachers.  This is the Community Learning class in Harrisonburg High School’s Fine Arts Academy.

PIPER SATVA:  I’m definitely planning on going into the arts as a career, maybe in media – photography, videography.

ZOEY FOX:  The only thing I know for certain is that I want to write.

LAURA RUPLE:  I plan on majoring in oboe performance.

That was sophomores Piper Sattva and Zoey Fox, and junior Laura Ruple.

Study after study supports the value of fine arts education in our schools.  A 2013 study cited by the Kennedy Center reports that arts education results in increased student learning, the development of skills in critical thinking, creativity and communication and a better understanding of cross-cultural issues, collaboration, community awareness and civic engagement.

You might think that the need for a creative American workforce would make courses in creativity and critical thinking a national priority.  In fact, school districts in Virginia have spent the past few years dealing with cuts in both state and local funding for courses that are not required for graduation: courses such as instrumental and vocal music, visual arts, and theater classes.   

Harrisonburg Public Schools chose to embrace the arts and created a high school fine arts academy.   For Dr. Scott Kizner, superintendent of city Schools, this was not a hard sell.

KIZNER:  Budgets are always a challenge.  But budgets have to align with your belief system, and it has to align with your mission.  And our mission, in simplest terms, is excellence and equity. 

In 2012, Fine Arts Director J.R. Snow visited exemplar programs in Colorado, Texas, New Jersey and here in the Commonwealth, in Fairfax and Virginia Beach.  Then he assembled the high school teachers in chorus, visual arts, drama and creative writing. Their combined creativity is what kick-started the program into what it has become and how it continues to change.  

SNOW:  We thought that our jobs already were to make the best artists that we could and, over the years, we’ve been placing children in programs all over the country, at a high performance level.  Our alumni are all over the board, whether they’re in New York performing on stage or teaching music or they’re artists in their own right.

Students apply to the academy in 8th or 9th grade.    But do students really have a good sense of their futures at such an early age?

SNOW:  That’s part of our soul from an early space…at least the creative part, the expression part, is part of the child and the child is drawn toward that and toward the program because they feel that.  That may not have a clue what they’re going to do with it, but they feel that.

The faculty are more than willing to take a chance on students who may not have had the opportunity to develop skills through lessons and classes.  Some – though clearly, not all – of the students will go on to choose careers in the arts.  

SNOW:  The workforce…the job force in any market…is looking for somebody who can solve problems, is looking for somebody who can think creatively and not just bubble in the answers and that’s what we’re trying to do:  to teach children to really really think for themselves, to have autonomy, to create things.

Only one year in, Zoey and Piper are sold on the new program.

Zoey Fox:  I mostly joined out of curiosity because it was the first year it was starting and no one knew what to expect or what it was going to be like.  But even after the first few months, this class was teaching me things that are so hard to teach someone, that are so intangible – how to be creative, how to express yourself and I think that’s so valuable, not just for artists but as people.

Piper Satva:  All of the teachers have a different specialty. Getting all of their guidance enhances our critical thinking and helps us think outside of the box.

The academy faculty agree that they have never worked so hard and never enjoyed teaching more.

Margee Greenfield was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.