Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Charray Helton, a fifth-grader at James A. Jackson Elementary School, was happy to learn that the school she would be attending this year has a fine arts theme.
It meant Helton, 11, who previously attended Mt. Zion Christian Academy, would be able to take dance classes at her new school. She has been studying dance since she was 3, and has dreams of, someday, being a professional dancer and dance-studio owner.
"It's a big opportunity for me," she said. "I was glad when I found out about this program, because I would get to dance."
Jackson's "School of the Arts" program, currently has an enrollment of 142 students in its first year of existence. It is a school within a school, in that Jackson continues to provide the same education it has always offered to students within its attendance zone, but it now also has a fine arts-themed program for a select number of students. Overall, there are 787 students at Jackson Elementary, according to school Principal Donna Jackson.
This year, the "School of the Arts" is only open to students who live in Jackson's attendance zone. She is seeking permission from school system officials to make it a county-wide theme school, however, as an elementary version of the Fine Arts Magnet High School that has been housed at Mt. Zion High School since 2006.
Students enrolled in the program can study dance, visual arts, theater or music. Students learn in classrooms, such as a dance studio; an art room; a keyboard lab, which has a class set of 30 electronic pianos, and a room that contains a stage. The classes are located in a new wing of the school that opened last fall.
Principal Jackson, who has been leading the school since 2003, said it has always been her goal to create a "School of the Arts" at Jackson Elementary. After years of planning, the school was ready to move forward with the idea, once there was enough classroom space for the program to exist, she said.
"We wanted elementary students to use their physical, emotional and intellectual skills to create meaningful experiences in the arts," she said. "Also, [the goal was] to create a school that would give talented students an opportunity to express themselves through a rigorous, theme-based arts curriculum -- and make learning fun."
Admission to the program is by application, and auditions for third-through fifth-graders, and a lottery system for kindergartners-through second-graders, Jackson said. She said applications are due, and auditions conducted, twice each spring. The next application deadline is April 30, with the accompanying auditions scheduled to take place in May, she said.
Students spend an hour and a half of their school day -- time that would normally be spent in "specials," such as physical education and art or music, anyway -- studying their specific fine arts discipline, the principal said.
Darlene Guida, the school's music teacher, and the coordinator of the "School of the Arts" program, said students are expected to maintain high grades to stay in the program. "If they get C's, they are starting to get on the edge," Guida said.
Principal Jackson said two new teachers, theatre Instructor Molly Knowles, and dance Instructor Kyle Ward, were hired to teach some of the disciplines added at the school through the arts program. Knowles, who studied theatre in college, was previously an English teacher at a high school in Tennessee, while Ward came from Valdosta State University, where he was a cheerleader, according to the principal.
If approved to be a county-wide program, Jackson's "School of the Arts" would enroll 300 students, half of whom would have to live in the school's attendance zone, Guida said. "We have already received nearly 100 applications for next year," from parents of students who live in the school's attendance zone, she added.
Clayton County Public Schools Spokesman Charles White said School Superintendent Edmond Heatley is still reviewing the idea of a county-wide fine arts program at the school, as he prepares the district's budget for the 2010-2011 school year.
Several students already enrolled in the program were singing its praises after a "Performance Hour" that was held at the school Friday. During that performance, art students had paintings and clay masks they had made, put on display, while dance students performed ballet routines; theater students performed a short play, and music students sang songs and played instruments.