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Clayton Schools fine arts guru to retire

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

For Paul Robbins, the need for the children of Clayton County to be exposed to the arts continues to be his main focus, even as the curtain is lowering on his career.

As Robbins -- the executive director of fine arts for Clayton Public Schools -- watched dance students from the Fine Arts Magnet High School leap across the main stage of the county's Performing Arts Center on Thursday, he said exposure to the arts is just as important to a child's development as learning "2+2 = 4," or reading the works of Shakespeare.

"That is the core of what we try to teach to these students," he said, "because the arts strengthen, and develop the humanity that is an essential part of a student's development."

But, those dance students will have to continue developing, and learning about the fine arts without Robbins. He is set to retire on April 30, after 37 years in the school system. Counting the four years he taught music at schools in the Waco, Texas area, before coming to Clayton County, Robbins' whole career in education spans four decades.

"After all of these years, I forget the dates, but I don't forget the pleasure," he said. "It's been a fantastic experience."

People, who have known, and worked with, Robbins for a long time, said he has long been devoted to arts education in Clayton County. But he has not always been a fine arts guy. Robbins was also an assistant principal at what was then called Pointe South Junior High School in the late 1970's, and early 1980's. He was the principal at Jonesboro Junior High School in the mid-and late-1980's.

He also served as the first principal at Lovejoy High School, in the early 1990's, until becoming the school system's coordinator of fine arts in 1995.

"When he was a principal at Jonesboro Junior High, it became one of the first schools in the county to undergo the conversion to the middle school format," said Clayton County Board of Education Member Pamela Adamson, who is also a Clayton County Public Schools retiree.

Robbins' career has also been intertwined with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) for several years, as he served on the accrediting agency's secondary committee for Georgia at one point. More recently, Robbins oversaw the efforts of Clayton school system employees and members of the school board to regain the district's accreditation.

Adamson said Robbins' accreditation advice, after he began giving regular accreditation reports to the school board in late 2008, brought "a very calming effect" to board members in the wake of the system's accreditation loss in August 2008. The district regained its SACS accreditation in May 2009.

"Mr. Robbins brought us back to focusing on the standards of being a good school system, which is what we should have been focused on all along," Adamson said.

After his most recent accreditation report to the school board on March 9, Robbins said he is passing the torch to School System Coordinator Kay Sledge.

Even so, it all comes back to the fine arts for Robbins. When he began overseeing the area in the in 1995, he was replacing long-time Coordinator of Fine Arts Martha Ellen Stillwell, who had overseen fine arts programs when Robbins was a chorus teacher at Morrow Junior High School.

"I learned [from Stillwell] teachers rely heavily on the coordinator for guidance and support, and the primary job of the coordinator is to provide all the support you have, to every fine arts teacher in the schools," Robbins said.

Kathy Baker, a theater teacher at the Fine Arts Magnet High School, said Robbins has continued that philosophy in the decade and a half that he has spent overseeing fine arts programs in the district. She said he "sincerely cares" about the fine arts teachers working through the school system. "Once you discuss something with him, he rarely forgets it," Baker said. "His door has always been open."

Adamson said another testament to Robbins' commitment to fine arts education is the fact that, although the school system is facing massive budget cuts because of the economy, significant cuts to fine arts are not being proposed. "Paul stood his ground, and was firm in his belief that we had to teach the whole child," Adamson said.

Baker said one of Robbins' legacies will be the establishment of the all-county musical shortly after he became the coordinator of fine arts. The musical is an undertaking that has now been done 14 times, she said. "He wanted something to showcase all of the talents of Clayton County students," Baker said.

Adamson said whoever is tapped by Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley to replace Robbins will have big shoes to fill. "He's sort of a legend in the fine arts community," she said.