W.T. White High School forms first Academy of Visual & Performing Arts in Dallas ISD
Dallas Morning News – by Lindsey Bever
Saturday March 3, 2012
When the time came for Alexus Morgan of Lancaster to enter high school, she said she was ready to learn — about theater.
She auditioned at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts but got wait-listed.
At the same time, W.T. White High School was launching its Academy of Visual & Performing Arts as part of the district’s plan to transform comprehensive high schools into smaller learning groups.
“It’s a different environment,” said Alexus, a freshman in the school’s new academy. “It’s a good experience for beginners, for learners. It’s something new.”
The academy is a school within a school. The students, about 50 freshmen this year. share teachers in subjects such as math, science and social studies, and also in a common course. For W.T. White freshmen in the Academy of Visual & Performing Arts, it’s humanities, said Elaine Thomas, DISD’s director of Visual & Performing Arts.
“Culture is one of the founding things of our civilization,” said James Smethers, director of the Academy of Visual & Performing Arts. “It’s really the sum total of our cultures that define human life. It doesn’t matter if it’s dance or visual arts or song; we can’t think of any time periods that we don’t consider their work. It’s what makes people, people.”
Smethers said there are more than 21 different pathways or academies that DISD schools can choose from, including hospitality, business, science and technology. Performing arts had been listed as a pathway in the district but had not been done as an academy, he said.
The school’s Academy of Visual & Performing Arts consists of seven strands: band, choir, dance, orchestra, visual arts, theater arts and technical theater. The school also added a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Academy this year.
Funding for W.T. White High School’s Academy of Visual & Performing Arts has to come out of the school’s own pocket.
“There’s no funding for it,” said Smethers. “It’s just something we have to decide we want to do and do everything we can to make it work.”
He said the school’s Academy of Visual & Performing Arts has assembled an advisory committee from the performing arts community that will eventually form a nonprofit organization that will advise the academy on how to hone students’ skills to fit the needs of the market and assist the academy financially and materially.
“I believe through and through that with this program, we’re going to see a lot less kids dropping out because they’re going to be willing to try things and they know that they’re worth something,” said art teacher Katherine Nelson, who will teach ceramics next year.
The academies are career-intensive, Smethers said. In the third and fourth years, students in the fine arts academy will be encouraged to take internships or take dual credit courses at community colleges . “We’re not designed to make you the very best at any one field,” he said, “we’re making sure you can do everything.”
So far, the Academy of Visual & Performing Arts has been successful, the teachers said.
Michael Parker, head choir director at the school since 1999, said his academy students are automatically enrolled into the varsity choir — an unusual spot for a freshman.
“We always have kids that are musically inclined; this just gives them a boost, gives them extra instruction, gives them more knowledge,” he said. “To nurture their interest in music will keep them interested in going forward and challenge them to do better.”
And, Alexus said, it’s working for her.
“I’m willing to do as much as possible to get to the things life has for me,” she said. “I’m really interested in what they have for the future. … This is a fresh start for not just me but for the academy as well. And I’m really excited for what they have in store.”