By Madelynn Coldiron
At a time when tight budgets are forcing school districts to cut back on art and music classes, one Kentucky school district has been able to move in the opposite direction, thanks to an innovative arts building and its own commitment.
PHOTO: Fifth-grader Landry Feldmeier, part of the Junior Performance Troupe, practices a tap routine in the Oldham County Schools Arts Center dance studio.
The Oldham County Schools Arts Center is celebrating its 10th year this year. A decade ago, the school board decided to buy a church building and convert it to a multidisciplinary arts complex that would provide arts education to students and also provide cultural benefits to the community. It had the support of local businesses and arts groups, “and a natural partnership came together,” said Anita Davis, Oldham County Schools’ chief academic officer. “It was pretty visionary at the time.”
Trina Jackson, who directs dance and choreography for the center and has worked professionally all over the U.S. for more than 30 years, thinks it’s still pretty unique.
“It’s crazy good,” she said as students in her Junior Performance Troupe got ready for a rehearsal. “The kids are surrounded by all the arts right at their fingertips.”
Students of all ages in the Oldham County school system benefit from being able to take group classes and individual lessons at the center, along with four performance-based courses each semester that high school students can take for credit. Offerings range from various forms of dance and theater to painting and ceramics. Music encompasses voice, strings, a chamber ensemble, and even a rock band program. The center’s most recent addition is a music class for children ages 0-5.
“This is kind of like the place that sparks people’s interest – if this place didn’t exist, we wouldn’t really have a good outlet to express these arts,” said South Oldham High School sophomore Jack Brewer, who is planning a career in musical theater.
There was a lot of foresight in planning center programs among teachers, administrators and visual and performing arts teachers, said the center’s executive director, Alvin Williams.
“We’re really offering courses that they know are most beneficial to their students, and also not in competition with existing programs in our schools,” he said.
The response is proof of that, according to Davis, who said she has seen an increase in student interest in the arts because of the center.
“The one thing that’s happened in the last six years is the involvement, the number of kids taking classes there has grown exponentially, to the point where I’m starting to worry about space,” she said. “The participation is just off the charts.”
What it offers
The facility’s classes meet before and after school, and this summer alone the center served more than 750 students. About 2,000 students take classes annually, MacWilliams said (see chart below).
One major facet of the center, the Arts Academy, is open to residents of all ages and is tuition-based; the other, the School for the Arts, focuses on programs for students, at no cost to them. Besides the performance-based credit classes, that includes an artist-in-residence program and performances that draw student participation from all Oldham County schools. Student performance troupes also stage their major productions for the community and during the day for in-district field trips for other students.
The building itself houses studios for all the disciplines, along with an auditorium – the former church sanctuary was upgraded with stage, lighting and sound – that seats 450; the district’s Gifted and Talented Program administrative offices; English language learner classrooms; and adult education and GED programs.
The center also hosts professional musical, theater and dance groups and artists for the community, as well as regional art shows it its art gallery.
One of the more unique features of the building is the Oldham County Board of Education Resource Center, where teachers can find all kinds of craft, graphic and art materials to enhance their curriculum. Community members also can use the Resource Center; there is a cost for some materials, but others are free.
Davis said the center serves students “whose passion and interest are in this realm.”
Oldham County High School ninth-grader Shelby Nasser, who has been interested in musical theater since she was a preschooler, is one of them. “If I didn’t have somewhere to do any of the arts stuff I do, I would probably be sitting at home watching TV,” she said.
But more broadly, Davis said, the center “allows our students to be exposed to great art in all avenues – dance, drama, music, visual art – and they’re allowed to come and be part of that through our art shows, our productions … so all students have the opportunity to be exposed to art.”
Its programs also are a resource for the district’s teachers, from the arts and humanities program review to enhancements for art and music specialists, Davis said.
“I think it’s safe to say we have taken some of the pressure off the schools and really been able to supplement our teachers with a lot of opportunities for their students and for them to grow as well,” MacWilliams said.
Even more students may benefit from the center in the future. Noting the number of younger children taking classes at the Arts Academy, MacWilliams said he’s looking at adding specialty courses at the middle school level. “The demand will really be there and I think eventually we will start to have middle school classes for credit,” he said.
Fall student arts participation totals
Private lessons 193
Visual art 79
High school credit 35
Off-site classes 61