Excellence Through the Arts

As we begin the second half of this school year, our local schools, especially those with an intensive focus on the arts, will begin to gear up for their busiest season – spring. Known for end-of-the-year art exhibitions, concerts, and announcements of accolades, the spring semester is a time of performance and reflection for art students and faculty alike. Arbus reached out to Duval County Public Schools’ (DCPS) arts magnets and those with high-achieving arts programs, along with distinctive local private schools with an active arts mission. They had a lot to share, and we hope you will be as inspired as we are by the many ways in which these schools commit to excellence in education through the arts.

Pine Forest School of the Arts is a dedicated DCPS elementary magnet for the visual and performing arts. All students in grades K–5 receive instruction in visual arts, strings, dance, theatre, and chorus/music, facilitated by a full-time teacher certified in each particular area, during the regular school day. 

Pine Forest Principal Michelle L. Matthews shares that the school’s arts department teachers are implementing two new programs this year. The first is a weekly arts integration lesson for kindergarten through third-grade classes. Matthews says that the art teachers visit classrooms to co-teach a lesson that incorporates one or more of the arts areas with an academic area such as reading, math, or science. She describes two such lesson plans: One involved the reading of Peter Reynold’s book, The Dot, followed by a discussion of pointillism and the students creating their own works of art in the classroom using the dot method. In another, the teachers taught a science lesson on chemical reactions and “the students loved seeing their arts teachers use their theatre skills to pretend to be scientists,” says Matthews.

The second new program at Pine Forest sees the theatre and visual arts teachers working together with a small group of fifth-graders to pilot a beginning tech class. In this class, students are introduced to running sound and lights for in-school programs, and designing theatrical props and sets.

LaVilla School of The Arts is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, with events through April to support the award-winning middle school performing arts magnet. The school has been designated an A+ School by the Florida Department of Education since 2000. “Students come to us from all parts of the city to audition for placement in one of nine arts areas including band, orchestra, dance, vocal, theatre, creative writing, piano, guitar and visual arts. Our student body quickly gets initiated into the life of the student-artist, learning to balance homework and tests with rehearsals and performances,” says LaVilla Principal Lianna Knight. “LaVilla honors the arts’ unique ability to develop leadership, collaboration, discipline, self-expression, and empathy at a critical stage in our students’ development.”

At a November open house, the school unveiled a grand on-campus mural produced and created by renowned muralist Jason Tetlak. A Jacksonville-based artist, Tetlak is officially recognized by Guinness World Records as having created the largest hand-painted, 3D mural in the world, which can be seen in Jacksonville’s Brooklyn neighborhood. Knight says that Tetlak’s mural at LaVilla “wraps the building in a rainbow of color, with a music, art and performance motif.” LaVilla students not only assisted in this mural project, from concept to completion, but also with an extensive landscape project made possible through donations from Haskell and officially dedicated by Preston Haskell.

Knight shares another highlight of the 20th year — a special showing of artwork by renowned local artist and art educator Memphis Wood (1902 – 1989). A long-time resident of Jacksonville’s Mandarin area, Wood is affectionately called Jacksonville’s “First Lady of Art.” Best known for her unique work in fabrics and textiles, throughout her career, Wood taught art at Landon Junior-Senior High School, Jacksonville University, Jacksonville Art Museum (now MOCA), and the Children’s Museum, now the Museum of Science and History (MOSH).

The school’s renowned annual Showcase and The Happening productions will honor the 20-year anniversary, and feature a sampling of students’ best visual and performing arts pieces developed throughout the school year, on April 17 at the Florida Theatre.

LaVilla feeds into the nationally-recognized Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (DA), a high school devoted to the arts that has garnered consistent awards and recognition, and has graduated growing numbers of accomplished and lauded professionals, both in the arts and other fields, who attribute their success to their start at DA. The school was recognized as a Certified National Magnet School by Magnet Schools of America in August, 2019, and Principal Melanie Hammer says that DA’s arts programs are “always evolving, based on feedback from top universities and conservatories.” One new addition to the course offerings is a Devised Theatre class, in which students write a play, create its props and puppets, and then perform it for students at DA as well as various elementary and middle schools in Duval County.

Hammer touts the accomplishments of DA’s Wind Ensemble, recognized in 2019 as a National Winner in the Mark of Excellence/National Wind Band Honors Project, and DA’s Wind Symphony, which has been invited to perform at the Music For All National Concert Band Festival in Indianapolis in March 2020. The school’s most successful arts event each year, their popular Extravaganza, held each February at the Moran Theatre, showcases the best that DA has to offer. “Each of our ten arts areas perform in this evening of collaboration and artistry,” says Hammer.

DA and the DA Foundation hosted the annual Arts School Network Conference this year, showcasing the school and the work of its students for art educators and administrators from around the country. The school is also planning to host a College Showcase, modeled after that of Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School, which brings top universities and conservatories to the campus to see students’ work.

Hammer points out that DA’s academics are consistently applauded as well, standing as the #2 high school in DCPS based on state assessment data. Their SAT and ACT scores continue to grow well above the national average; this year seeing three National Merit Semifinalists and five National Merit Commended Scholars. With multiple art and academic collaborations throughout the year, the graduating class of 2019 earned over $21 million in scholarships in both the arts and academics.

Read MoreBy Meredith T. Matthews

Author: Arbus

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