Our current educational system offers many different models. One of the models that uniquely exists to support arts education is the arts high school. I recently joined an arts high school community, and I live in awe of the complexity, depth, and flexibility that the arts school model provides. This year I attended the Arts School Network conference for the first time. The conference attendees were arts school educators from around the country. It was an eye-opening experience to be among colleagues who understood the school model in which I am immersed daily.
Arts school is a space in which we are free to design, create, modify, and amplify in just the way we see fit to meet the needs of our community. It’s an empowering space, but often an isolated one. As a first-time conference attendee, I had not previously been connected to many arts school administrators. Over the course of this conference, I engaged in enlightening conversations, garnered new ideas, and developed understanding and empathy for shared challenges. The most powerful aspect of meeting this group of educators was experiencing the unspoken appreciation and deep understanding we share as arts school educators.
I felt what my students feel every day when they enter our arts high school. It is a space where you feel understood without having to say a word. After the conference, I asked students what they appreciate the most about attending an arts school. I have shared some of their reflections below.
“As you come in people expect you to know what you’re doing, and expect you to take it seriously. It’s been great for my creative growth because I’m networking with my peers in my field even before I become a professional artist. I don’t know who or where I’d be in my sense of self without this experience.” —Senior Visual Art Student
“You can talk to more people about art here; it’s a basic common ground amongst all of us. Your friends are all working on similar things so it’s easier to make amazing music here because you feel you won’t be judged for caring.” —Junior Music Student
“The change for me going from regular school to arts school is experiencing arts as a core value versus arts as a side dish. I learned to actually put up a gallery. I wouldn’t expect to be able to do that at my traditional school; it’s so much more immersive and intense here.” —Junior Visual Art Student
“There is no way we leave here without being better human beings in all respects. We know who we are and what we have to offer. It’s a very different experience then just being the stand out artist in an arts class at a regular school. Here people understand that art isn’t just what you do, it’s who you are.” —Senior Literary Arts Student
Prior to working in an arts school, I led arts programming in traditional schools, and I’m a strong believer in the importance of access to quality art programming for all students. However, I’m enamored with the space we create when we design schools for students who have a demonstrated passion and aptitude for the arts. Arts schools allow our most creative young people in society to feel supported, celebrated, and encouraged to grow. I contend that the confidence, skills, and sense of community students gain from attending arts schools helps them to become the best version of themselves. Without arts school, they may have wasted valuable years suppressing the elements that make them unique.
When our young artists become their best selves, we all benefit. Their creative lenses, solutions, beauty, and impact on the world is unmistakable. Finding a community in which to belong is essential, and the earlier it happens in life the greater the impact. The arts high school model provides that community, and it is a design that should be not only cherished and preserved but further developed.