The arts are in our DNA in North Carolina, with a long list of painters, performers, writers and musicians from the Old North State going back centuries. Here in the Triad, we’ve woven the arts into our economic development plans, our city budgets and, in the case of Winston-Salem, our city’s identity.

We start them young here, with arts-based curricula beginning in elementary school and becoming more sophisticated as the students develop. They range from public magnet schools and charters to highly selective programs on college campuses.

Arts education integrates elements of history, language, movement, culture, math and science. It instills discipline — for without discipline there would be no art — and feeds self-esteem. It involves creativity, innovation, problem-solving — all traits that can be in short supply around here.

But art’s main purpose is to bring more beauty and thought into the world. In that way the Triad is way ahead of the game.

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Today the kids troop into the Arts Based School — from timid kindergarteners clinging to parents’ hands to self-absorbed eighth graders — for the first day of the new school year.

Like a play on opening night or new paintings freshly hung on a gallery wall, this is hardly the beginning; rather, it’s a culmination of several days of hard work and preparation by teachers and administrators at the public charter school on the north side of downtown Winston-Salem.

Nine grades of 12-bar blues

Flip the calendar back nine days. At 8 o’clock on Monday morning the teachers and administrators gather in an assembly room in the middle-school annex. Like the school’s main facility, it’s a repurposed tobacco warehouse. Clutching coffee cups and pastries, the teachers listen to a trio of professional musicians performing the 12-bar blues.

“I got my mojo workin,’ I’m gonna try it out on you,” Diana Tuffin Eldridge sings, demonstrating with a staple from the classic blues progression.

Even at this early hour the teachers get into it, responding with cries of “Woo!” “All right!” and “Yay!”

The singer asks her audience if they want to hear some improvisation, and indeed they do. With bassist Matt Kendrick and pianist John Mochnik riffing on the progression, Eldridge conjures a piece of lived experience, a tangible and eminently relatable vignette of everyday frustration and perseverance.

“I had to be there this morning,” she sings. “Oh, I dropped my coffee cup. Cracked my fingernail. Cat scratched my stocking. But I’m here on the scene.”

With the trio deconstructing the classic American art form of the blues, the teachers are starting to accumulate some tools in their instructional repertoire.

“You can do some call-and-response,” Kendrick suggests. “You could sing, ‘I went to the store,’ and the kids will come in with, ‘And bought some bread.’ Or, ‘I went to the store’ — ‘And bought some peanut butter.’ Kids get into that. They understand that. That’s my advice.”

It’s pretty clear what’s coming next, and despite varying levels of music ability, the teachers to a one are game to plunge into the exercise. They’ll be grouped by grade level to write and perform their own 12-bar blues with subject matter relevant to their children.

“You could have the first grade blues because first graders are such and so,” Mary Siebert, the school’s arts director, explains. “You could have the seventh grade blues, and that’s a whole ’nother thing, you know?”

A professionally trained opera singer, Siebert drafts Principal Robin Hollis and Assistant Principal Paige Raper to help her sing “The Lost Kid Blues,” a composition that proves the idiom can be adapted to any subject.

The third verse prompts howls of laughter.

“The fact that they’re older, don’t make it okay,” they sing. “Because back in that library, they just might go all the way.”

And rounding back to the tonic note at the song’s conclusion, the trio invokes every educator’s ultimate nightmare: “I got the lost kid blues, and I just might make the evening news.”

Armed with handouts delineating the traits common to the age of their respective students, the teachers break into their grade-level groups for about 20 minutes.

In the fourth-grade group, descriptors of their student cohort as being preoccupied with fairness, prone to injury, and alert to adult imperfections get a reception of wry laughter. Together, they pluck out rhyming words that might give the lyrics the proper rhythm and cadence. “Pick” rhymes with “clique,” and “room” with “doom.” The latter word will be deployed to highlight the students’ flair for drama.

One by one, accompanied by K-4 music teacher Peter Wilbur on guitar, they perform their songs for each other. The teachers make up for the clumsy lyrics that can be expected for on-the-spot composition with flamboyant commitment to the material, and as an audience they respond to each other with high-spirited hilarity.

The kindergarten blues focuses on students falling out of their chairs or showing up at school without an extra pair of clothes. The third-grade group focuses on the dreaded state-mandated end-of-grade exams that determine whether students get promoted. They get lots of laughs when they sing, “I got the EOG blues, and at the end of the day my teacher really needs a beer.”

“The Fourth Grade Blues” includes a funny vignette about a teacher losing control of her class just before recess when she makes the mistake of saying, “Grab the balls.” The sixth-grade teachers tackle the subject of puberty, with references to raging hormones and sprouting chin hairs, while the seventh- and eight-grade teachers lampoon self-obsessed students unable to restrain themselves from taking selfies on their cell phones.

It’s a lot of fun, Wilbur reflects after the session, but it has a serious purpose — not the least of which is teaching adults to lower their inhibitions so they can effectively engage children.

“They’re also modeling how we want to teach the kids,” he says. “They’ll take the risk to be silly and goofy. Look at Mary: She got up and sang in front of professional blues players. She had no fear.”

Everyone contributes something to the song

When the Arts Based School opened in 2002, parents and arts leaders in Winston-Salem were becoming increasingly concerned about cuts to arts programs in public schools just as shifts in the global economy placed an increasing premium on workers with analytical and creative abilities. Successive waves of downsizing by once mighty local manufacturers like Reynolds American and Hanesbrands at the same time as knowledge-based industries have transformed the cities has only cemented the sense that the old paradigm is outmoded.

Taking a break from back-to-back meetings with six days to go before the first day of school, Siebert preaches an emergent conventional wisdom about art-based education.

“The traditional core curriculum probably developed out of what corporate America needed,” she says. “Children were being trained for employment. Arts weren’t considered a field for secure employment…. What I believe people are beginning to see is it’s more important to give a child a well-rounded education — not only to be gainfully employed, but also to be skilled innovators. The value of creativity is emerging as a component that’s been missing.”

Siebert gravitated into the orbit of the Arts Based School while it was still in the planning stages. A professional opera singer who worked on contract, her career required her to move from city to city with each new production. After she and her husband, who teaches at the UNC School of the Arts, had a child, Siebert decided to get off the road. Around that time, she started reading news articles about a group of people who were attempting to launch a public charter school focused on arts-based instruction. The founding of the school marked a time of fruitful synthesis between the arts establishment and education leadership. Peter Perret, then the conductor of the Winston-Salem Symphony, was studying the neurological benefits of the arts on brain development. Jim Sanders, the executive director of the Sawtooth Center for Visual Art at the time, would be the school’s first principal.

Don Martin, the former superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and now a Forsyth County commissioner, embraced the school as an experimental pilot for arts-based instruction.

“Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has been supportive of our charter school; that’s very unique,” Siebert says. “Don Martin was very supportive. He was interested in what we would find.”

Siebert brims with examples of how the arts can be used to promote learning, from memorization through singing to learning measurements by necessity to make costumes for theatrical productions.

“If you’re doing a play, you have to do rich research,” she says. “If you’re doing Shakespeare’s Henry V, you have to study the history of who was Henry V? What was the fabric used for clothing in his day. What kind of dye did they use? Did they have to import the dyes for clothing in the royal court? What minerals were used to make the dye? And it’s Shakespeare, so you’re talking about language. Already, you have science, language arts and history. It’s authentic learning. You’re driven towards a goal you care about.”

Although the school teaches arts so that children will have a discipline to practice, aptitude is not a criteria for eligibility. Students are selected by lottery at the public charter school, which currently has an enrollment of 540, with a waiting list of 450.

“The arts are native languages to children,” Siebert says. “All children want to make art. They draw. They sing. They dance. They tell stories. If you remove that from their vocabulary when they’re 5, all that important groundwork will have gone to waste. Why would you want to do that?”

As a charter, the Arts Based School’s state funding is based on enrollment — just like any other public school, although the school doesn’t have access to local bond funds raised for building construction. As a nonprofit, the school is allowed to raise funds independently. Siebert says that with the exception of a successful capital campaign to build the middle school, the school hasn’t really had time to do much fundraising.

And like other public schools, charters are required to teach to the state standard course of study. Choosing a site on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive was a deliberate decision, Siebert says, to make it convenient for parents on the predominantly African-American east side to drive their children to school.

“The school is demographically pretty similar to the city’s demographic — racially and financially,” she says. “Our parents are low-income, single parents and college professors.”

One of the key lessons revealed through the school’s 13-year history, Siebert says, is that effective arts-based instruction integrates arts and classroom teaching. She describes a third-grade geometry lesson involving students making shapes with a giant rubber band or pacing off the floor to determine circumference. The lesson would be less successful with either the dance teacher or the classroom teacher removed from the picture, Siebert says, adding that planning is essential.

Back at the training session, she reminds the teachers that their lesson plans are due on Fridays. She flashes a poster board with the 12-bar blues drawn in Magic Marker as a bar graph.

“This is like your lesson plan,” Siebert says. “It doesn’t lay out exactly what’s going to happen in the classroom. You’re going to riff on it. Everyone in the band will contribute something to what the piece is going to become. Your task is to keep the song on track and get it from the beginning to the end.”

Other Triad art schools

Academy at Lincoln (GSO)

Lincoln, a middle school, pulls from honors students throughout the county for its advanced academic curriculum, and also offers a separate track for performing and visual arts.

Diggs-Latham Elementary (W-S)

Arts and global studies make up the curriculum at Diggs-Latham, an elementary school with programs in visual art, choral music, dance, piano, music composition, band, orchestra and theater arts.

Mineral Springs Elementary (W-S)

Mineral Springs Elementary utilizes the Renzulli Schoolwide Enrichment Model, developed in the 1970s for gifted students. It emphasizes broad-based, rigorous academics and enrichment, fosters development of the whole student and provides opportunities for the kids based on their interests and talents. The middle school program is an arts & leadership magnet, with programs in dance, drama, orchestra, chorus, band, piano and gymnastics.

Morehead Elementary (GSO)

This “expressive arts magnet” in the Guilford County school system has programs in art, drama, dance, music and a concentration in violin. Extracurriculars include drama, chorus, handbells, world drumming and speed stacking.

NC Governor’s School at Salem College (W-S)

The Governor’s School, open to high-achieving high school students across the state for 51 years, has its western campus at Salem College. Students spend the summer studying art, chorus, music, dance or theater, and integrate those concepts into the study of contemporary thought. Open only to rising seniors, students must first be nominated by a teacher or administrator, and then pass an audition to be accepted.

Parkland Magnet High School (W-S)

Parkland’s theme of internationalism and the arts extends into its participation in the International Baccalaureate Programme. They offer visual arts, theater, dance and music, and students must choose a discipline in 9th grade. “Learners are polished in the arts to think critically, creating their own works based on studies of internationalism, history, criticism, interpretation judgment and finally experimentation,” the school’s website reads.

Parkview Elementary (HP)

High Point’s expressive arts magnet benefits from Title 1 and Equity Plus, meaning that extra resources come in from the federal government to help students from the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Dance, drama, music, art and band are part of the curriculum.

Penn-Griffin School for the Arts (HP)

Located near the Washington Street community, Penn-Griffin takes grades 6-12 with programs in orchestra, band, chorus, classical guitar, piano, dance, theater and visual arts. Middle schoolers are selected by lottery, and high schoolers must audition for acceptance.

UNCSA early college (W-S)

The country’s first public arts college has opened its doors to advanced high schoolers interested in studying dance, drama, music and visual arts since it got its state charter in 1963. Students live on campus and are integrated somewhat into college life. A rigorous interview and audition process whittles the class size down to about 200 students.

Weaver Academy (GSO)

Weaver, in downtown Greensboro, is a high school with two academic tracks. One is a trade school focusing on technology. Arts students choose from dance, drama, guitar, music production, piano, strings, visual arts and vocal music. The honors school requires auditions for acceptance.

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