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.”

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