By Matthew Tungate
Connie Baynum had a long day ahead of her. She was responsible for making sure that about 75 6th-, 7th- and 8th-graders from four middle schools learned the choreography, song lyrics and speaking parts to a play they were to perform later that night.
A bus was 35 minutes late on a day already crowded with much to do. Instead of crumpling under the stress, Baynum embraced the “show must go on” philosophy like a veteran thespian – which she is.
“In about 10 hours you will grace the stage with a wonderful message,” Baynum told the students.
Most of the students are part of the Accepting Stimulating Challenges Experiencing New Techniques (ASCENT) Arts program. ASCENT Arts, in its 13th year, is a gifted pull-out program for the Kenton County school district’s middle school students who have been identified as gifted and talented in dance, instrumental music, vocal music, theater and visual arts.
Usually students spend one day every three weeks with Baynum and others in their grade and art form. But this day is special. On this day, the students are part of the first All-Star Ensemble, where theater and dance students will put on No Scars, a play they collaboratively wrote about the scourge of bullying. It is about 80 minutes of popular music, monologues, scene excerpts and interpretive dance that also includes artwork from visual art students. It is part of Education Celebration Week and precedes All-Star performances in band and chorus.
Teachers from each school, who served as directors, talked about projecting, theater etiquette, thinking quickly and purposeful movements to the students from Summit View, Turkey Foot, Twenhofel and Woodland middle schools.
Baynum asked the ASCENT Arts students to hold up their hands, which most of them did.
“This is the first time I’ve seen you all together,” she said.
How students are identified
Students are identified for ASCENT Arts through letters of recommendation and a rigorous process that includes an audition and interview before a panel of educators and professional artists within each field.. A portion of the audition also includes sight-reading for music students, improvisation for theatre students and a 30-minute on-site sketch for visual arts students.
Baynum, who is in her first year as the ASCENT Arts resource teacher following eight years teaching language arts, said 400 students auditioned for the program last year and 76 were accepted, bringing the total to 237.
Debbie Brown, Kenton County’s secondary gifted and talented specialist/visual and performing arts consultant and Baynum’s supervisor and predecessor, said it’s hard to turn students away, but the district only wants the best of the best. She said sometimes the judges are surprised by which students decide to try out.
“I love being in a room when they are surprised by a student that comes in,” she said.
Jane Bush, gifted education coordinator for Kenton County, said she thinks the rigorous process is important.
“We are looking at students that we can identify as gifted – many times if you don’t go through this process, you’re not identifying students, you’re missing them,” she said.
Acceptance in the program is not influenced by academic achievement, Baynum said.
“In this district, we feel that the academics should in no way influence their acceptance into this program,” she said.
There are some students who struggle academically who have a gift in the arts, she said.
“(It would be) sad if a child was denied developing that gift of art just because they weren’t the best math student or the best language arts student,” she said.
The benefits of a pull-out program
Students from the four middle schools are bused to Summit View Middle for their ASCENT classes because some schools only have a few students for each class, she said. Her classes range in size from seven students in 6th-grade theater to 26 in 8th-grade theater, Baynum said.
“It is much more effective if those kids are brought together,” she said.
At Summit View Middle, Baynum has a classroom, keyboard, art supplies, tables and access to a multipurpose room that can be used as a dance studio. Not every school has such facilities, she said.
Brown said each middle school has a teacher for each of the arts, but that ASCENT Arts takes that instruction to another level.
“When you get those kids together, that ceiling is taken off,” she said.
Rachel Doan, the fourth-year drama and dance teacher at Turkey Foot Middle, said that while teachers provide differentiation in the classroom and allow gifted and talented students to go above and beyond, giving gifted students all they need in her class would be difficult.
“I would have to have two separate groups at all times where these kids are working ahead. And we do have that, but not to this level, not to where they are performing to such a performance-based level,” she said. “It is in those students’ best interests to have a program like this so that they can get out of the normal classroom setting and have that time to focus on what they’re good at.”
Matt Tarka, an 8th-grader at Woodland Middle, and Destiny Perdue, an 8th-grader at Summit View Middle who coined the No Scars name for the play, have been in ASCENT since 6th grade. Both agreed that ASCENT Arts gives them more than they could get in a regular class.
Perdue, who is in ASCENT Arts theater and vocal, said, “With ASCENT Arts we get to try different things and push the boundaries of the different things we do.”
Tarka, who is in ASCENT theater, added, “It’s a lot more hands-on than most of the classes that we have. Our theater classes at school usually end up just reading a novel and then discussing it, whereas here, we act it out and talk about it. We get more of an experience.”
Baynum said students spend the first hour and last 45 minutes at their school on ASCENT Arts days. Teachers in their core subject classes give students notes and assignments ahead of time, and they get extra time to complete assignments.
When they go to ASCENT Arts, each day is different, she said. She sees students about 10 times per year, and only about three classes are spent with just her, Baynum said. On those days students may review terminology, work on their lesson and exercises, perform an activity, and write in their journals.
The other classes are spent either on field trips to locations such as the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music or Shakespeare Theater or with visiting professionals or artists, she said.
Brown said when she was the ASCENT Arts resource teacher, her students attended a symphony concert and the musicians came to the school for a workshop.
“They don’t get that in the classroom – to get that professional touch, to get that mentoring,” she said.
Including mentoring from Baynum herself. She was an artistic director for a creative arts studio, owned a local dance theater and was active in community theater before deciding to become a classroom teacher.
“It’s as if my world is going around the circle a second time,” she said. “It really is great to be back in the arts. To be able to combine education and the arts is like a dream come true.”