By Brenna R. Kelly
It’s not unusual for cars to be in the parking lot and lights on inside the School for the Creative and Performing Arts late into the evening.
Students and teachers might be rehearsing a Broadway musical, working on a tough dance step or running through that orchestra piece one more time.
“We’re a small school, but we’re probably one of the busiest schools in Fayette County,” said Principal Beth Randolph. “That makes us very close knit, we’re really like a family.”
Students are admitted to the school solely on arts ability, but that doesn’t mean students and teachers at the 4th- through 8th-grade school don’t take academics seriously, she said.
For the last three years, both the elementary and middle school grades have been ranked in the 99th percentile of Kentucky schools in the Unbridled Learning accountability system. In the 2014-15 school year, both grade levels earned a Distinguished label.
That academic success is one reason federal officials named the school a 2015 National Blue Ribbon school. The U.S. Department of Education awarded the honor based on student achievement and other research-based indicators of quality.
“The arts teaches students discipline, responsibility and hard work and then that carries over into their academic classes,” said Randolph, who taught at the school for 22 years before becoming principal in 2010.
Each year more than 400 students audition for one of only 56 spots at the 277-student school commonly known as SCAPA at Bluegrass. Students major in one of nine arts disciplines – ballet, contemporary dance, visual arts, literary arts, drama, vocal music, strings, band or piano.
The 4th- and 5th-grade students meet in their arts major classes threes time a week, but also take general arts classes. The middle school students have arts major classes five times a week and also declare an arts minor – which meets three times a week – and an elective arts class that meets twice a week.
The elective classes allow for more integration of arts disciplines, for example, a Triple Threat Skills class combines, vocal, dance and acting. Another class combines literature, literary arts and visual arts to create an art and literature magazine.
“I love the students, I love the faculty, I love teaching dance,” said contemporary dance teacher Rebecca Stephenson as she watched her middle school students practice. “It’s my passion and it’s their passion so we have a really great opportunity to advance not only the students’ skills, really dance in the state of Kentucky.”
Literary arts teacher Karen Espaniola came to SCAPA this year after teaching high school English/language arts for eight years in Hawaii. On a recent afternoon, her students were creating spoken-word poetry that they planned to read at an open mic night at a local bookstore.
Students had to research a topic they were passionate about, write the poem then work with Espaniola to refine the work and practice performing the piece.
“These are the things that I always wanted to do in my old school but wasn’t allowed to because everything was formulated,” she said. “Being able to actually create units and think of creative ways of teaching has been a great experience.”
SCAPA also makes sure technology is part of students’ academic and arts education. Sixth-grade students take a computer class where they learn basic coding and website design. Then in 7th grade, students take music technology, a project-based class in which students explore music through listening, critiquing, researching and composing using software. Students take art technology in 8th grade, in which they explore the principles of design by creating commercial art projects such as logos, labels, greeting cards and advertisements.
Because students spend so much time with the arts, they do have less instructional time in academic classes, Randolph said. However, students must take the same academic classes as other Fayette County students and take the same statewide assessments, she said.
“Our students love coming to school because it’s fun to them,” she said. “Every day they get to do something they love to do and something they know they are good at doing.”
To make of the most of the time, arts and the academic teachers collaborate to develop lessons that will improve student learning in both of their areas. When the school performed the musical “Oliver” last fall, the 8th grade read the novel “Oliver Twist” in English class; in math classes, students made to-scale set designs for the show. Students also served food at a soup kitchen and wrote papers comparing homeless in 17th-century England to homeless in the U.S. today.
Science teacher Elizabeth Sergent even integrates arts into her science classes.
When students were studying biogeochemical cycles, they used their arts disciplines to demonstrate what happens in the cycles. Some groups danced, others performed music and one group wrote a story about the cycle from the perspective of nitrogen gas.
Sergent, who came to SCAPA 12 years ago, said teaching at a performing arts school took some getting used to. When students arrive in 4th-grade, usually no more than two have come from the same school and some have never had a science class.
“It’s up to me to get them all on the same page,” she said. “That makes it even more amazing that we are able to have the test scores that we do.”
In the 2013-14 school year, 100 percent of the 4th-graders scored either proficient or distinguished in science on the K-Prep assessments. In fact, many parents want their children to come to the school because of academic performance, Sergent said.
“I’m so thankful to be working at this school,” she said. “The kids are fantastic, they’re wonderful. We have our share of normal challenges and issues that come up, but there’s something special about our kids. I really think that has to do with their interest in the arts and their families. Their families are involved and supportive and that makes all the difference in the world.”