Something new has emerged from the old industrial center of downtown Winston-Salem. The pioneering spirit found in most charter schools throughout the state has emerged in the middle of an inner city street littered with vacant brick factory buildings, relics of a bygone era.
A closer look at one of a former tobacco warehouse near Trade Street, however, and a cheery sign labeled “Arts Based Elementary School” appears at the top of the building. At first it looks out of place in the decrepit neighborhood, but if you walk on the property it suddenly bursts forth with life.
The aging warehouse is surrounded by a lovely garden, works of art, and playground equipment. The campus is alive, with a new purpose and beauty for all to see.
“We love this location,” said the school’s art coordinator Mary Siebert. “It’s perfect for us. It is located in a factory worker neighborhood that had fallen into disrepair, and it took a lot of effort to lift it back up.”
She said one of the Arts Based Elementary School’s main goals when it moved into the neighborhood nine years ago was to bring art to this somewhat downtrodden community. Art is integrated with every aspect of the educational experience, even bringing it outside the four walls of the building.
“Art is a powerful tool and it helps students gain the ability to creatively problem solve and innovate,” Siebert said. “Our initial charter focused on children learning that learning takes place everywhere, even out in the community. The children realize their words and actions are valued and appreciated and they drive their own learning.”
Everything is new inside the vintage building. The renovated walls and rooms are lined with the artwork of 300 children from 20 different zip codes attending the non-traditional public school.
They pay attention to the smallest details, making sure the walls are an intoxicating display of color and texture. The children’s creations are hung to look as if they are being displayed inside a gallery. There are mosaics, textiles, paintings, drawings, sculptures, and a host of other art mediums.
Every student is involved in the performing arts and all participate in a production. They perform classics such as “Peter and the Wolf” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The core curriculums of language arts, science, and math are embedded in each artistic endeavor, providing excitement and relevance throughout the learning experience.
In addition, each of the young learners is taught to play the African Drums, with lessons carefully designed to teach them how to follow directions and keep accurate rhythm.
The teachers reinforce arithmetic through the arts to help solidify concepts such as perimeters and sequential numbers. The music teacher also reinforces fractions while students learn note values.
“We don’t allow mindless work sheets or coloring pages here,” Principal Robin Hollis said. “This is an active educational process that is true to both the arts and the End of Grade tests. We are responsible for all of those pieces. We use a highly effective and powerful teaching method and it works.”
If there is a problem, there is a school-wide expectation that the student will not only work it out, but also change their behavior.
“If the children mess up, they learn to look at the problem, how they can solve it, and move on,” Hollis said. “It’s a critical life skill they are developing when they learn that it’s not just the grown-ups that have all the answers.”
The program is working and the Arts Based Elementary School has become so popular that it must hold a lottery for enrollment at the end of each school year.
Over the school’s nine-year history, the educational experience the school has developed has attracted parents who are focused and invested in their child’s education.
“It’s a conscious choice to come here,” Hollis said. “It’s not one-size-fits-all. We have what we have to offer. It has to be a good fit for the child. We leave it to the parents to choose.”
Art and learning expands beyond the classroom, as the school interacts and partners with the community. It collaborates with the local symphony, a local coffee house to perform poetry slams, and the Southwestern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem.
Michael Christiano, SECCA’s curator of education, said the museum has partnered with the Arts-Based Elementary School for several years to bring the students’ talents to the public.
“It benefits the students and gives them another outlet and resource for their arts-based curriculum, where they already have a high exposure to art,” he said. “Bringing a show to SECCA gives them the sense of immediacy and it makes what they are doing relevant, real, and tangible. It gives their coursework a little more weight and makes the students very self-aware.”
Christiano said it is always a joy to work with the youth at the school. He said the innovative charter school has given the museum a benchmark to help provide services to traditional public schools and help maintain a viable art program despite deep budget cuts.
“I’m always amazed at how articulate and talented these kids are,” he said. “Their level of performance is fantastic and the artwork they produce is amazing. Working with them has proven to be incredibly successful and beneficial. Their program really takes it off the paper and puts it into practice.”
The results speak for themselves.
“The kids really ‘own’ it and bring it to life,” Hollis said. “They go home saying ‘I love school.’ They hate missing school and they cry when they have a snow day.”
All of this effort comes at a cost. Each member of the teaching team, staff, and administration works extra time to ensure all needs are met at the school.
“We have exactly as many people to do the job, minus half,” Siebert said. “We all do 150 percent of the job and we function in multiple roles. We plunge the toilets, deal with the parents, and serve lunch.” She said the most powerful influence and role model in this school is Hollis.
“She has such a depth of understanding and a full value of our mission,” Siebert said. “She is good at creating an open community where everyone feels valued and supported.”
Karen Welsh is a contributor to Carolina Journal.