Tar Heel of the Week

Liz Grimes-Droessler working for arts education, with no apologies

CorrespondentNovember 16, 2013 

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Liz Grimes-Droessler works as the Wake County schools senior administrator for the arts. .

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Elizabeth Grimes-Droessler

    Born: Jan. 13, 1959, in Fayetteville

    Residence: Raleigh

    Career: Arts education senior administrator, Wake County Public School System

    Awards: Hall of Fame charter inductee, Wake Education Partnership, 2013; Business Support of the Arts Award in Arts Education, United Arts Council, 2008; Academy of Women, Arts and Entertainment, YWCA, 2003

    Education: B.S., dance education and M.Ed., theater arts, UNC Greensboro; Ed.D., higher education adult learning, Walden University

    Family: Husband, Chris Droessler

    Hobbies: Pool and bowling, both on local teams

    Fun fact: Droessler says she has made many costumes over the years, though she lacks the eye for detail of her mother, an expert quilter. Once she stayed up all night to make a blue coat for a countywide production of “Les Miserables” out of fabric bought at Walmart. Then she ran it over with her car to make it look distressed. “Luckily, anything I make only has to look right from 50 feet away,” she says.

— After leading a recent meeting of arts educators, Liz Grimes-Droessler had to giggle at one of the comments scrawled on a sticky note: “When can we stop justifying the arts?”

“Honey, I’ve been doing it for more than 30 years,” responded Grimes-Droessler, who heads arts programs for Wake County schools.

But Grimes-Droessler, 54, doesn’t despair that the arts she loves are often considered dessert to the school-day meal. Instead, she works steadily to boost arts programming and promote art as a valuable teaching tool.

“It’s our responsibility to make people understand how important we are,” she says of arts educators. “We cannot ever sit back and say we’ve done it all.”

Grimes-Droessler was one of the first five people inducted into the Wake Education Partnership Hall of Fame this year, joining such local luminaries as former Superintendent Bill McNeal and philanthropist Ann Goodnight as honorees for their lasting impact on local schools.

Ariana DeBose was a freshman at what was then Wake Forest-Rolesville High School when she met Grimes-Droessler. She was chosen for the lead role in a countywide production of “Aida,” despite her inexperience.

Now a 22-year-old who just finished performing in her second Broadway musical, DeBose says Grimes-Droessler encouraged her and other students on a personal level and was always willing to pitch in creative ideas.

But DeBose says it was Grimes-Droessler’s determined advocacy of the arts that most helped her and other students to thrive.

“She has always been so dedicated to us, the students, to giving us the best experience to take us to the next level,” DeBose says. “She stands for bettering arts education in the county. She holds the flag on that.”

Surrounded by music

Grimes-Droessler grew up in Fayetteville, surrounded by music. Her mother was a music teacher in the public schools who performed in the Fayetteville symphony. Both of her parents sang in barbershop quartets. Her brother is now a jazz musician and professor at Louisiana State University.

As a youth, Grimes-Droessler sang in the church choir and took music and dance classes. She performed at the Fort Bragg Playhouse and started a female barbershop quartet at Fayetteville Academy. As a college student, she performed and choreographed for the Fayetteville Youth Theater.

Yet she thought she would follow the career path of her father, a dentist, when she started college at UNC-Chapel Hill. A year in, she was miserable. So she changed her major to arts education and transferred to UNC Greensboro.

She had just started a master’s degree program when she was hired for a six-month, grant-funded position with Wake County schools, part of a team teaching the arts at newly formed magnet elementary schools.

During that time, she met Rose Melvin, who had pushed to hire arts educators in elementary schools for years and would become a key mentor.

That first position led to a job teaching dance and technical theater at Martin Middle School. She followed Melvin and her principal at the time, McNeal, to a district administration job in 1985.

Grimes-Droessler started as an arts specialist, and eventually took over as head of the arts programs when Melvin retired. She says she has tried to carry on Melvin’s legacy of tireless arts advocacy.

Using local connections

Grimes-Droessler occupies her own place in the local arts scene, doing stage lighting both for the district and professionally. She frequently works with Chuck Davis’ African-American Dance Ensemble and has traveled widely with that group.

But she says she found her niche leading the more than 500 Wake teachers of visual arts, dance, drama and music and serving as the district’s central contact for all things arts-related.

It’s a job that varies daily. She visits classrooms to give teachers feedback and share ideas. She particularly relishes the many ways the arts can be used to boost other subjects – dance routines based on geometric shapes or musical pieces inspired by historic quotes.

She helps make sure new schools have the right facilities for arts classes. She’s a member of the local United Arts Council, and keeps ties with other arts groups, where she’s never afraid to ask for help in the schools.

She is working with principals on a districtwide framework for effective teaching and on promoting the arts as a way to boost literacy, the subject of her dissertation research. If a light board goes down at a school, she’ll be out there fixing it.

Perhaps her most visible role is the annual Pieces of Gold performance, which features 30 student groups from across the county doing short performances of drama, music and dance, along with an accompanying exhibit of visual art.

Auditions for the March event will start in a few weeks. Droessler will oversee those, manage the event from backstage, organize the show and write the master of ceremonies’ script – which will focus on the teaching objectives fulfilled by each piece.

Boost for arts education

Support for arts education tends to come and go. Droessler saw a drastic reduction in arts teachers in the early 1990s when a change in state law allowed schools to shift those positions to other subjects.

An increasing focus on reading and math tests and shrinking budgets have also conspired against the arts in schools, but Droessler says the arts are on the upswing, thanks in part to studies linking studying the arts to student achievement in other subjects.

And she sees a strong place for the arts within the new Common Core standards being adopted by schools nationwide, which are aimed at creative problem solving and other critical thinking skills.

“They want students to be good communicators, to understand and listen, to solve problems and work together and know how to think something through,” she says. “Those are all skills that the arts teach.”

Her long tenure helps her find a seat at the table in a wide variety of district and state initiatives, which she uses to make her case for the arts among her fellow educators. She uses her training about personality types to craft her message in a variety of ways.

“I can tell you about the economic benefits, or I can tell you the heartwarming stories,” says Grimes-Droessler. “Part of my job is to tell the story of the arts to everyone.”

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