Wake seeks more arts education in middle school, but without hurting magnet schools

Local middle school highlights importance of art education

Moore Square Magnet Middle School offers a wide variety of art courses to its students in an effort to expose them to different forms of art and expression early in the education.
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Moore Square Magnet Middle School offers a wide variety of art courses to its students in an effort to expose them to different forms of art and expression early in the education.

There’s a push to get more Wake County middle school students into art classes this year, with new offerings and schedule changes designed to make participation easier.

But the county is also trying to ensure that art improvements at non-magnet schools don’t negatively impact magnets, some of whom use arts courses to attract students. It’s part of the balancing act that school leaders say is necessary but has left some parents frustrated over the years.

Arts supporters can rattle off multiple reasons for why those classes are important, such as the 99% graduation rate among Wake County high school students who took an arts class their senior year. But to get to that point, Freddie-Lee Heath, Wake’s director of arts education, says they want to make sure students don’t stop taking arts classes in middle school.

“If we lose kids during the middle school years in the arts, a lot of times we won’t get them back,” Heath said in an interview. “So I’m trying to enhance middle school arts across the district.”

State lawmakers included a new requirement in the state budget that North Carolina students must take at least one arts class between sixth and 12th grades. The requirement is up in the air following Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto because of other provisions in the budget put in by state lawmakers.

“We talk about the creative process. It has to be taught,” said Edward McFarland, Wake’s chief academic advancement officer. “You just don’t tell kids be creative. There is a process to being creative.”

Magnet school supporters say they want arts to be available at all schools. But they want to make sure that the most advanced offerings remain at the magnet schools..

“East Millbrook (Middle School) has a performing arts magnet,” school board member Roxie Cash said at a June 24 board committee meeting on the state of arts in the district. “We should probably keep those kinds of arts out of the shiny new schools, besides the magnet schools.

“I’m trying to balance how we put art in all of our schools but don’t take away the attraction of the arts in the magnets, because that’s been the big attraction for most of our successful magnets over the years.”

Magnet school arts programs

Many of Wake’s magnet schools are designed to attract students who will help diversify what would otherwise be largely minority and/or high-poverty schools. Magnet schools offer different themes as a way of attracting students.

Magnet schools have been a major part of Wake’s efforts to integrate schools for more than 35 years.

Video produced by the Wake County Public Schools highlights its magnet school programs in advance of the Magnet Schools of America’s 33rd National Conference being held April 22-25 in Raleigh.

One of those magnet schools is Moore Square Middle School in downtown Raleigh. It offers the gifted and talented theme, which includes more than 100 different electives offered a year.

Moore Square has full-time teachers in visual arts, strings, chorus, band, theater arts and dance.

“The premise in Wake County with the magnet program is to create diversity in the inner city, and so having those extra choices and things that make our school different is very important,” said Todd Miller, Moore Square’s strings teacher.

Moore Square students have three electives a day. Of the 650 students, 450 are taking an arts course during the first quarter of the new school year, according to Nicole Duncan, Moore Square’s dance teacher and arts department chairwoman.

“We’re the reason why students want to come to school because this is where they get to express themselves and really enjoy being at school,” said Frank Kreacic, Moore Square’s visual arts teacher.

Heath wants arts classes to reflect the demographics of their school’s enrollment. He praised Moore Square for how its art classes include both magnet students and students who live in the surrounding neighborhood.

“We’re able to meet the kids where they’re at regardless of their background, their race, how they identify,” Duncan said. “In the arts we’re able to meet the kids exactly where we are.”

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Eighth grader Keetyn Weeks during dance class at Moore Square Magnet Middle School in Raleigh, NC on July 30, 2019. Bryan Cereijo

Arts at non-magnet schools

Students in non-Wake magnet schools may take as few as one elective a day, At some schools, the elective is used to help students get caught up academically.

School officials say they’re looking at addressing the scheduling challenge in different ways:

Schools are being asked to allow students, once they’re caught up academically, to take a regular elective.

Schools are looking at their scheduling to see if they can do the remediation during the “core class” where the subject is taught instead of during elective time.

Heath says he’s also asking middle schools to have sixth-grade students sample all the arts offerings and wait until seventh grade to specialize.

Another area, Heath said, is to expand the number of arts courses offered at middle schools. For instance, Heath said Wakefield Middle School in Raleigh will offer dance this fall.

But some Wake middle schools are facing cuts, such as how Davis Drive Middle School in Cary may lose its orchestra program. Heath said the loss of 180 students this year is reducing the funding being provided, forcing Davis Drive to make tough choices.

Heath said he’s working with Davis Drive to try to save orchestra. But if it’s not possible, Heath said he’s asked the N.C. Symphony to make Davis Drive one of the schools it focuses on this fall.

During the review of the arts program, Cash, the board member, asked if administrators were worried about orchestra being offered at non-magnet schools.

Eric Fitts, Wake’s senior director for middle school programs, answered no. He said the district is providing a balance between what’s offered at magnet and non-magnet schools. He said the offerings may be more robust at magnet schools.

“You have more opportunities for classes in those magnet schools,” Fitts said. “In your newer schools you may not have as many opportunities in the arts yet there are still arts classes there.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.