Trying a new approach to the arts

Students from Sue Scarborough's class at Enloe High School prepare their one-act plays Friday afternoon for the fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 2000.
Students from Sue Scarborough's class at Enloe High School prepare their one-act plays Friday afternoon for the fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 2000. Mel Nathanson

The Wake County school board should move ahead with plans for a new high school near downtown Raleigh that would focus on the visual and performing arts. It’s an attempt at something new, and it’s worth a try.

The school would be a “small format” high school with 1,000 to 1,500 students, with no athletic fields. The school would be a magnet addition, and in addition to teaching the visual and performing arts, it also would offer some education on marketing and the skills needed to lead an arts organization.

Wake school leaders are, as are many other public school officials, looking at imaginative options these days that will help them compete for certain students interested in a specialty with private schools and charter schools. That’s no small effort. Some 27,000 students in Wake high schools take arts classes.

Ideally, of course, all schools could offer intense arts programs all the way from middle school through high school. Yes, that’s how it should be.

But the reality is, with budget limitations and, in North Carolina, inadequate support from the General Assembly, there have been too many cuts to budgets that have resulted in fewer arts and music programs. This has caused much consternation among parents, though state lawmakers don’t seem to care. (They may, come this year’s elections.)

Now Bill Fletcher, a good and veteran school board member, raises a legitimate question as to whether, given cuts in arts programs, the county can sustain a school focused on the arts. Fair enough – but using the “Field of Dreams” analogy of “if you build it, they will come,” the county ought to be doing all it can to offer arts and music programs.

And if the county really is going to compete with the private schools and charters, some of which invest heavily in the arts, then it’s going to have to do some imaginative things with investments in curricula and the like. This school can be one of those things.

It’s not as if the county, which had a lower-than-expected enrollment increase this year, is going to be hurting for students in the future. Projections are that over the next 10 years, there will be a 16.5 percent increase in the number of high school students.

Arts-focused high schools are not unheard of, and they recognize that some students are interested in the arts as a career early on in their educational journeys. Giving those students a chance, and becoming known as a system that gives them a chance, can be a very good thing for Wake County.

As to the threat to the arts programs at other high schools (Raleigh’s Enloe has a strong program) there is no reason why other high schools cannot maintain arts and music programs of their own, perhaps even working cooperatively with the arts-focused high school.

The point should be that schools are not one-size-fits-all, and Wake has a good school board that recognizes that. And in the current educational climate, school boards need to be willing to experiment a little, to seek out new ways to expand curricula and to draw more students. This seems a perfectly reasonable way to do that.

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