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Two ACAA students dance the day away at a school performance.
Two ACAA students dance the day away at a school performance.

Arizona charter school immerses students in arts education

Posted On: 2017-05-02 01:09 PM
From AZCentral.com...


By Amy Rolph, for Edkey Inc.

Imagine a school where bullying is practically extinct, fine musical instruments are a dime a dozen, and kids use the arts to communicate their feelings. For teacher Adam Berger, this progressive educational ideal is a reality. A resident teacher at the Arizona Conservatory for Arts and Academics for 14 years, Berger said he rarely needs to worry about any of students being bullied and it may have something to do with the excess of guitars and dance studios on campus.

ACAA, a K-12 charter school in Phoenix, is simply different from the average high school. The Conservatory allows students to study piano, band, orchestra, voice, guitar, theater, dance and visual arts, all while also taking traditional classes such as math, science, social studies and foreign languages. There are 28 electric pianos in the 6-12th-grade secondary school, for starters — not to mention two dance studios. Students enroll in the school to get an immersive arts education, but Berger said they end up with even more: They find a second home and a supportive community.

"I think I'm proudest of the culture we've created here," Berger said. "It's very clear that the culture of our school socially is nothing like your typical high school. It's so accepting." The vast majority of the middle and high school students he teaches just don't have a bullying bone in their body, he said.

"When I think of ACAA, I think about a place where the students have a home, where everyone is accepted," he said. "Students who were bullied before might be the student with the most attention here. We're a really terrific alternative for students who want a smaller environment."

Holly Foged, principal of ACAA's secondary school, said the school's culture is partly the result of emphasizing the importance of thoughtful discourse — and partly the result of having a group of students who are passionate about what they're doing.

"It just really came over time," she said. "Students have taken ownership of their school and what they want — and they want the best."

Opportunities for all students

The charter school is one of 18 Sequoia Schools run by the Arizona-based non-profit Edkey, Inc. Since the school is funded by public tax dollars, it gives artistically-inclined students a chance to study the arts in a way that might be prohibitively expensive otherwise, Foged explained.

Students studying piano, for example, have an hour of instruction daily — something that would cost thousands of dollars with private instructors.

"You have students which are naturally artistic but unfortunately don't always have the means to take lessons or to do things like that," Foged said.

"This is a gift that we're giving these kids, to be able to come to school and dance every single day," said Berger, who teaches musical theater and music theory in addition to being the school's arts director.

The school has an open-enrollment policy, meaning auditions aren't necessary. Students are placed into levels according to their ability, and they're free to mix and match any of the school's artistic concentrations.

A stimulating curriculum

Academic rigor is also a major goal of ACAA, which includes an elementary school housed across the street from the secondary school. Five out of seven of a high school freshman's daily classes are academic, and two are arts-based.

Ultimately, Foged said she wants each of her school's 425 students to be inspired to continue their education at community colleges or universities. That's one reason the school holds classes just four days a week; Fridays are reserved for one-on-one academic tutoring for struggling students, extra rehearsals and occasional faculty strategy sessions.

Berger said the school's teachers place a big emphasis on individualized learning, which lets him get to know each one of his students.

"It's not possible to teach the arts and not know the students," he said. "When you're doing the arts, you have to know them — there's no possible way to get through an hour with twenty-five kids and not know what they're good at and what they bring to the table."

Berger emphasized that providing arts education to young people is an important responsibility that shouldn't be underestimated.

"It's something that is in everybody's core — they want to have it in their world," he said. "To offer a place where we put it front and center, it says that we acknowledge that there's a large portion of our population that inherently understands that this is important."

Find out more about how your child's education could thrive at Arizona Conservatory For Arts And Academics.

Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA TODAY Network were not involved in the creation of this content.



Photos: Two ACAA students dance the day away at a school performance.