BY JANICE LEWINE
Arts education is essential for student success. Nationwide studies show that exposure to the arts not only supports development of cognitive, social-emotional and multisensory skills, but also improves academic outcomes and graduation rates, and enriches cultural understanding. Communicating through artistic expression also enables young people to empathize with others, improves greater social tolerance and increases civic engagement.
Arts courses also teach valuable life and job skills, says Freddie Heath, director of arts education at Wake County Public School System. “In an arts class, you learn to create, communicate, collaborate and take critique. Those are skills people need in their careers, regardless of what their jobs are.”
In July 2020, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law Senate Bill 681, which went into effect this past fall and requires that students (beginning with those starting sixth grade this school year) complete one arts credit between grades 6 and 12 in order to graduate from high school.
The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction provides support for public school teachers regarding a multifaceted “Comprehensive Arts Education” approach to arts education. This framework includes arts education, instruction of an arts discipline according to the Standard Course of Study to develop the student as an artist; arts integration, instruction designed to show students how non-arts content connects to arts content in both areas; and arts exposure, which gives students the opportunity to experience the arts as presented by professionals on a stage, in a gallery, or as a teaching artist in residence.
While arts programs across the nation often fall victim to budget cuts, public school districts in the Triangle—such as Chapel Hill–Carrboro City Schools, Chatham County Schools, Orange County Schools, Durham Public Schools and Wake County Public School System—offer a healthy variety of courses in music, visual arts, theater arts and dance that are supported by local funding.
Here’s how these five school districts implement arts teaching, partner with community organizations and showcase student works.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools
Chapel Hill–Carrboro City Schools’ 12,000 students are spread among 11 elementary schools, four middle schools, three high schools, a school for young people being treated at UNC Hospital and an alternative high school. Music and visual arts are offered to all elementary students. Classes are taught by specialists who are licensed in the content area, and all teachers have dedicated classrooms.
Each elementary school offers a variety of clubs and special interests groups based on teacher and student interest. Some of these include art clubs, chorus, guitar club, steel drum club, drumming ensemble, musical theater, and Orff ensemble, which is named after Carl Orff. Orff developed this approach to music education in the 1920s as a way to combine music, speech, movement and drama into music lessons that are similar to how a child plays naturally.
All middle and high schools offer sequential, standards-based instruction in band, orchestra, chorus, theater and visual arts. Each school boasts a wide variety of co-curricular opportunities, such as community performances, field trips and traveling trips, and extracurricular opportunities allow students who are not enrolled in arts courses to take part. The district provides performance opportunities throughout the year for its students and regularly displays student artwork, with all schools contributing to the district-wide Visions Art Show each year.
Chatham County Schools
Chatham County Schools expose students to visual arts, music, band, theater and dance. Several of the district’s arts programs have earned state and national recognition. The arts program at Northwood High School in Pittsboro has been honored three times with the Kennedy Center School of Excellence Award. In Siler City, students from Jordan-Matthews High School have been honored as Triangle Rising Stars in the regional competition that brings together high school musical theater students from central and eastern North Carolina.
The district’s newest school, Seaforth High School in Pittsboro, opened in fall 2021 and offers marching band, dance (including honors choreography and honors ensemble) and theater arts. During its first operational year, Seaforth High School students presented the musical “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Orange County Schools
“An arts education makes a person very well-rounded,” says Shannon Braxton, director of cultural arts and career and technical education at Orange County Schools. “We have arts education in every grade level because we value the arts and the whole child.”
OCS, a smaller district with 7,356 students, provides children in its seven elementary schools a formal arts education in music and visual arts. The school system’s three middle schools offer visual arts, band and vocal music; and the two high schools also offer theater classes.
“For the last few years, we have hosted the regional MPAs for band and chorus,” Braxton says, referring to the Music Performance Assessment competitive events hosted by the district for high schools to compete in. Discovering the joys of a live music performance starts early, with fourth graders traveling to Raleigh to watch the North Carolina Symphony perform as part of its educational outreach program.
Visual arts are also highly regarded. Each school has a kiln so students can explore ceramics and pottery. Both the Margaret Lane Gallery in Hillsborough and the Hillsborough Arts Council—which provides artists in residence at four OCS elementary schools—feature student works in their galleries.
Theater students get in on the act as well, performing plays throughout the year at their schools. It’s not unusual to find them elsewhere in the community. “They’ve done mini performances at a downtown street corner and in a parking garage connected to Weaver Street Market,” Braxton says. “We’re allowing students to express themselves through the arts, and it’s important to support them.”
Durham Public Schools
“We approach the arts as a fundamental need for every student, and we understand how important the arts are to developing better humans,” says Jeremy Tucker, director of arts education for Durham Public Schools.
All PreK–fifth grade students explore music and visual arts. At the middle school level, students can take music and visual arts classes; some schools also offer dance and theater. “Every high school in Durham Public Schools has dance, theater, visual arts and music courses offered to their students,” he says. “We’re an urban school district, and we’re going to want our kids to have way more access to those opportunities in the public schools during the school day because they’re not going to have access to them outside of the school day.”
The district’s Growing Together initiative will advance arts education for students in PreK–fifth grade. “Part of the initiative is, by next year, every elementary school in Durham Public Schools will have a full-time music teacher and a full-time visual arts teacher, and they will have their own dedicated space at that school,” Tucker explains.
DPS partners with the Durham Arts Council to provide teaching artists for in-person residencies at every school. Students also enjoy stage productions as part of Carolina Theatre of Durham’s Arts Discovery Educational Series.
Throughout the year, students display their talents for the community, such as in Destination Dance, a performance show at the Durham Arts Council; the DPS Art Show, a monthlong display of visual art creations at The Streets at Southpoint in Durham; and in numerous band, orchestra and chorus performances.
Coinciding with Arts in Our Schools Month held annually in March, “An Evening to Shine,” which is funded by DPS and the Durham Public Schools Foundation, showcases 700 of the district’s K–12 choral and dance students at the Durham Performing Arts Center. “We value equity and accessibility, so we’re making sure every school has participants who are given the opportunity to perform on the DPAC stage,” Tucker says.
Wake County Public School System
Wake County Public School System is the largest public school system in North Carolina, with 158,412 students spread across 198 schools. Staffed by more than 625 visual and performing arts teachers, the district provides music and visual arts classes to all elementary students. Middle and high school students can pursue arts courses that focus on creativity, technical skill development and artistic appreciation. Magnet schools offer additional electives in dance, instrumental music (band and strings) and theater.
“Our arts programs are so vibrant,” Heath says. “We’re showcasing the kids’ work all over the district, all the time.” These include music performances and art displays at individual schools, and larger extravaganzas such as “Pieces of Gold,” which takes place annually during Arts in Our Schools Month and features more than 100 Wake County students, ranging from kindergarteners to high school seniors, delivering performances at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium that support the curriculum and entertain an audience.
“Gifts of Gold,” the visual component of “Pieces of Gold,” celebrates two- and three-dimensional artworks in the auditorium’s lobby. Both shows, now in their 30th and 40th years respectively, are a collaboration between the United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County, Raleigh Arts and WakeEd Partnership.
Across WCPSS, the value of an arts education is evident: A 2019 study conducted by the district showed that 95% of its seniors who took an arts class graduated from high school.
“We’re creating really good citizens and people who enjoy art. They’re able to go into other professions by taking the skills they learned in arts classes and transferring them over,” Heath says.
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