Cobb County is home to more than 40 high schools, both public and independent, and serves more than 40,000 students in ninth through 12th grades. Faculty and staff in these schools place a high value on the education of their students and are extremely devoted to making sure each student is given the opportunity to excel, expanding far beyond the core curriculum classrooms.
Each school offers extensive fine arts programs to its students, allowing them exposure to a variety of learning opportunities and courses they otherwise would not have. These classes include band, orchestra, chorus and visual arts; some schools even offer dramatic arts and dance programs to its students. Several of these opportunities lead to the groups traveling for competitions and performances—often with award-winning results.
As budget cuts in schools continue to plague the nation, though, the fine arts programs are often the first to feel the pain. Because these programs are not a part of the core curriculum and not considered to be “essential” or “necessary” to a student’s development or for the requirement of completing a high school diploma, they are first to be considered in the subtraction of allocated funds. However, due to a combination of faculty member devotion and the students’ desire to continue their fine arts education, these programs manage to stay afloat—and with impressive facilities and technologies.
Fine Arts in Cobb’s Public Schools
Mark Hoskins, band director at Wheeler High School in east Cobb, explains that in order to afford the various trips and competitions their band program attends, the students and their parents contribute much of their time and effort. “Our booster organization is very, very active,” Hoskins says. “We have a pretty comprehensive band program—just in band alone we have a marching band, three class bands and a jazz ensemble. Our boosters pretty much cover all of those.”
Hoskins also says band students at Wheeler sell Papa John’s pizza at various events at the Georgia Dome, have an annual fruit sale and participate in an electronics salvage fundraiser to help earn money for their budget. Through these fundraising events, Wheeler has been able to travel to several states, including Tennessee, California, Illinois and New York, and in March the marching band performed in a Walt Disney World Parade in Orlando.
Nathan Autry, Sprayberry High School’s fine arts department chair and choral director, says that much of his program’s funding for the fine arts comes from booster clubs and student fundraising. Autry adds that Sprayberry, also located in east Cobb, was very fortunate to have been able to fund the renovation of its main theater through an education special purpose local option sales tax, or ESPLOST. This renovation consisted of a new stage, seats, lighting and sound equipment. Autry says it was completely renovated inside.
Sprayberry is also home to a new fine arts building, which was completed three years ago. “The new wing is a state-of-the-art facility with brand new rehearsal rooms, a technology lab for music and music production, a black box theater, lighting grid and state-of-the-art sound,” Autry says. Sprayberry offers full programs in chorus, band, orchestra and visual arts. The school also offers courses in drama, guitar, music technology, music appreciation and music theory.
Fine Arts in Cobb’s Independent Schools
While public schools are able to have booster clubs and fundraise for their various programs, independent schools are required to stick to a fixed budget given to them. There are, however, exceptions to the rule when donors come into play.
Cary Brague, director of Arts at Mount Paran Christian School in Kennesaw, says the school has been very blessed with a tremendous facility in the Murray Arts Center, which was the result of a matched donation by both the Murray family and an anonymous foundation, amounting to $20 million total. “The entire building is a professional grade facility for performance,” Brague says. “It is a three-story building. The first floor has all of the educational facilities for band, orchestra and chorus, and the second floor is where the black box theater and three dance studios are located, as well as the Kristi Lynn Theater. The third floor holds the administration offices and a recording studio.”
Brague says the facility is often rented out to music artists for shows, and the recording studio has been used by big names in the entertainment industry. “We can’t stop imagining how many things we can do in this facility,” she adds.
Leigh Ann Geter, marketing and communications coordinator at North Cobb Christian School, which is also located in Kennesaw, says they offer a specialized arts program to their students with the Academy of the Arts Program for ninth through 12th graders. Those who enroll in the program have the opportunity to audition for a spot in the academy, and after auditions can move on to complete academic core classes with intensive training in their chosen art field. This program allows for students to expand on their talents and experience training in a program uniquely designed for them to excel in their chosen art.
“Arts in high school engage and challenge students in a way that no other discipline can,” Geter says. “Students are encouraged and connected with their peers and professors on a level not possible in other disciplines. The oratory nature of the classroom lecture gives way to a cooperative, dynamic collaboration that empowers students to lead, perform and embrace their individuality. In short, the arts foster success and display nothing less.”
The courses of study in this program include three tracks: visual arts, vocal arts and theater arts. Each track has several options for the students to choose from to further their fine arts education and prepare them for the courses they will encounter if they choose to continue in college.
Stacy Quiros, fine arts director at south Cobb area Whitefield Academy, says the philosophy and focus of the education of students attending Whitefield is somewhat different from the typical independent school. “We are a Christ-centered school. [We believe] there is biblical intervention in everything,” Quiros says. “Every child, every human is a creative work of God, and He has blessed every one of us with a creative gift. Our goal is to return that creativity back to God.” Students at Whitefield frequently go into the community to spread their creativity and talents with others, Quiros explains. “Sometimes we hang artwork at the library or hospital, or the band or orchestra will visit a nursing home and play music for them. Our goal is to love others and serve others with our God-given creativity.”
Practice, Progress, Results
Despite the obstacles sometimes posed with budget cuts in the educational system, what creates that drive and determination for students and teachers to continue is knowing that their practice will turn to progress. This is made possible by the encouragement given to each individual student by not just their parents, but also by teachers and peers at school. “I believe [encouraging students] is extremely important,” Autry says. He also says among the entire fine arts department, there are nearly 900 of Sprayberry’s 1,800 enrolled who participate in the various programs offered. “[Being involved with fine arts] helps build friendships and leaderships,” he says. “It gives students opportunities to be leaders not just in their class, but in the whole program.”
Brague says he believes the encouragement of students at a high school level is crucial because without it, students miss the opportunity to become creative thinkers. “The arts help students learn habits of creative thinking; the skills they learn transfer to how a student thinks in an academic setting,” he says. “My role as an arts educator is not just to try to create the next superstar performer but to create educated consumers of the arts and to grow and cultivate better thinkers in our country.”
While other districts may be struggling with maintaining quality arts programs, the halls of Cobb’s public and private high schools are alive with the sound of music and seemingly will be for years to come.