Superintendent: Performing Arts School Could Be First of Several ‘Design Schools’

Loudoun School Superintendent Eric Williams pulled back the curtain on his idea for an elementary performing arts school Tuesday.

He and Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Ashley Ellis told the School Board the specialty school would engage students in project-based learning through the lens of music, dance, voice and theater. The arts program would teach what Williams calls the “five Cs”—critical thinking, creating, communicating, collaborating and contributing—and incorporate art into all subject areas.

To start the program at a yet-to-be-selected elementary school, Williams is requesting $100,000 to pay for one performing arts teacher and some teaching materials. It is one line item on the $1.284 billion operating budget the superintendent is recommending for fiscal year 2020, but the one that was the focus of much of the discussion during the board’s first budget work session Tuesday.

Williams explained that the elementary performing arts school would be the introduction of what he envisions as eventually multiple specialty schools, which he called “design schools.”

“The design school concept allows schools to focus on deeper learning through a particular lens. Examples might include STEM, computer science, performing arts, leadership,” he said.

About half the board members told Williams they had strong reservations about the design school concept.

Debbie Rose (Algonkian), the most vehemently opposed to the idea, said the school system should first focus on successfully rolling out project-based learning and personalized learning models. “Are we doing the initiatives that we’ve already introduced well? And are we to the point where we’re doing it well enough to introduce something else?” Rose asked after Williams presented his budget last week. She added to her comments Tuesday saying, “This is not a need…This is a nice-to-have.”

Rose and Eric Hornberger (Ashburn) said staff should have introduced this concept at the committee level outside of the budget discussion. And, Hornberger noted, the 457-page budget packet drafted by Williams includes very little about the rationale behind the “design school” concept.

“The idea of a design school gives me pause,” Hornberger added.

“If we were going to implement anything, I’d rather see a foreign language immersion,” Beth Huck (At Large) said.

But four board members voiced support for the idea. Brenda Sheridan (Sterling) said that transforming one of the schools with a high number of students from low-income families could help change the stigma of that school.

“And make it something special,” Sheridan said. “Some in those schools feel the focus is always on the [English Language Learner] students and less affluent students, so providing something that all students could be a part of could garner a different perspective—everybody can enjoy music and the fine arts.”

“That was the slide I was most excited about because not every kid is a STEM kid,” Chris Croll (Catoctin) added. Referring to Loudoun’s three computer science immersion schools, she said, “a lot of them are not going to be jazzed about doing computer science every day…It’s a diversity component.”

Joy Maloney (Broad Run), who works as a programmer, said there’s a need for more creative employees in every field, including in the tech industry. “All these kids come out with STEM backgrounds and they’re asked to create and instead they’re very much into ‘I can follow this instruction.’ So I think adding the arts at any level is a good idea.”

Tom Marshall (Leesburg) agreed. “These immersion schools are very popular. People love it.”

Williams and Ellis agreed to provide more detail on what a performing arts school might look like, especially at a school in a less-affluent neighborhood, ahead of the board adopting its budget Feb. 5.

The School Board will continue working through the superintendent’s recommended spending plan over the next four weeks. In addition to several work sessions, the School Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 24, at the school administration building, 21000 Education Court in Ashburn. The board is scheduled to present its adopted budget to the Board of Supervisors as a formal funding request Feb. 11.

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