Atlanta School Gives All Kids A Chance In The Spotlight

Audio version of this story here.

If the quality of a song or painting is largely subjective, how does one know if a public arts high school is “working?”  WABE’s series on what works in Atlanta-area education turns to the DeKalb School of the Arts to try for an objective assessment.

Arts and Academics

To learn why a lot of people say the DeKalb School of the Arts is successful, it might help to listen to the school’s instrumentalists, actors, dancers and singers. This school sounds like a place where high-achieving students are the norm, but that success isn’t just artistic.

Principal Susan McCauley says the school’s graduation rate is almost perfect.

“Last year our group of 57 seniors, the class of 2015, garnered $8.3 million in scholarships,” she says.

And, these kids are as good at math and science as they are at song and dance. DeKalb School of the Arts is one of the top schools in the state, according to the College and Career Readiness Performance Index. U.S. News and World Reports ranks it the 108th best school in the country.

Recruitment Advantage

Granted, as a public magnet school, DeKalb School of the Arts has the advantage of attracting high achievers. Students need to audition and have good grades to get in, and studies show kids involved in the arts often do better at academics.

McCauley admits, during recruitment, some kids get left out.

“We know that there are students that we’re not able to reach in some of the lower socioeconomic areas,” she says. “Maybe just the families don’t have the background to be able to say, ‘Yes, arts is a viable thing for you to do.’”

DeKalb School of the Arts students stage the musical “In the Heights” by Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Credit Courtesy of the DeKalb School of the Arts


Opportunities for All

But, DeKalb School of the Arts does give arts opportunities to kids who couldn’t afford them otherwise. Nearly 30 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The district average is more than twice that, but DeKalb School of the Arts gives students, who struggle to buy a meal, often-expensive arts training.

Sally Gaskill says DeKalb School of the Arts does that even better than other arts schools because it has a feeder institution. She tracks arts education data as head of the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project based at the Indiana University School of Education.  She’s also on the board of the Arts Schools Network.

Most DeKalb School of the Arts students come from DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts.  It’s a lottery-based magnet school that gives kids free arts training from a young age.

Gaskill says: “It’s just like a sport. You need to start as early as possible to train to be a musician, a theater actor, a dancer, a choreographer, a designer, a visual artists, a media artist or a writer.”

Gaskill also says top colleges and universities prize applicants from schools like DeKalb School of the Arts.  They’re not just well-trained, she says; they’re also racially and economically diverse.

Research and Anecdotes

It’s hard to prove the arts cause this success for low-income kids, but a report the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts commissioned shows arts learning is at least associated with academic outcomes. It suggests the arts might help students be more disciplined and improve cognitive development.

DeKalb School of the Arts seniors Imani DuhéKalen Robinson and Nathanael Smith don’t need research to tell them they’re lucky to spend half their time on the arts. They all say, if they didn’t go to a public school where they could get this kind of access to the arts for free, their families likely could not afford to give them such access privately.

“I don’t think so, not really, because a lot of private schools are very expensive, so it’s easier to be able to be able to manage money here,” Smith said.

Because of school training, Duhé got into the prestigious Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Talent Development Program. She gets to study trumpet with an orchestra member for free.

Robinson just won a scholarship and prized performance spot from the Georgia Thespian Conference.

As for Smith, he doesn’t just play piano; he can also create his own improvisations.

For these seniors, DeKalb School of the Arts “works” because it has given them access to future opportunities in the arts.


This story is part of American Graduate, Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.