Dancing out of the ivory tower

image031Next year Harrisonburg High School will open a Fine Arts Academy, a school within a school for students who want to delve deeper into choral or instrumental music, art, drama, dance or creative writing. The academy will offer classes that will be interdisciplinary, collaborative and experiential.  Open to freshman and sophomore students, the academy is currently accepting applications for their first year. Those accepted will select one or two arts disciplines and plan their high school curriculum to accommodate classes that will cover history, culture and practice. During the senior year, students will tackle  a collaborative “capstone” project affirming their learning and putting it in a broader context. Classes will be taught by a team of teachers, all artists, and students in each discipline will experience not only their own art but that of their classmates.

If you’re a JMU person, that description should sound rather familiar. It’s a formula for learning that permeates the university from art to zoology, including everything in between like engineering, business and health sciences. As you might guess, the similarities aren’t coincidental; they’re deliberate. They reflect the input of many of the individuals who have helped plan the academy.

One of the great benefits of living in a “college” town, as is Harrisonburg, is the resource of people who are experts in their given fields. That is especially beneficial when their knowledge and experience is shared. Such is the result in Harrisonburg. Planning of the Fine Arts Academy, which is directed by J.R. Snow (’99,’08M), Harrisonburg’s fine arts coordinator and director of bands, has involved the university’s College of Visual and Performing Arts and the College of Education. Among those contributors to the process is Suzanne Miller Corso, professor of dance at JMU. The high school has never had a dance program before, so in planning this component of the academy, such expertise is essential. In a very real way, the venture represents a university dancing out of the ivory tower.

Suzanne is not alone. The team of teachers includes JMU alumni Bethany Houff (’01,’03M), Richard Morrell (’83) and Juann Brooks (’94,’05M). The board of the academy includes: Eric Ruple, professor of piano; George Sparks, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts; Phil Wishon, dean of the College of Education; Jon Gibson, professor of ethnomusicology; Kate Arrechi, professor of musical theater; and Mary Ann Alger, wife of President Jon Alger. And there are many more. But lest you think it’s all JMU, faculty members from Eastern Mennonite University are also involved, as is the Arts Council of the Valley. It is a community effort, centered around giving students the rich and life-changing opportunities that the arts afford.

Such a collaborative process, between a university and local school system, exemplifies the best of what a truly engaged university can and should be. It is change through shared knowledge, collaboration and a vision for what’s possible. We applaud JMU’s efforts and Harrisonburg’s new venture.

You can learn much more about Harrisonburg’s new Fine Arts Academy on YouTube.

And if you’re close to Harrisonburg, you can see a sample of Harrisonburg’s lauded theatre arts program next month when the high school stages their annual — and often sold-out — musical. This year’s performance is Thoroughly Modern Millie.

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