A parent’s look back at GCAA’s first year

About a year ago, my wife Anne and I attended a meeting at which a calmly enthused woman named Lynne Glickert stood in front of a group of fifteen curious families, waving her hands in the air in the process of describing a brand new art school she was trying to put together.  The name of this new public school was to be Grand Center Arts Academy, so-named because it would be located in Grand Center, the arts district of St. Louis.

Ms. Glickert formerly worked as a music teacher, but she was about to become the school’s first principal.  She stood before us and made quite a few promises.  The new school would start with only 6th and 7th grades; it would add the 8th grade in the fall of 2012 and it would continue to add one grade per year until it reached the 12th grade.  It would be a public charter school, meaning that those eligible to attend (including any resident of the City of St. Louis and residents of many of the St. Louis suburbs) would do so without paying any out-of-pocket tuition.

This new school would focus heavily on the arts, including theater, dance, music and visual arts.  It would attract a lot of good students who were serious about the arts, she said.  The school would have a dedicated staff of teachers who she was still in the process of hiring, she said.  It would someday have a building of its own, she claimed, though the school would initially be housed in the classrooms of a nearby Baptist Church.  She urged that the arts would be taught by high quality professionals who would welcome children who had no formal training in the arts, as well as students who did have a head start.  She urged that this school wouldn’t merely teach the arts, but that the core curriculum (Communications Arts, Social

Theater teacher Eric Conners

Studies, Math and Science) would be extremely important as well. Ms. Glickert urged that in addition to everything else she promised, this school would cultivate a direction for the art produced by its students; this would also be a school that maintained a focus on social justice. She reassured the parents that this charter-school-to-be would be sponsored by St. Louis University, located right around the corner, and that this university had a long history of academic excellence, as well as a demonstrable track record of supporting neighborhood revitalization in the City of St. Louis.

But back to the art. The notable thing about this school, Ms. Glickert said, is that the students would receive at least two hours of intense art each and every day.  Ms. Glickert then introduced a quiet-spoken man named Dan Rubright, an accomplished musician and composer, who indicated that he would be involved in cultivating innovative partnerships with many St. Louis area arts organizations, including the St. Louis Symphony, Craft Alliance, the Contemporary Art Museum, among many other vibrant arts organizations.

Many of the parents nodded and wanted to believe Lynne and Dan, but they were not willing to buy into the hand-waving and the architectural sketches of what this public school would someday look like.  In response, GCAA doubled down and opened its doors extremely wide, managing to attract enough sixth and seventh-graders to make it all official; the school would open.  By August, 2010, it became apparent that many of those students would be residents of the City of St. Louis (where my family lives), though many others would come from dozens of surrounding municipalities. Many schools like to tout their alleged diversity, but GCAA turned out to be thoroughly diverse, racially, economically and culturally. It was a bird with many colors of feathers.

There have been many ups and downs through the year, most of those pains associated with a smallish staff trying to run a brand new school where most of the students, teachers and parents had never before met each other.  One appreciates the importance of knitting the social fabric when one becomes part of a project like this.  During an extended orientation week in August, many of the students shared that they had come from low-performing schools. Thus, another challenge was acclimating these students to a rigorous arts curriculum, as well as to “core” classes where they would be

Fast forward nine months to the present.  Tomorrow, Grand Center Arts Academy will have its final day of school for 2010-2011.  And just like Lynne Glickert promised, GCAA will be adding an 8th grade in three months.  At 2 pm tomorrow, the doors will open and the sidewalks will be filled with 200 students who are each a year wiser and a year more artistic.   Ms. Glickert and her dedicated staff managed to fill their temporary building with energetic and curious students, many of whom are excellent all-round students.  It is also now apparent that GCAA successfully filled its classrooms with dedicated teachers who came to GCAA because they wanted to teach at this particular school.

Those arts organization partnerships Dan Rubright promised actually  materialized, and they have included visits to museums and galleries (including Craft Alliance) as well as visits by numerous artists, the likes of jazz musicians Jeremy Davenport and Peter Martin, and Disney animator Marlon West, and a 3-month off-site video-production class at PBS station KETC.

The administrators (including Lynne Glickert and Dan Rubright) have been stretched thin over the year; they have been wearing many different hats at the fledgling school.  As the year went by, though, dozens of parents emerged to help in a wide variety of ways.  More help is on the way for 2012 with new administrative help, new teachers, and that new crop of 6th graders.  They will all be greeted at the door of their extraordinary rehabbed building–their new permanent home– by Security Officer Fred Bachman, a former police-officer for 30 years (and grandfather) who came out of retirement to provide security for these artsy 11 and 12 year olds.  Until the past

Fred Bachman

few months, I didn’t realize that unassuming “Fred” was playing such a key role as Unofficial Ambassador to the school.  What else can you call it when the “security officer” knows every child by name, knows where they live, knows the ways in which they excel, knows their struggles, knows their parents, and provides endless encouragement to these kids? Of course, there are official school counselors and specialists too.

And there are excellent art teachers. Next year, all of the new students will get to meet music teacher Drew Cowell, who absolutely insists that every person he meets has the ability to join in and create impressive music.   Next year, the students will have the opportunity to study symphonic stringed instruments as well as voice, guitar, keyboard and percussion.  And they will meet and be impressed with Drama teacher Eric Conners, who has these students looking very Shakespearean in short order.  They will work hard to learn to dance and draw and write prose and poetry in their efforts to create and appreciate beauty.

The above video features the First Annual “Arts Infusion” that occurred last weekend. Some of these videos were shot on less than ideal equipment (by my daughter, JuJu Vieth), but you will be able to see and hear the creative energy come through.  At the “Arts Infusion,” most of the students participated in a wide variety of performances and/or displayed their visual art projects.  ”Arts Infusion” was both a fund-raiser and a celebration of what was and what is yet to come at Grand Center Arts Academy. What is important to know is that the video excerpts feature children who have now found a home in an intensely-taught arts-rich environment.

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Over the past nine months those families who took the plunge have witnessed several hundred strangers morphing into a robust and mutually-nurturing educational community.  It has become a place where the students are learning to find their way in life by making constant use of the arts, which will prepare them to be arts-loving adults who will tend to set their priorities accordingly.  It is a place where diversity is not merely a word.  I’m truly excited that my daughter and my family are part of a highly promising public school, and it’s been a real educational experience for me to see, first-hand, the many challenges and successes to putting together a new school just down the street from Powell Hall, home of the St. Louis Symphony.

Erich Vieth
Father of Almost 7th Grader JuJu Vieth
erichvieth@gmail.com

[Addendum of Sept 10, 2012]  See also, the “Short Video History of GCAA.”