Harding Fine Arts Academy reaches academic achievement pinnacle in unexpected ways

Students enter the hallway as school lets out for the day at Harding Fine Arts Academy. (Mark Hancock)

Students enter the hallway as school lets out for the day at Harding Fine Arts Academy. (Mark Hancock)

Students and staff at Harding Fine Arts Academy recently received the National Blue Ribbon School designation for 2015 and was recognized as one of the top 500 high schools for low-income students in the U.S. on Newsweek.com’s Beating the Odds list.

The National Blue Ribbon Schools Program recognizes schools based on their academic excellence or progress in closing achievement gaps among students, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s website.

The student poverty levels and academic disadvantages they endure prior to attending the school have made winning this award even more unique.

Approximately 60 percent of the school’s student body are eligible for free and reduced lunches, which is determined by the poverty level of each student’s family, according to principal Barry Schmelzenbach. Schools at that level of poverty are not usually expected to receive such high academic awards.

“We have students coming to us from very high achieving middle schools, and we have students who are coming to us from schools that are struggling,” he said.

The school has managed to find the right combination of nurturing and provocation for students who come from a broad mix of races, economic classes and educational backgrounds.

When Oklahoma Gazette visited Harding recently, students expressed their love for the school and the strength of its students’ differences.

“I like the diversity more than anything else,” said Rianna Brooks, a senior. “We have people from different arts. We have different ethnicities, like black, white, everything. I can help them, and they can help me.”

Freshman Izzy Dillingham dances with new overhead sky lighting in a modern dance class. (Mark Hancock)

Freshman Izzy Dillingham dances with new overhead sky lighting in a modern dance class. (Mark Hancock)

Blue Ribbon

Just five public schools out of the 1,806 in Oklahoma won the Blue Ribbon School designation this year: Harding Fine Arts Academy in the Oklahoma City Public School District, Schwartz Elementary School in the Midwest City-Del City School District, Carnegie Elementary School, Flower Mound Elementary School and Tulsa School of Arts and Sciences in Tulsa.

Nationally, 285 public schools and 50 private institutions received the standing. There are 98,328 public schools in the U.S., according to the most recent count by the National Center for Education Statistics.

Harding ranked No. 112 on Newsweek.com’s Beating the Odds list.

The media organization has recognized the achievements of the best public high schools in the U.S. for college readiness for more than 10 years and has been ranking low-income schools in a separate list since 2014.

The company awarded Harding Fine Arts with a gold star, meaning the school “help[s] low-income students score at or above state average on state assessments.”

Harding Charter Preparatory High School, Norman High School, Newcastle High School and Boswell High School also made the list, and all except Boswell earned gold stars.

Engaged students

The engagement of the students at Harding Fine Arts is obvious, no matter the subject.

The piano class might seem disconcertingly quiet to first-time visitors. Gone are the acoustic pianos from the previous era, so the class no longer resonates with the sound of multiple practicing students.

The teacher, Michaela de Brugge, uses digital keyboards that allow students to hear their own playing through headphones. The instructor is also able to tune in at any time to listen to their practice without disturbing the rest of the class.

Dance student Izzy Dillingham said her favorite type of dance is contemporary, and she spends most of the afternoon in dance classes at Harding, only to go to private lessons later in the day.

Principal Barry Schmelzenbach with students at Harding Fine Arts Academy. (Mark Hancock)

Principal Barry Schmelzenbach with students at Harding Fine Arts Academy. (Mark Hancock)

Academics

Fine arts schools emphasize the arts as equally as academics, if not more so. However, Schmelzenbach said Harding offers more Advanced Placement courses than most high schools twice its size.

He said it is important for the school to push students in the arts to do well in their education because they need that academic rigor to do well in college.

Freshman English at Harding attempts to get students beyond the five-paragraph essay and into more metaphors and figurative language, teacher Anna Kinder said.

A spoken-word poet herself, Kinder encouraged student Rhea Brown-Bright to further develop her poetic talents last school year, which helped the 17-year-old become Oklahoma’s first Youth Poet Laureate (Life, “Wordless wordsmith,” Alissa Lindsey, Oklahoma Gazette, Jan. 28). Kinder is helping Brown-Bright edit her book of poetry.

Over the last six years, the institution has become a rallying point for students and faculty who care about each other and the skills and knowledge that they gain, which is how it earned its Blue Ribbon status.

Many of the students have strong feelings about the school.

“I love it,” Dillingham said. “I would like to stay here all day if I could.”

 

Print Headline: Blue standard, Harding Fine Arts Academy reaches the pinnacle of academic achievement by doing the unexpected.

Brett Dickerson

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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