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Hedgepeth/Williams Middle School for the Arts, Trenton

Adrienne R. Hill, Principal, shares a story of change in Trenton.

In the Spring of 2016, the staff at Hedgepeth/Williams MS set out to change the school’s climate & culture by integrating the arts into their daily practices.

With the help of a newly formed Creative Leadership Team, we decided that we would:

  • Write a Board of Education resolution to change the school’s name to Hedgepeth/Williams MS of the Arts. It was approved.
  • Connect with community arts partners who could support the vision of becoming a school that utilized the arts to turn around student/staff/community thinking from what our school had been to what it “could be and would be…”
  • Ascertain student and staff levels of creative juice. Once we determined how parched or thirsty everyone seemed to be, we set out to fill their cups with as many arts experiences and exposure as we could find (and afford). (i.e. museums, performances, a guest artist series, nontraditional teacher PD, a first annual art exhibition, Dance Night…)
  • Seek out “interested” teachers to allow some true arts integration lesson creation and implementation to spill over into their daily practices and classrooms.
  • Soak up all available arts opportunities that supported our mission. (i.e. Title funding, Young Audiences NJ grants, BucksAir, McCarter Theatre and the MET Opera Guild partnerships…)

Impact on Schools
Right away, we noticed drastic changes to…

  • Student (and staff) attendance—We experienced notable reduction in our chronically absent students—cited in the new ESSA plan for our work.
  • Student engagement
    • in school
    • in learning
    • in activities
    • in arts clubs
  • A severe decrease in student discipline referrals
  • An increase in smiles, hugs and laughter for all stakeholders
  • Increased parent engagement

Special Insights

  1. The process strengthened what I already knew and believed–The arts can save lives; connect individuals; reignite teachers; cross all language barriers and restore hope.
  2. Teachers NEED to be a part of the creative process! Everyone must have and be encouraged to use their voice!
  3. Arts Matter.

Extended Interview with Ms. Hill:

What motivates you to advocate for arts education?

I realize what the arts can do to support students’ development and attachment to school.  My motivation is increased when I am privileged to witness students participating in arts-centered activities who may have previously experienced academic, attendance, behavioral, social and/or emotional challenges and who have been transformed into successful students, citizens and problem solvers. There is nothing more beautiful than utilizing the arts as a vehicle for positive change.  I’ve seen the positive transformations in my students, staff and families. For these reasons, I will forever be an advocate for arts education—not as “special” subjects but as essential content curricula.

What results have you seen from a specific action taken in the last 12 months? 

In the past 12 months, we have increased student attendance and the reduction of chronically absent students.  We can attribute most of these improvements to the creation of an arts-rich environment in which all students are encouraged to participate and develop or enhance their creativity.  Students remarked that the school was a place where they wanted to be because they felt like if they missed a day, they were missing out on something special—and they were!  We made sure of that.  Pretty soon the word got around that we were a place of opportunity and we began to compile names on a waiting list for parents who wanted their children to attend our (now-full) neighborhood school.  Though we do not yet audition students to attend our school of the arts, we continue to receive in advance requests for students across the city to join our creative community.

What strategy did you take with the Board of Education? How did you prepare? How did they respond?

In the Spring of 2016, we wrote a resolution to the Board of Education requesting permission to become a designated school of the arts for the 16-17 SY.  Prior to making this request, we surveyed parents, students and staff to glean their ideas about how an arts school might impact academics, behavior and attendance at the school.  The overwhelming response was that the arts had high value in the education of the students and that most stakeholders believed that the arts could/would make a difference in the success rates of our students.  Once we presented our data to the Board of education along with evidence of the arts work we had already begun, they were in full support of our efforts to reawaken a once-thriving focus in our historic school.  In September 2016, we opened our doors for the first time as Hedgepeth/Williams Middle School of the Arts.

Please describe how the vision for your arts program will result in continued advocacy, regardless of setbacks or challenges that may arise.

The vision for our school is that every child and each teacher will build the creative confidence to venture outside of their comfort zones to explore new ways of thinking and doing via the arts.  We will continue to advocate for the arts, with or without potential challenges, like funding.  The value of partnerships has been realized here with regular networking and program advocacy.  We have gotten creative with grant-writing and the continuous building of arts-strong relationships. Honestly, I do not operate from a lens of setbacks, but one of opportunities to meet challenges head on with creative problem-solving.  I practice what I preach by utilizing my own artistic views and habits to advance the arts mission, not only for Hedgepeth/Williams Middle School of the Arts, but also for continued arts advocacy across the district and state.

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