A student parks in a corner of a hallway, practicing a cello suite. Down the stairwell, two others run lines from a one-act play a third wrote. One floor below, dancers are defying gravity to the backdrop of the hammering of sets being built. Outside, a football stadium serves as a location for shooting a music video. This activity goes on from first thing in the morning into late afternoon and beyond in a beehive that’s been buzzing along for 25 years.
The Dekalb School of the Arts might be Georgia public education’s best-kept secret. Though the magnet, located in Avondale Estates just outside Atlanta and part of the Dekalb County system, has thrived in the national arts eye, it’s often fallen below the local radar.
Which is saying something for a school that’s been reaping plaudits and turning out superior talent over two decades. Most recently, it ranked 256th on Newsweek’s list of the top 500 high schools in the nation. Last year, it was named as a U.S. Department of Education Blue Ribbon School. Awards to students (such as those from the Bill Gates Foundation) and the school (such as the Grammy Foundation) have come virtually every year. Graduates like Donald Glover (NBC’s Community) have gone onto major roles in New York and LA.
Earning those kind of plaudits and producing those kinds of grads begins with an annual audition process that is open to eighth-graders from across the county. Applicants choose a “major” and a “minor”—one performance and one non-performance—drawn from entertainment industry essentials: Drama, Dance, Theatre Tech, Voice, Instrumental, Creative Writing, Art and Media.
Principal Susan McCauley says that the dual concentration is just one of a number of aspects that renders DSA unique among arts schools. Whereas in a conservatory, students concentrate on a single discipline, McCauley says, “We take a liberal arts approach. We want to offer our students broader opportunities.”
Once accepted, students are required to perform at above standard levels in their arts and in their academics.
“We don’t settle for minimums,” McCauley says, noting that the two-track success is driven along by the students’ enthusiasm “We have a student body that is engaged in education because they get to walk into a building and experience their passion everyday.”
Those passions are taken just as seriously at DSA as they are in a conservatory setting, and with just as much regard for discipline. As dance teacher Dean Williams explains, “We teach our students that success is based on learning technique. That makes for a professional performance. But there are wider life lessons here. Things go wrong in performances and we have to deal with them. Things go wrong in life and they have to deal with those things, too.”
Cale Golden, who heads the English department and teaches creative writing, came from a non-magnet and sees stark differences in the mindset.
“Learning here is the norm, not the exception,” he says. “Our students push themselves, and they encourage each other to learn, rather than having teachers nag them.” This kind of support is all the more important with students studying the arts in their precarious teen years. Golden relates the story of student in a talent show who fell down—literally fell down—as she was about to break into her song. “In just about any other school, she would have been ridiculed and she would have been devastated,” he says. “But the other students talked her back to her feet and through the song.”
All this and algebra too
As much as this all sounds like it’s taken from “Glee” or “Fame,” McCauley is quick to offer a reminder that DSA is first and foremost an academic institution, governed by the rules, strictures and demands of every other public school in the state.
Which means the challenges for non-arts faculty members are unique. Math teacher Eric Winchester sees eighth-graders who arrive on fire with passion for their art, but not necessarily the rigors of algebra.
“The academics are in some ways the opposite of what they’ve been pursuing,” he says.
“They’ve been leaning less toward the analytical and more toward the creative. They might not have high math abilities.” Winchester says while even high-performing students in the arts might struggle with math, science and social studies, “What they do have is a burning desire to stay here.”
That desire translates to a drive to succeed at all the academic subjects and has carried DSA students to the finest private and public colleges in the nation. McCauley says that the colleges are telling her that her staff is doing the right kind of academic preparation. In fact, more than 90 percent of DSA students arrive at a college or arts school or have jobs in a creative discipline directly or shortly after graduation.
Graduates like Cekoya Burch turned a stellar career at DSA into a burgeoning career in R&B and gospel. “What inspired me was the hands-on curriculum that included voice lessons, tech rehearsals, dance workshops and acting classes,” she says, “It motivated me and confirmed my desire to perform.”
Along with special events like Dark Night (a one-act play festival), the school presents dance concerts, recitals, talent shows and other productions. The headliners are two musicals, one in the fall and one in the spring and the entire student body gets involved. The Tech and Art departments do the staging and sets. The Music department learns the score. Drama, Dance and Voice bring actors, dancers and singers, and the Media department records it for posterity.
Though the musicals stand as DSA’s most high-profile moments, long hours or preparation go into them, just like in the real world. Still, McCauley says the students bring a joy to their art that makes what she does “the best job in the world.” “I can dance down the halls, too,” she says.
Shamus award-winning author David Fulmer (davidfulmer.com) is a proud DSA parent, with his daughter Italia recently enrolled there. His seventh and most recent novel, The Fall, was released this past March.