Making the Grade: Arts find a new focus with professional pairings

“Artfully Yours”

The Weber School’s celebration of music, dance, drama, literary and visual arts runs April 26-28. Tickets for the musical performances are $18; free for students 18 and younger. The April 28 showcases are free, but reservations are recommended. Information: 404-917-2500;

When school budgets and schedules get tight, it’s not unusual for music, dance, art and other creative classes beyond the core to be cut. But despite the challenge of keeping those offerings in the curriculum, the Weber School in Sandy Springs has rededicated itself to making the arts a critical part of the educational lineup.

Over the school term, the 18-year-old Jewish school has embarked on a number of initiatives to expand arts studies to its 230 students in grades 9 through 12. Rabbi Edward Harwitz, who has led the school for the last year, believes a strong arts program links to the educational and historic mission of the school.

“In addition to the study of traditional Jewish texts and literature, it’s essential to have a full program with arts, athletics and music,” said Harwitz. “We’d be failing a core aspect of Jewish traditional education if we did not. To be a great 21st Century school, we have to be sure that students engage with the arts and discover a voice, a new form of expression, whether it be in visual or performing arts. Whether they do or do not go on to work in the arts, the exposure will inform their lives. It’s one of the real tragedies of modern education in the age of austerity that schools and districts have chosen to cut out the arts, and I’m fearful of a society that is artistically illiterate.”

To develop that artistic literacy, the Weber staff reached out to leaders in the arts community and invited them to partner with the school. “We made a very deliberate investment that starts with educational leadership,” said Harwitz. “There’s a level of professionalism and quality when you partner with these organizations.”

One of the first arts groups the school connected with was True Colors, the theater created by Atlanta’s artistic celebrity, Kenny Leon. Hilda Willis, the theater’s director and educational consultant, agreed to be Weber’s performing arts director-in-residence. One of the first initiatives she created was getting students involved in the August Wilson monologue competition, an annual event that offers high school students scholarships and the chance to perform in New York. In January, Weber teachers incorporated monologues into the 10th grade English curriculum, and as a result, 15 students participated in the competition; two made it to the semifinals.

Willis has also worked with Amber Singleton, Weber’s director of fine and performing arts, to increase the school’s arts offerings in partnership with more professionals in residence.

“We started in the visual arts and expanded our music program, and we’ll be adding more classes next year,” said Singleton, who is a visual artist. “As professional artists, my fellow faculty members believe we provide guidance and mentorship for students to learn that the arts are as important as any other subject. We want these kids to see that we’re passionate so they can be passionate about their own self-expression, and that they can have the same successful arts career, if they choose to.”

Before the arts programs expanded, Singleton said about 40 students were working in music, drama and arts courses. “Now we teach around 75,” she said. “And about half the school is now involved in ‘Artfully Yours,’ our art-a-thon that will have an original ensemble work designed by students and a gallery walk to view what they’re doing in the visual arts.”

The arts event will also give the public the chance to explore the school’s arts programs by watching a dance class, listening to poetry readings, hearing a choral recital and observing students working in the ceramics studio.

“It’s a chance for students to show what they’ve accomplished and the talents they’ve developed,” said Singleton. “But the most important thing is that it gives them a chance to develop a life-long relationship with the arts.”