Making the Grade: Arts school has high academic standards

Surviving high school can be difficult enough, given the pressure students now face to produce stellar grades, take part in extracurricular activities and commit to community service. As if that weren’t enough, the peer pressure to conform can be daunting.

Imagine a school where the academic standards are high and commitment level is stressed, but where being different is celebrated. That’s the climate at the DeKalb School of the Arts, where students audition for coveted spots on the Avondale Estates campus.

“Students go through an extensive application process, get recommendations from teachers, audition in two arts areas and then have interviews,” said Susan McCauley, who has been principal of the magnet school for 13 years. “It’s a very comprehensive process, but it means that we have intrinsically motivated students who want to be engaged in learning about and using their arts on a regular basis.”

Students are drawn to that freedom that allows them to be themselves. “We have an environment where students are applauded and lauded for being different,” said McCauley.

Though it has been in existence since the 1990s, the School of the Arts had various locations on other school grounds until four years ago, when it became the sole occupant of the former Avondale High. Having its own space gives the magnet an added cachet for students concentrating in visual arts, choral and instrumental music, creative writing, theater production, film, dance, drama and broadcast and film.

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“It’s great to have an independent school without distractions,” said McCauley. “While we do have large classes like many other schools - social studies might have 33, for instance - as the curriculum spreads out, we have many smaller classes as well. An AP statistics class might have 12. The difference is even in a class of 33, we have students who are all motivated and ready to learn.”

That motivation has been a factor in the school’s snagging the fourth place on the state’s list of top schools. It has also been hailed by U.S. News and World Report as one of the best in the country.

“We’re consistently ranked one of the best,” said McCauley. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of students taking AP and more rigorous math courses. Our SAT scores have gone up 64 points from 2013 to 2014. We have very supportive parents. And our graduates go onto college in just about any field.”

The school’s performance and reputation has attracted more students as well. In 2002, enrollment was at 190; this August, more than 400 students will arrive. Among them will be sophomore Elizabeth Howard, who lives in Stone Mountain and has a 30-minute drive to Avondale.

“It’s a lot harder than other schools I’ve been to,” said the 16 year old. “I auditioned because my sister is an alum, and I thought it was pretty cool, even though I had never acted. Now I have a new passion for theater and instrumental music.”

In between classes, practicing French horn and flute, and memorizing scripts, Howard puts in long days.

“If I do get a role, I stay after school for rehearsals, and show nights can be pretty late, but I still have to finish my homework,” she said. “It’s really taught me how to manage my time. I now want to major in theater in college and go wherever that takes me. Even my friends who don’t want to go into the arts when they leave this program know that the school has prepared us with academic and life lessons. It’s a positive experience that gives us the drive to follow our dreams.”

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