Making the Grade: Visual arts programs keeps alums active at school

Thirteen years ago, Kendrick Phillips fell in love with a school. Davis Academy in Dunwoody stole her heart with its determination to be fully invested in arts education.

“They understood that arts are an important part of the core curriculum,” said Phillips. “They understood that deep learning can happen in a theater class, and they wanted to build a theater program and a performing arts center. I was thrilled to be part of that culture.”

As the school’s director of visual and performing arts, Kendrick organized a variety of programs for the 575 students in pre-K through eighth grade. She started by developing a theater curriculum around Shakespearean studies, then moved on to film, video and broadcasting classes. She also assembled a band and choir, and in 2008, began staging musicals starring any kid who auditions.

“We do these large-scale musicals, and everyone can participate,” she said. “This year, we’re doing ‘The Lion King Jr.’ with 201 children. There will be kids in the rafters, the aisles, everywhere.”

Among those kids will be Davis alumni who have such fond memories of being in Kendrick’s shows that they come back to pitch in.

“Our ‘alumni mentors’ stage manage and work with the younger kids,” said Kendrick. “It gives them community service and mentoring hours, and at the same time, helps them learn and grow and inspire other children. They have a real commitment to giving back.”

In the last six years, more than 300 alums have worked after school and during their spring breaks to make the shows successful. Hannah Prass, a junior at Dunwoody High, has been back every year since she graduated in 2013.

“I was in the crew behind the scenes for my eighth-grade year and loved it,” she said. “I’ve been back ever since at every play practice, helping them organize and choreograph the dances. During the show, I wear a headset0 with a direct line to Ms. Kendrick, so if a light goes out, for instance, she can call me. I know I had a great experience in the shows when I was there, and now it’s a lot of fun going back to be with the kids.”

UGA sophomore Jeremy Schwartz worked on lighting and music cues during his last year at Davis and has been back each year to be part of the production.

“During all four years of high school, I went to Sunday practices, and during dress rehearsals and show weeks, I was there every day after school,” he said. “Last year, I spend my spring break, from 9 in the morning until 10 at night helping with music, lighting and the set. I come back because Ms. Kendrick was one of my favorite teachers, and my education at Davis was amazing. I’m giving back to her and to the students.”

Kendrick is looking forward to expanding an already successful arts program by adding dance to the curriculum. She’s also excited about the school’s plan to build a 650-seat arts facility with costume rooms, a scenery shop and a recording studio that will offer opportunities for more alumni mentors to get involved.

“Seeing these kids come back makes me excited about future of arts advocates,” she said. “They’ve learned that lessons don’t always happen inside the classroom and that theater can be empowering. It’s taught them to be confident and articulate - skills they can use for the rest of their lives.”

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