Arts » Culture

School Redefined

ArtsWest in Eagle teaches creatively ... and creativity



The last week of August, the dreaded ring of the school bell summoned Boise youngsters out of sloth and swimsuits and back to the daily grind. However, in Eagle, some 80 kids cooled their heels another two weeks while they waited for the completion of a solid and singular building to house their classes.

For students at ArtsWest, this will be the first fall they won't have to pack into portables. You might think those kids would be full of glee at having more precious time for summer's two R's (rest and relaxation) before gritting and bearing the three R's (reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic). However, that was not the case. ArtsWest kids were champing at the bit to get back to class, laughs the school's director, Elaine Klein. She says it's not rare for students to come into her office the day after a break and beg, "Please no more vacations." Apparently, even weekends are a drag because last year students pitched her the idea of "T.G.I.M" ("Thank God It's Monday") T-shirts for the student body.

Some students dived into pre-school preparations to distract themselves from their summer antsiness. Three-ring binder? Check. College-ruled paper? Check. No. 2 pencils? Check. Metronome? Bamboo brushes? Yupo paper? Clothes to get dirty in? iPOD? Check. Parents might need to stop somewhere other than Fred Meyer to satisfy that list.

What is this curious place where pencil boxes contain thumb drives and alizarin crimson paint and where learning is something that kids want to do? As it begins its second year as a private institution recognized by the Northwest Association of Accredited Schools, ArtsWest describes itself as a school for the performing and visual arts "passionate about providing an educational experience that empowers each child both academically and creatively."

It is a school tailored to young, talented artists that allows them to spend the majority of their school day pursuing artistic endeavors under the mentorship of accomplished faculty, though it is not an arts conservatory. While students are able to devote the bulk of the day to creative pursuits, they are also required to be well-rounded and capable of simultaneously tackling a typical academic program of math, science, language and history. ArtsWest students are artists, but that doesn't let them off the hook from being analytical thinkers, responsible students, clear communicators and competent test-takers.

Justin Nielson, a creative mind behind the school and the head of the music program, recounted a meeting with parents interested in enrolling their son, a prodigious pianist. They told Nielson, "Oh, he doesn't read books." Like many, they accepted that scholastic shortcomings could be expected of a child with specific, creative brilliance; their son should not be judged by the same academic standards as other children. Klein and Nielson don't buy that.

From the beginning, they insisted that their school offer not only a complete education but also one that is particularly stringent and demanding, and that no student—regardless of his or her artistic prowess—be excused from achieving success in all academic areas.

They enforce a policy that students get a C or better on every assignment or they must redo it as many times as it takes to earn an above-average grade. The intention in not to punish the kids, it's to empower them as complex thinkers.

"Many of our students thought of themselves as academic failures before. It's not that they're not bright kids, but many are initially disinterested in academics," Klein explains.

By showing that with effort and the right support system they can succeed by anyone's standards in any milieu, students are reconfirmed as gifted, not limited. A career in the arts becomes an option and not a sentence for those with a proclivity to think outside the box.

Last year's graduates proved that although their education was alternative, it in no way restricted their options post-graduation. A handful headed off for conservatories, but most chose to continue a broad liberal arts education, and their acceptance letters illustrated that colleges felt they had the academic chops to go tete-a-tete with students of more traditionally rigorous educational backgrounds.

ArtsWest student Sydne Jackson is celebrated at school for her distinctive writing, but math has always been her nemesis. She is now not only taking upper-level courses, but is top of her class. Last year, for the first time in her life, this right-brained, abstract thinker got straight A's.

Jackson, like the other students at ArtsWest, attends classes composed of no more than 12 students seated around a table with their professor, based on the Harkness Style. Teachers are available to meet with students before class, during lunch breaks and after school to answer questions. With so few students, the teachers have the luxury of being deeply invested in each and every one, and they will go to great lengths to help students find a connection to the material.

Jackson described a few nontraditional teaching strategies that made things click for her. Math formulas and rules were taught to her as songs, which stuck so well, she sings them in her sleep. And she will never forget the day that her teacher showed up to class dressed as Neo from The Matrix movies to give a lecture on matrices. As for the fate of the little pianist with a parental excuse for not reading, Klein laughed, "Oh, he's read some books now."

The school puts itself forward as an anomaly among arts schools in that it creates an atmosphere that is non-elitist and intolerant of competition. Nielson explained that it's not just about getting the best kids; it's about facilitating a community where artists can bond and support one another. Jackson recounted a day when a fellow student, paralyzed with stage fright, found her voice after being cheered on by the entire student body.

"We're like a family," she explained.

Nielson and Klein have no interest in turning out self-absorbed artists. Pivotal to the ArtsWest mission is to inspire civic-mindedness in its students. Students partake in Service Learning, where they dedicate time and talent to local causes that make a positive impact on their community. Nielson explained that on the first day of school, they are presented with the assignment to "change the world."

ArtsWest's mission and structure are unique to more than just Idaho. "We're going to be a hallmark of educational innovation; our reputation is going to be reaching far beyond the Boise area," Nielson says.

Klein smiles and concludes, "We've put the sense of wonder back in school."

ArtsWest, 3415 Flint Dr. Eagle, 208-938-5410,


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