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An Arts School Takes the Stage

Students Showcase Their ‘Magical School’ with Annual Musical


Baton in hand, Jaeda Selden led fellow second-graders Kamellah Kidd and Lizzariah Robertson in practicing a song from “The Wiz.” Taking a break for a reporter, they chatted excitedly about the hit musical they would soon present on the big stage of Innovation Central High School.

“The thing I like about the musical is you’re performing for lots of people,” Jaeda said, with a theatrical touch. “You get to dance and sing. You get to be a part of something very special, and it’s real fun.”

The students were equally enthusiastic about Coit Creative Arts Academy, the arts-themed school where the annual musical proudly crowns the school year.

“I like it because I get to do art, I get to sing,” Kamellah explained. “This is my dream school.” To which Jaeda added, “It’s like a magical school here.”

Consider theirs a testimony to the popularity of Coit Creative Arts, a pre-K-5 school where art, music, drama and dance are taken as seriously as math, reading, writing and science. Here, the arts are considered not an extra but an essential part of about 280 students’ education, enriching their understanding of academics and opening up their creative potential.

Mindy Hamstra, a volunteer from Coit Community Church, helps sew costumes

The arts and academics integration will be even stronger next fall, when Coit begins implementing the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program, said Principal Jason McGhee.

But even as he and his staff prepare for that multi-year process, the school is abuzz with parents, students and teachers preparing for “The Wiz,” to be performed Wednesday at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. at Innovation Central.

“When it’s time to perform, a lot of the kids, they just transform,” McGhee said. “I get these goosebumps that are so strong. They get up there and just blow it out of the water. It’s amazing.”

Arts and Academics Integrated

McGhee, in his third year as principal, sees the arts transforming a lot of students at Coit Creative Arts Academy. Students there take art and music twice a week – at other GRPS elementary schools, it’s once a week for each — and dance once a week for most of the year. Many students also take Honors Art and Honors Choir. Unlike most other GRPS schools, Coit has full-time art and music teachers in Karen Brady and Debra Perry, while Patrick Johnson teaches dance.

Teachers work to integrate the arts into academic subjects and academics into the arts. For example, students may paint planets to support a science unit on outer space.

While an arts-heavy curriculum helps many students academically, it also confers social-emotional benefits such as a sense of belonging and opportunities to thrive in something other than tests, says McGhee, a former art teacher.

Parent Jodi Schmalz, left, picks up costume material from incoming PTO President Christy Dam, who says Coit “gives kids a chance to shine who might not otherwise”

“It breaks you out of this framework of ‘I have to get this right, I have to answer this question, prepare for this exam,’” McGhee said. “It breaks you out of this and says, ‘You know what, I have this amazing imagination, and I can use this to solve problems, to answer questions, to ask questions, to explore, to learn who I am.’

The annual musical puts students’ imaginations to work on everything from designing sets to portraying singing munchkins. It also puts plenty of parents to work sewing mouse costumes and painting scenery in time for the production.

“Oh my God, we have 10 days!” exclaimed PTO vice president Jenn Bell on a recent afternoon, as she helped paint the dungeon of the Wicked Witch of the West, played by her daughter, Phoebe. “I’m not freaking out. It’s OK.”

Bell said her “drama child” has thrived at Coit. She and other parents praised the school’s diversity and its interweaving of the arts into academics. “I feel like the art aspect of the education totally enhances how they learn,” Bell said.

Jodi Schmalz dropped off a basket of giant lollipops and picked up material to sew into “tornado skirts.” She said Coit is a great fit for her kindergartner, Mayer, who loves painting and dancing. “It’s good for him to tap into his visual learning style,” she said.

Erica Starks’ Dorothy fends off flying monkeys in rehearsal at Innovation Central High School

Students Take Ownership

On the stage of Innovation Central, the cast of “The Wiz” held daily rehearsals leading up to tomorrow’s performance. Although Coit choir teacher Debra Perry was in charge of her seventh annual musical, students were running the show, from director Banin Hassani barking out “Ready, set, action!” to Ben Tallent handling sound, Max Mousa wielding the spotlight and Kaidan Whitman managing backstage.

“They take pride in it,” said David Dublis, Coit’s creative arts specialist. “They deliver every time. A little bit of trust goes a long way.”

Perry agreed, having seen what responsibilities students can handle in previous productions such as “The Lion King” and “The Sound of Music.” In the process they learn the value of hard work, team-building and a love for music, she said.

“The kids are taking it upon themselves to take ownership of this production, something that they can really feel proud of doing on their own,” said Perry, who previously taught choir for 17 years at Central High. “It’s a wonderful opportunity, not only in the acting and singing but in the production. It’s their show.”

Students had to audition for roles and apply for tech positions, complete with references. They could be dropped from the show for bad behavior, as some have in the past. Altogether, about 135 students will take part in the show.

Choir teacher Debra Perry says students take ownership of the annual musical

Fifth-grader Erika Starks got the plum role of Dorothy, and showed no sign of stage fright as she rehearsed the song “Soon as I Get Home,” which Diana Ross sang in the 1978 movie version. But then, you might expect that from a girl wearing a backpack featuring Michael Jackson, who played the Scarecrow.

“What I really like is being able to hang out with people,” Erika said, including real-life friends Marcus Brown (Scarecrow), Quinn Hodgman (Cowardly Lion) and Dominic Davin (Tinman). “It’s just really cool how I get to go out and sing songs, and be able to express myself, and be able to do this amazing story of the wizard. So it’s pretty awesome.”

She could have been describing how a lot of students feel not just about the musical, but about their “magical school.

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Research Supporting Benefits of the Arts

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is editor-in-chief of SNN, and covers Rockford and Grand Rapids. As a reporter for The Grand Rapids Press/mLive from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years and its columnist for 20. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today, Religion News Service and Faith & Leadership magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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