Highly creative children often show their gifts early in life, prompting parents to look for creative solutions to support that talent. By the time they reach high school, that search often includes private arts schools.
“If a child can’t pass a mirror without doing a pirouette or they’re constantly beating rhythms on their desktop, the parent has to assess their kid’s love for the arts,” says Tia Powell Harris, an arts evangelist and former CEO of Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C. “Making a decision to send them to a high school for the arts really depends on the child and where their heart is.”
Many arts schools are private and others are public magnet schools, with the major difference being cost. The field of arts-focused high schools nationwide is not large, but it is diverse, with schools that support music, dance, theater, film and visual arts — and often all of the above.
“Arts schools across the country are very different,” says Harris, who is now vice president of education and community engagement at the New York City Center. “They range from arts enrichment and enhancing academics through the arts, all the way to what Ellington is: a pre-professional training program with the seriousness, rigor and commitment required across that spectrum of arts.”
Inside an Arts-Focused High School
Arts schools often attract teens who are fiercely focused on their passion. Many dedicate countless hours to fostering their creative vision, extending the traditional school day to practice, rehearse and work on their craft.
Many put equal effort into their academic studies, a juggle that requires — and builds — excellent time management skills, says Sheryl Oring, an arts professor at Wayne State University in Michigan.
“They typically graduate from arts high schools as goal-oriented young adults who are passionate about their artistic vision and highly adept at managing their time to meet academic demands,” she says.
One of the best-known, arts-focused boarding schools in the United States is Interlochen Arts Academy, which attracts students from 40 countries to a wooded, 1,200-acre campus in northwest Michigan. The school buzzes with activity, with 92% of students living on campus while juggling intensive studies in music, dance, theater, writing and other art forms.
“Our kids really do jump out of bed in the morning,” says Trey Devey, president of Interlochen. “For many young people, the traditional school experience isn’t filled with passion. But here, they feed their passion every single day and that love of learning translates into their artistic studies and academic studies.”
Interlochen’s room and board costs more than $73,000 for the current school year, with about three-quarters of the students receiving some amount of financial aid, Devey says. Students have access to extraordinary experiences. In the days before the pandemic, Interlochen’s high school students had the opportunity to perform on iconic stages, including New York City’s Carnegie Hall and the New World Center in Miami Beach.
Harris says attending an arts high school gives children “an edge” when they apply to arts-focused colleges.
“In my experience, whether these kids have gone to private or magnet arts high schools, they’ve always been the best-prepared students in my university classes,” Oring says. “They come with a higher level of readiness because they had to be motivated to get into the high school in the first place.”
What Motivates Art Students?
Many parents and children are motivated by factors beyond landing a spot at a prestigious arts college or building a career in a theater group or symphony. Rather, they view the arts as key to building a rewarding and fulfilling life, fueled by passion and intellectual curiosity.
“Some people are exposing their kids to the arts with no expectation of producing artists who will change the world,” Harris says. “They want their children to be citizens of the world and an art school is a place where that can begin.”
Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, for instance, says on its website that the vision of its founders was to form a creative collective to “promote intercultural understanding and peace while re-envisioning the artist’s responsibility to society.” Art, the school says, is “the greatest teacher of humanity.”
“High schools for the arts foster creativity, no matter what the child will do when they go out into the world,” Oring says. “Creativity is an incredibly important factor for success in life.”
Diversity is another reason why arts schools are popular.
“There are parents for whom diversity is a consideration, and they want their child to go to an arts school because it may be more diverse,” Harris says. “They want their child to appreciate diversity and the range of cultures in a city.”
Getting Into a Private Arts School
The admissions paths to private arts schools vary, but often include an audition or process to share a portfolio of artistic work. Some schools also require an essay and standardized test scores. Education experts say that developing a relationship with the school before admission can also help.
At Interlochen, Devey says families who believe their child might be a fit should consider attending one of the school’s summer camps. This lets the child and family experience the school’s offerings, and it helps teachers get to know the child. “It can be a path to connect with faculty members and for them to meet the student,” Devey says. He also encourages families who apply to consider the early decision option.
“That’s the point when we generally will have more flexibility, more availability,” he says. “If we see this interest early on, it’s meaningful to us.”
Academic Life in Arts School
When considering an art-focused high school, parents frequently ask about the curriculum and how it compares to those of traditional public or private high schools. The answer, experts say, depends on the school.
Ellington, a magnet school in the Washington, D.C., public school system, is free to those who live in the district but charges tuition to families who come from outside. It offers students a full academic program of study and a major in arts such as dance, theater, instrumental or vocal music, literary arts and communications, visual arts, technical design and production, or museum studies.
Students have long days, often beginning at 8:15 a.m. and lasting until 5 p.m. or later, to accommodate academics and artistic development. The school requires students to maintain a minimum grade-point average and, at graduation time, the school names a valedictorian and salutatorian based on grades.
At Interlochen, academics are also taken seriously. Devey says that the school has produced 48 U.S. Presidential Scholars, more than any other high school. About half of Interlochen’s high school graduates attend a traditional college or university with the remainder typically heading to a conservatory or arts-focused college.
Devey says the highly creative education helps differentiate students in the eyes of more traditional universities. “Year after year, they find success in whatever path they want to take,” he says. “Here, we double down on the idea of being different.”
It’s hard to argue with the outcome. Interlochen alumni have been awarded 14 MacArthur Fellows Program “genius grants” and 139 Grammy Awards.
A Sample of Arts Schools
For parents interested in an arts-focused high school, it can be helpful to browse some websites. Here is a list of well-known private arts schools:
— The Chicago Academy for the Arts in Chicago, Illinois.
— Crossroads School for the Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, California.
— Manlius Pebble Hill School in Syracuse, New York.
— Oakwood School in North Hollywood, California.
— St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn, New York.
— The Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts.
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.
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