Brainerd High School band members march out after performing Thursday, May 10, 2018 at East Lake Academy in Chattanooga, Tenn. Brainerd battled with Howard before other performances began.

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Renewed focus on the arts

Jael Jones' favorite part of music class is learning about the different instruments — percussion, strings, woodwinds.

Kyla Wheeler loves when she gets to hit the high notes.

What does Ke'Irrah Linder like best about music class?

"When all of us work together to learn about the music, and when we get to work together like a team," she said.

Opportunity Zone schools without art teachers

  • Orchard Knob Elementary
  • Clifton Hills Elementary
  • East Lake Elementary
  • Hardy Elementary

The girls, fourth-graders at Hardy Elementary, were a few of the dozens of students from across Hamilton County's 12 Opportunity Zone schools that shared their talents at an art showcase Thursday night.

The event, featuring art galleries, music and poetry performances, a fashion show, a battle of the bands between the Brainerd and Howard high school marching bands and even a surprise video from Dalewood Middle School alumnus Usher, highlighted what students and teachers are able to achieve despite limited resources and why one of the new administration's focuses is on the arts, Hamilton County school leaders said.

"Arts is a part of a well-rounded education," said Clare Stockman, related arts lead teacher for the district. "We are excited to let this be a kickoff event for all the great things coming. The district has made a fresh commitment to the arts."

Though every school has some type of related arts options for students — music, visual arts, theater — most only have one.

The girls at Hardy only get to go to music class once a week, the rest of the week they have physical education class or time in the library. At East Lake Elementary, students have a part-time art teacher, but she is funded through a Community Foundation grant obtained by the PTA.

In fact, the district needs about 23 more art teachers for every school to have one. Superintendent Bryan Johnson included seven new art teachers in the proposed 2018-2019 budget he presented to the Hamilton County Commission Tuesday, but the district wants more — 20 in the next three years.

Jill Levine, chief of the Opportunity Zone, said art opportunities were some of the things students needed most — but it is also what is often lacking in needy schools with not enough funding.

"One of the things I noticed when I first stepped in the Opportunity Zone schools, is we weren't providing adequate or even any arts opportunities in these schools. The kids who need the richest educational opportunities the most weren't getting them," Levine said. "This celebration is a statement to the community that we are committed to providing rich arts education and learning experiences in all of these 12 schools."

Teachers have been doing their best, Stockman said, as evidenced in the performances and talent on display Thursday night.

"Teachers are resourceful and they are really passionate about outcomes for their students," she said.

Many teachers across the district have been able to take part in a professional development initiative, Cue the Artist, according to Martha McMillian, assistant principal at East Lake Elementary. The nine-week program gave regular classroom teachers strategies and supplies for bringing art activities into their classes.

The entire Opportunity Zone Arts Showcase was a collaboration across 12 schools and dozens of students and was put together by teachers and school leaders. Lindsey Hagan, the assistant principal at Barger Academy, ran the show and led the charge to put it together.

"We just started dreaming and hearing about all the great things each school was doing," Hagan said. "This shows the talent and the unique things coming out of all 12 of these schools."

Hagan added, "We know that the students who are involved in the arts are also the high-performing students."

District 2 school board member Kathy Lennon, a long-time supporter of arts education, also pointed out the commitment teachers make to their students.

"I think it says that we have great teachers who really want to expose their kids to the arts," Lennon said. "I'm so proud of the community and their passion for the arts, and I'm really glad HCDE is making a greater investment."

Johnson said making arts available to all students is an important focus across the district. Many other communities, such as Signal Mountain, also use outside resources to provide art education in their schools.

After the performance by Jael, Kyla and Ke'Irrah, their classmate hugged the group's music teacher, Ellen Leamon, around the waist.

"We have the best music teacher at Hardy," Kristiana Clark said.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.