By Kim Walter
WOODSTOCK -- For a week in June, close to 100 students in Shenandoah County were able to focus on a specific fine art of their choosing - but they almost didn't have the opportunity.
Shenandoah County Public Schools used to participate with the Performing and Visual Arts, Northwest Governor's School. The program is a regional branch of the Virginia Governor's School for the Arts that partners with the Shenandoah Conservatory to provide an intensive two-week summer experience for high school students.
Students had to audition for the program and, if accepted, would be able to study within the fields of classical guitar, theater, visual arts and voice.
The program was costing Shenandoah County $13,500 a year, and as the School Board went through the budget process, it considered cutting the funding all together, especially since fewer and fewer students were participating.
However, due to a few persistent teachers, the board decided to keep the funds and put them toward an in-house arts program.
Sean Duffy, a math teacher at Strasburg High School, and Heather Hess, a third grade teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School, were named coordinators for the first ever Summer Arts Academy.
The academy accepted applications from any students in fifth through 12th grade interested in participating in one of five programs: visual arts, jazz band, improv theater, musical performance or show choir. Shenandoah County Public School faculty taught all programs, and the academy itself was held at Strasburg High School.
During Thursday night's School Board meeting, Hess reported that 95 students participated in the academy, compared to the nine students who participated in the Governor's School program the previous year. Additionally, only two division faculty members were hired to help with that program, compared to the 10 who ran the academy.
Duffy said the academy was a perfect way to bring the county's talent together.
"Switching to an in-house arts academy was a true win-win," he said.
Hess said classes were held from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 24-28. The week kicked off with a special appearance by 17-year-old Christian Lopez.
"The kids loved hearing from him, because he was someone they could relate to," she said.
Christian just graduated from Martinsburg High School and will attend Shepherd University this fall. Hess said Christian has been touring the East Coast with a band for some time. He's also been on American Idol twice.
"Christian has been in jazz band and show choir ... all the stuff that they do," she said. "And of course they were interested in the fact that he was on American Idol, but he told the students that it wasn't his destiny. It was an opportunity to learn more."
At the end of the week, family and friends enjoyed a string of performances and displays by each of the groups. Participants also received a Summer Arts Academy T-shirt, which had a logo designed by one of the division's teachers.
Duffy said the week wasn't meant to have a "competition atmosphere," but was instead a learning experience for everyone involved. In future years, Duffy said the academy might hold auditions.
"It'd be great if this could turn into something that's an honor and privilege to be a part of," he said. "I think it would give our fine arts students a positive experience to work toward."
Duffy and Hess decided to give a feedback survey to teachers and students so they could figure out what changes should be made for next year's academy.
Hess said that of the 95 student participants, five said they would not be interested in returning to the academy. However, she noted that four of those students were recent graduates, and couldn't return even if they wanted.
"We were pretty happy with that return rate," she said.
Students also said they enjoyed befriending students from all county schools with similar interests.
"I just really want to thank the school board for keeping the money in the budget and trusting us to do something with it," Duffy said. "With the same amount of money, we were able to do more than ever for our kids. It's a prime example of how we can work together."
Richard Koontz, School Board vice chairman, said the Summer Arts Academy was "one of the best success stories" he's ever seen.
"Wow," he said. "I'm so glad we kept that money, and I can't wait to see this program grow."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org