By Josette Keelor
WOODSTOCK -- The halls of Central High School in Woodstock were filled with jazz music and Broadway tunes Thursday morning as students packed classrooms to study during their summer vacation.
There were no tests, no grades and no extra credit. Students were there because it was fun, it was free and their friends could come, too.
Now in its second year, the Summer Arts Academy has encouraged Shenandoah Public School students to come and spend nearly a week honing artistic skills in master classes they wouldn't normally have during the school year.
Makayla Miley and Katelyn Boley, 16-year-olds from Strasburg, returned for a second summer to take part in a visual arts class,
This year they convinced Jason Weaver, 16, to come with them, and according to him, spending his days making stained glass and working on group projects has been "pretty all right."
A shared interest in video games inspired them to design cardboard characters for a display of heroes and villains that parallel each other's skills.
The program attracted about 100 students from around the county this year, but two years ago when organizers Sean Duffy and Heather Hess pitched their idea to the School Board, their hopes for participation were more modest.
The program grew from a need to better spend money the school system was using to send students to the Performing and Visual Arts, Northwest Governor's School, 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.
The program cost Shenandoah County $13,500 a year, and Duffy remembered the School Board considering cutting the funding from its budget.
"It just wasn't cost effective," he said. Participation from Shenandoah County had dwindled to nine, he said. "We weren't reaching enough kids for that amount of money."
The first Summer Arts Academy attracted 80 students, and at the end-of-week performance Hess remembered so many audience members showing up, "we couldn't get the chairs out fast enough."
It was a successful first year, but Duffy and Hess learned they needed to shorten the day since student interest started to give out before the 5 p.m. dismissal time.
This year, sixth to 12th graders chose among jazz band, show choir, visual arts or improv theatre, and musical performance was also available to rising sixth graders. The program also allows recent high school graduates to attend.
Makayla was one of three students to celebrate a birthday at school this week, and as Duffy pointed out, "We've got kids who are missing all-star sports to be here."
For Friday's free performance from 3 to 5 p.m., the jazz band's classic brass and percussion will include two electric guitars and a cello, the show choir plans a medley of music from Walt Disney's "Frozen" and the improv theater has prepared to be spontaneous.
Setting the program apart from others is its collaboration with professionals who have taken time this week to share their expertise with students.
On Wednesday, the 100 participants chatted on Skype with Duffy's younger brother Evan Duffy, a 2012 graduate of James Madison University who double majored in piano performance and music composition and recently started working with film composer Brian Tyler on his scoring team for movies like Marvel's "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
"That's something so attainable for them because [JMU is] right down the road," said Sean Duffy. "It's something like, 'Wow, I could do that.'"
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org