Fine Arts Academy comes to W.H. Croxford
There’s a new way of learning at Airdrie’s W.H. Croxford High School, and it comes with the distinguished title of Fine Arts Academy.
The academy is made up of the Cavalier Music Academy (CMA), Visual Arts and Media (VAM) Academy, the Drama and Performing Arts Academy, and the Mechatronics/Robotics Academy (MRA).
“It is a rethink of how school is done,” says music teacher Luke Sandham, who took the initial step in 2016 of forming the CMA.
“Ever since I started teaching, I had it in mind that there might be a different way to do music education than what has been typical.”
Sandham, who lives in Calgary and has taught for 14 years, says he struggled with the dichotomy between the music the kids listen to, soloists and small bands, and large ensembles at school.
It troubled him to see students with a passion for music quit playing once they left.
He wondered if there was a way to create music education that equipped students for a life of music independent of their school band experience.
Sandham, who also has a music degree, says when he joined Croxford he found an administration open to his ideas.
Those ideas also fit with a province-wide initiative called High School Redesign, which focuses on a more personalized and flexible learning environment.
How the music academy works is based in part, Sandham says, on Rocky View Schools’ Building Futures, a yearlong immersion program offered to Grade 10 students from several Rocky View high schools, which anchors the entire curriculum around house construction.
Using this model with Grade 10 music students, Sandham anchored the curriculum upon two core subjects, physical education, and Career and Life Management (CALM), and focused on the creation of an album of original material.
The program was “real world,” meaning his students, individually or in small ensembles, used the morning block throughout the school year to write, budget, market, produce and eventually release their own work.
There was a learning curve, Sandham says, but “there’ve been some real magical moments where you go, ‘Wow, that’s just incredible.’”
By last spring, teachers in visual arts, dance, drama and what would become Mechatronics worked with Sandham to form a larger academy.
Croxford’s Visual Arts and Media teacher Vern Gray says there had been discussions about the academy the previous fall, but he wanted to see how it would evolve.
“I watched what (Luke) was doing and I thought, ‘I’d like to try this.’”
Gray, who lives in Didsbury and is also a visual artist, has been teaching for 23 years.
English teacher Shelley Cunningham, who started the drama program, says she came to Croxford because of its openness to new ways of teaching.
“Some kids learn traditionally, and that’s OK, but we have to offer space for kids who don’t.”
Cunningham, who lives in Calgary, has a background in drama and has been teaching for eight years.
Marcy Lannan, a working actor and new to Croxford, is taking over the drama and dance academy, allowing Cunningham to be full-time English support.
While MRA, led by Croxford teacher John Remus-Everitt, does not truly meet the Fine Arts definition, Cunningham explains, there are elements of electronics and robotics that do.
How it works
The academy is currently only available to Grade 10 students, who must apply the preceding spring.
“It’s just easier to do this in Grade 10 because the timetable is fairly consistent for them,” Sandham explains.
With English and CALM as core subjects, the academies students, around 100, will have the mornings blocked off for the entire year.
“That was our biggest challenge,” Sandham says, “Getting the timetable to work so none of the kids lagged behind in other subjects.”
Projects will be completely student driven, whether individually or in groups.
“It’ll be their ideas. They’re going to create real websites, real e-portfolios … that will follow them beyond school,” Gray explains.
There will also be opportunities for the academies to work together.
For instance, if there is a guest speaker, all students will attend, and then write about it in Cunningham’s English class.
The schedule also keeps students together, so academies can focus completely on one project if necessary.
All three teachers agree the process is more a mentorship than the traditional “stand-and-deliver” model.
“We’re hoping that they’ll understand how real artists work,” Gray says, “and take that with them after school.”
For Cunningham, she’s excited about how “it all seamlessly slides into English.”
Fine Arts, she laughs, also requires the proper use of grammar and punctuation.
Sandham, with a year of experience under his belt, is looking forward to the larger academy’s impact.
“School can be different. I wanted to create an environment where students could come to school and work on something they’d be inspired by, rather than jump through hoops until they leave.
“In a nut shell, this is what we’re trying to do.”