Art in the heart of South Omaha

hances are, you don't know Omaha has a public high school of performing arts, It may further surprise you that South High School is that Fame-style institution.

South has been the Omaha Public Schools' Visual & Performing Arts Magnet for two decades. But the architect for the arts emphasis there, retired South drama teacher Jim Eisenhardt, said "by the time we were named an arts magnet, we were already an arts magnet in all but name."

Dramatic growth in student numbers has seen a corresponding growth in programs that finds South with the district's most robust arts curriculum. Students can even elect to be an arts major. Seventy percent of all students take at least one arts class. Forty percent take at least two. Participation has exploded, especially in dance and guitar.

The interest and activity have South facing serious space issues to accommodate it all. Thus, the school's embarked on a $12 million private fundraising campaign for a planned Visual & Performing Arts addition.

Becky Noble, South curriculum specialist and a drts Magnet facilitator, said space is at such a premium that some labs and classrooms meet in cramped former "closets." Film and music technology classes share the same small digs. Neither has a dedicated studio.

"We can't grow music tech and film anymore."

With no permanent spaces for some classes, she said, "they're constantly moving from place to place." Even the dance studio is makeshift. The present black box theater lacks flexibility and accessibility.

She described conditions as "maxed out," adding, "We need space that is appropriate to enhance learning."

Then there's the battle for updated technology. She said it can be difficult getting district officials to accept why not just any computers or software programs will do for the high-end things students create in film, digital art and music tech.

"We are so unusual in the district that sometimes they almost don't know what to do about us."

Asking for state-of-the-art gear and contracting professionals to teach dance takes some explaining.

"It's an ongoing kind of beating our heads with having them understand that it is a special thing and it is important, it's not just a fluff thing. We don't have students in here for fluff. We have them in here because there is a real, honest curriculum."

"Our basic philosophy to use art as a springboard to enhance problem-solving and abstract thought," South theater director Kevin Barratt said.

Noble said the fact teachers make-do and still net great results speaks to their commitment.

"It is really a labor of love."

The 55,000 square foot addition would add seven general education classrooms, dedicated studio spaces, a new black box theater and an art gallery. Noble said South's fortunate to have a strong advocate making its case in Toba Cohen-Dunning, executive director of the Omaha Schools Foundation, the project's fiscal agent.

Administrators, such as former principal Cara Riggs, are arts advocates, too. "She put some additional money behind it and now our current principal Ruben Cano is doing a great job of listening," Noble said.

"The equity formula of the Omaha Public Schools allowed for dollars to follow students," Riggs said. "As we received more dollars for our magnet students, we continued to find ways to strengthen our magnet programs, We found it important to create programs in the arts that students couldn't get anywhere else in the metro: Dance taught by professional dance instructors; a piano lab and a guitar program; a film program and a computer gaming program.

"Our school culture improved and enrollment rocketed, with successful programs and positive word-of-mouth."

South staffers, past and present, say they hoped the arts would catch fire but Eisenhardt said no one expected this.

"We started a dance class with 12 kids and now it's up above 400 (with five styles offered). There are over 300 kids in guitar and piano."

Alum Kate Myers Madsen, who was active in music and theater at South, theorizes why the arts flourish there.

"I think the reason it's so well-received is that it's so in the community of people who are incredibly talented but might not come from homes that have the means to put them in private voice or instrument lesson and dance classes. It's providing huge value to students who normally would not be able to access it."

This arts infusion didn't just happen, it was intentionally built by Eisenhardt and Co. from 1982 to his 2006 retirement. He cultivated relationships with community arts organizations that exposed students to professionals in many disciplines. Over time, South became the district's arts epicenter and the magnet designation naturally followed.

"My colleagues across the district knew what the arts program was at South," he said. "No one ever asked me why we got it (magnet status) and not somebody else. There were great arts teachers already here like Toni Turnquist and Mary Lou Jackson and Josh Austin working hard to create something important."
Leo Adam Biga

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