As you enter the signature atrium at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts (DA), it’s easy to see how this high school is set apart from most. Just behind the warm, smiling front desk attendant, there is a wall covered in beautiful artwork. In fact, when you look around, you will see paintings or photos placed on each wall of the lobby. The atrium itself houses a small art gallery with amazing sculptures, stunning photography, and breathtaking paintings. Each piece is a gift from a student, created while attending school here. At a time when the arts are being cut, or severely underfunded, in many school districts across the country, DA strives to enhance students’ creative abilities while empowering them to succeed academically.
DA is nationally recognized as a leading institution for its programs in Music, Dance, Theatre, Creative Writing, Cinematic Arts, and Visual Arts, and the school’s faculty believe that “the arts enrich all human endeavors by bridging differences among people” and that teaching creative and critical thinking skills are crucial to their students’ success.
In 2010, DA was honored as the #1 National GRAMMY Signature School for having the best high school music program in the nation. The school also ranks among the top three public schools in Duval County on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). In addition, more than one-hundred and eighty students have been recognized as outstanding artists by the YoungARTS program, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Built on a rich and complex history, the school was originally erected as The South Jacksonville School in 1922, serving students grades one through nine. In 1945, the school changed its name to honor the man who helped spearhead the construction of the original structure, along with providing the only free bus service to black students for many years — Douglas Anderson. Between 1955 and 1959, DA morphed into a high school and became an educational and cultural epicenter for the African-American community, until it closed in 1968 after desegregation. Re-opened in 1985 as a high school continuing its dedication to arts and academic excellence, coupled with strong community involvement, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts is still the only school of its kind in Duval County today. Dr. Nicholai Vitti, superintendent of Duval County Public Schools, summed it up best when he referenced DA as a “Mecca and jewel for the arts” of Jacksonville.
The teachers’ dedication to their craft, quality of instruction, and passion for students’ success have inspired parents like Wendy and Philip McDaniel to devote a total of twelve years driving their four children eighty-miles round trip back and forth from St. Augustine each day. It was important to the McDaniels that the kids receive both a solid high-school education and the opportunity to cultivate their skills as artists.
“Confidence, diligence, time management, respect, ability to collaborate and create with others, coupled with good study habits and academic excellence are just a few of the skill sets our children took away from their days at DA,” Philip McDaniel shared at the recent groundbreaking ceremony that marked the school’s third round of renovations since its inception.
Now, five years after the last of the McDaniel children graduated from DA, two of their daughters sing and dance on Broadway and the McDaniels remain remarkably active in fundraising efforts for the school. “Perhaps the most important thread that bonds not only our children but likely all who are fortunate to have the opportunity to study at DA is this: They are caring, thoughtful and kind human beings who respect and value the diversity of people, places and cultures. In many cases, they will enrich the lives of all who they touch. Perhaps this will be the greatest legacy of the school.”
Yet, not all students who attend DA have the same access to the type of resources that the McDaniel children have had. Since many of the students attending DA cannot afford the additional costs of art supplies, costumes, equipment, or other various items needed for their chosen program, “creative problem solving” comes into play, as the school’s principal, Jackie Cornelius, likes to call it. It’s helped students like Tyveze Littlejohn, a young man with autism and a gifted ballet dancer. Upon entering DA, Tyveze was reading at a third-grade level, so his teachers raised the money needed for one-on-one tutoring to improve his reading so that Tyveze could graduate and move on to his career as a dancer on Broadway. “It’s not that we can’t, or the student can’t, it’s a matter of how can we make things happen,” Jackie attests. “We have a responsibility to the student to provide support based on their unique needs. That’s what we do best.”
As the emphasis on arts education expands, so do the needs of schools like Douglas Anderson. Dr. Vitti argues, “The arts aren’t something to protect. They’re something to enhance, expand, and promote.” In order to stay competitive with the needs of ever-evolving (post-secondary) conservatory schools, DA has expanded their curriculum to meet those requirements so that graduating students get the invitations to audition from the schools they have always dreamt of. The $13-million expansion is an investment, not only in the dreams of each student but in the city of Jacksonville – to become a cultural Mecca and a jewel of the nation. When you consider how many DA students have been positively impacted, and how many will impact the lives of others, we must continue to seek ways to keep the arts alive in all of our schools.