I find myself at least once a week in a place that’s become increasingly rare in schools around the country — my school’s orchestra room. As I listen to students perform, I am struck by the dedication and wealth of knowledge on display. When the bell rings and these kids move on to their other classes, the time spent in the school orchestra will be vital to their academic and personal development.
The arts were not initially a focal area for our school. Five years ago, the idea for Maxine Smith STEAM Academy was introduced to Memphis, Tennessee, as a “STEM” academy. But community members called on us not to forget the arts, which they argued should complement science and technology rather than come at their expense.
Indeed, the arts compel students to think critically and creatively about the world around them, positively affecting a number of crucial academic, social and emotional outcomes. Listening to the community, leaders in the district added an “A” for the arts — from STEM to STEAM — helping us improve student experiences by providing equitable access to a high-quality, well-rounded, arts-integrated education.
Leaders make decisions every day without consulting their constituents. It’s often easier, frankly, to do so. Yet we know that real, transformative leadership is built on deep collaboration and partnership — not top-down mandates.
The reality is that we need a community of support to do this work, to move from STEM to STEAM. As principal of Maxine Smith, I rely on a network of determined and unwavering school leaders whom I can learn from and lean on, especially my fellow New Leaders alumni. I also depend on community partners who offer unique insights, expertise and support. We prioritize a collaborative approach at every level of our decision-making.
Our arts education programs are one important example of how our students have benefited as a result. It was the community that urged us to focus on arts education from the outset, and our partnerships with local leaders and community members continue to be fundamental to our success.
Working closely with educational leaders across the district, for example, helps sustain our arts curriculum. We share a building with Middle College High School and partner closely with its principal to ensure that we maximize our hiring to maintain arts offerings in both schools. Middle College shares its visual arts teacher with us, while we share one of our music teachers with them. This arrangement supports Maxine Smith in offering three visual arts courses, and Middle College in offering both choir and band.
Our collaboration with community organizations is also vital to the ongoing success of our arts programming. Our top supporter is Memphis Music Initiative, an organization that allows musicians to share their expertise in schools across the district. For the past five years, the musicians who work with Memphis Music Initiative have partnered with us on our band, choir and orchestra. With 65 percent of our students focused on the musical arts, there’s no way we could have moved from STEM to STEAM — to be who we are as an arts academy — without them.
Our students deserve the best schools that we can give them. Our communities know what our students need, and they are often the strongest advocates for investing in programming, like the creative arts, that enriches students’ educational experiences. To make the best decisions for our students, schools and communities, we need principals and other education leaders committed to taking a collaborative approach — to working together, building a bigger table and inviting others to have a seat.
The communities we serve almost always know best when it comes to students’ needs. As leaders, when we push one another to deeply engage, ask questions and listen to community voices, we can tap into essential wisdom and capacity that enrich and strengthen our schools. Strong, collaborative leadership helps us ensure equitable access to the learning opportunities and resources that students need to be successful in school and in life. By moving from STEM to STEAM and offering our students an arts education, we are one step closer to realizing that goal.
This story about community arts and moving from STEM to STEAM was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Michael Andrew Demster is the principal of Maxine Smith STEAM Academy in Memphis, Tennessee, which emphasizes science, technology, engineering, math and the creative arts. He is a graduate of teacher-leader and principal training programs offered by New Leaders.