Early in 2014, the non-profit Aspen Institute and Detroit Symphony Orchestra were looking for a performing arts-focused Detroit school to hold an Arts Strike, which is defined as an event in which celebrated artists engage educators and students, and other to share the unique power of the arts to empower, enrich and educate.
The choice was obvious: Spain Elementary-Middle School, which has worked closely with the Symphony, is near Orchestra Hall and has been offering students a comprehensive performing arts curriculum combined with top-notch academics for more than 40 years.
The Arts Strike on April 4, 2014 brought legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma and former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer and Director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program Damian Woetzel to Spain. Yo-Yo Ma and Woetzel, and other acclaimed artists and musicians from around the world, performed for and collaborated with Spain students, offering them a once-in-a-lifetime artistic experience.
The event was undoubtedly extraordinary. But then again, Spain students are used to “extraordinary.”
“Students in Tune with Excellence”
“What makes Spain special is our academic excellence,” Principal Ronald Alexander. “We believe in giving students the best education possible. We have high standards for our children, and they reach for that.”
But to be a well-rounded student, Alexander and his school staff passionately believe that students should experience and master a wide array of extra-curricular activities, including a special emphasis on music and the performing arts, for which the school is renowned.
“Music is the universal language,” said Alexander, a former music teacher who sings in his church choir and plays the piano and a variety of instruments. He added that music incorporates elements of all the core subjects including English-Language Arts (writing and reading music); math (counting beats and notes); science (formulas of sounds and musical combinations) and social studies (history of musicians and genres).
“Music brings children alive,” said Alexander, who has been principal of the Midtown school for 18 years. “It allows them to express themselves. When (our teachers) find ways to make meaningful connections to the academics, as well as to music, our children begin to blossom, they begin to grow… We want our students to be ‘in tune with excellence.’ That’s our motto.”
Being in tune with excellence is easy for DaAna Gardner, 13. She’s a straight-A student who likes playing basketball, is an advanced violinist and who plays the keyboard, sings and dances.
“Music is my thing,” she said, taking a break from the perfectly perpendicular high steps she was doing with her dance class in the school’s ballet studio. “I love anything to do with music. When I’m angry, it calms me down.”
That’s the case with so many students, Alexander said. For some of them, music and other electives are the connection that keeps them excited about coming to school and learning. Many Spain students play more than one instrument and have had the opportunity to travel the world, including to South Africa, with the school’s musical groups.
“When I play music, I’m so happy inside,” said Amber Colvin, a 4.0 student who plays the clarinet, flute, piano and violin.
That’s a significant reason why Spain places such a heavy emphasis on performing arts with offerings that include dance, drama, vocal music, orchestra, and art. The school is even built for musical excellence, housing the Zodie A. Johnson Performing Arts wing that includes the dance room/ballet studio, chorus room, and the high-tech, acoustically designed auditorium built in 2000.
But Spain also offers a wide array of STEM courses for students who are not musically inclined. Other electives and course offerings include chess, academic games, Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP); computer applications and an abundance of sports.
New this year: the school employed creative scheduling to offer debate as an elective, thanks to Resource Room teacher Ivy Bailey, who volunteered to teach the class.
Culture of respect
Elective courses, like debate, also help students raise their achievement in core subjects and bring about passion in students, Bailey said.
“I felt that debate was a way to give them an opportunity to take criticism constructively,” she said. “Students are also learning there is a way to argue formally.”
The philosophy of learning to “argue formally” fits in with Spain’s culture of respect. The hallways are quiet during class. Students raise their hands in class. When in the halls, they walk in straight lines.
“We don’t allow commotion here,” Colvin said. “We are very smart students.”
Mr. Alexander often walks up to groups of students in the hall and holds impromptu “family meetings,” talking to students about their schoolwork, their families and taking the opportunity to coach them on tucking in their shirts and standing up straight.
“I love my students,” he said, adding that they are his passion and the school is like a family. And as with any family, the head of the household sets the tone.
“He demands respect from everyone – parents, students, and teachers,” Bailey said of Mr. Alexander. “It makes for a good atmosphere.”
Something you didn’t know:
The school’s performing arts wing is named after former Assistant Superintendent Zodie A. Johnson, who was a supporter of the arts. When then-Spain teacher Victoria Miller approached her with the idea to infuse Spain with a performing arts curriculum, legend has it that Johnson exclaimed: “Let the baby be born.” Miller, after whom the auditorium is named, went on to Martin Luther King, Jr. Senior High School, where she led the band to acclaim and world travels.