How do you boost arts in the Detroit district? More teachers, better curriculum, earlier student exposure

Mayowa Lisa Reynolds beams when she shows off the recital space dedicated to Aaliyah, the late singer and actress. Reynolds, principal of the Detroit School of Arts, is quick to point to the many legendary musicians who, like Aaliyah, are alumni. 

This is the same recital hall where students recently held a concert, “Stay Woke,” in honor of another legendary artist, rapper, and activist Nipsey Hussle. The show focused on social justice, with a panel discussion and an appearance by Detroit rapper Icewear Vezzo.

“It was really, really exciting because the students produced the show,” she says. “That’s one thing that I’ve tried to do this year is that students have come to me with ideas and I give them the framework and a little support.”

The Detroit School of Arts is the city’s performing and fine arts high school that in the early 2000s was relocated into a new, state-of-the-art campus. Here, students pursue a rigorous curriculum focused on the arts and traditional academics.

Trouble is, Reynolds says, not enough Detroit children know about it.

When the current campus was constructed with the help of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, it was supposed to position a Detroit high school to compete with the likes of LaGuardia High School in New York (based on the 1980s film Fame).

But with years of districtwide school closings, student population losses, budget cuts, and a series of emergency managers, that goal was sidelined.

Today, about 400 students attend the school, although it can hold as many as 1,200. Much of the campus is either empty or used for other purposes.

That’s something the district wants to change.

“We have a renewed commitment to the whole child, and that commitment includes the arts,” says Iranetta Wright, deputy superintendent of schools. “We want them to be proficient in math, science, and social studies, but also have proficiency in the arts.”

When Superintendent Nikolai Vitti took over the Detroit district in 2017, he prioritized arts programs in elementary and middle school. He believes students exposed to the arts at an early age will be more likely to attend the flagship high school. 

To increase interest in the arts throughout the district, it hired more teachers in K-8 schools, invited students to attend performances at the high school, and offered students at feeder schools other opportunities to check out the campus.

At DSA, the district is hiring more instructors, lengthening the school day to 4:40 p.m., and expanding the curriculum so students can explore various areas of the arts.

The district is also working more strategically with community partners to develop better arts programming. Previously, the district leaned on supporters like the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Institute of Arts, and the Motown Museum just to keep the arts alive in the school. 

“For a period of time our arts partners did a lot in the district because there didn’t seem to be any district leadership,” Wright says.

Now these organizations can collaborate with leadership to provide master classes with professional artists, invite prominent guest speakers, and offer more field trips to students. 

It wasn’t until Weveney Williams-Barber, 17, a junior and a voice music major, reached sixth grade that she had began to think about the possibility of attending the arts high school. When she started at the school of arts, she didn’t know how to read music and her singing experience had taken place outside of the classroom in a community choir.

But then her class attended a musical at the high school and that sparked her interest in singing.

Her talent has only grown since then. She says that she’s had the same choral teacher throughout her education at the school of arts, whose coaching and mentorship have led to Williams-Barber being invited to a number of prestigious singing competitions.

In May, Williams-Barber and hundreds of other choral and instrumental students brought down the house at the district’s end-of-year recital held at Martin Luther King Jr. High School with a soulful tribute to Aretha Franklin.

She and another student alternated singing verses of Franklin’s iconic Respect single, igniting an eruption of applause from the audience.

Williams-Barber’s daily routine includes a full school day’s worth of classroom instruction, half dedicated to singing, her major. When she gets home she does vocal training, reads sheet music, and listens to classical singers such as George Shirley and contemporaries like Anderson .Paak. That’s in addition to her other homework and part-time job at a fast-food restaurant.

Williams-Barber isn’t interested in becoming the next Aaliyah. Instead she wants to use her experience at the Detroit School of Arts to help other Detroit kids tap into their creativity.

“After I get a lot of teaching under my belt, I just plan on getting my doctorate and using it so I can explore the classical music world and also open my own little fine arts facility for high school students,” she says. “It would be something they could do after school if they don’t have it in their schools.”

You can read the district’s full fine and performing arts plan below: