News and Features

At W.T. White – A New Approach to Arts Education

Katherine Nelson teaches one of her four ceramics classes at W.T. White High School. In addition to the classes, students often come in before and after school to work on projects.

Booker T. Washington High School may be Dallas best-known arts high school. But it’s not the only place where DISD students can receive an advanced education in the arts. In fact, one school in the city is building its reputation as an arts leader through another route.

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On a recent Tuesday, one of W.T. White High School’s four ceramics classes is settling into a cramped classroom. The students are about to delve back into a clay project they began the week before. But before that, it’s time for a refresher on something called pyrometric cones.

TEACHER: “What do they do?”
CLASS: “They tell you what the temperature of the kiln is.”
TEACHER: “It tells you if the kiln is hot enough. How does it do that?”
CLASS: “It bends and stuff.”
TEACHER: “It bends!”

Ruth Sanchez is one of 150 students taking the class. She says part of its appeal is that since everyone’s new to ceramics, everyone’s on the same page.

“You get inspiration from other people’s ideas,” the W.T. White sophomore says. “You get to see what they’re doing, and you’re able to put that into your own project, and the same for them. Because we’re just learning, so we’re building up together.”

And Katherine Nelson, who teaches the class, says the school’s crazy for clay.

A recent project required students to make four pieces that go together.

“It may be one of the only classes that they don’t groan when they come in and they groan when it’s time to leave, which is an awesome thing as a teacher.”

The popularity of the clay program mirrors the overall popularity of the arts at W.T. White. Last year, the school began its Visual and Performing Arts Academy, which offers classes in seven disciplines.

It might be tempting to compare W.T. White to DISD’s arts magnet school – Booker T. Washington. Like Booker T, you can attend W.T. White’s academy even if you don’t live within the school’s zone. This year, about a third of the academy’s 78 students live in other school zones. But that’s only a small fraction of the school’s 2,500 students.

James Smethers, the program’s director, says there is another key difference.

“They’re designed to make you a star. We’re designed to make you employable,” he says. “If we designed the academy so they would all be stars in their respective field, well, there are only so many stars out there. But there’s hundreds and hundreds of people working with arts skills for companies all over the place in all sorts of different ways.”

Finding out how to connect the students with those companies is one of the academy’s goals. It’s new advisory board includes business leaders. Smethers says he and his fellow teachers can guide students’ artistic development…

“But what I don’t know is what Xerox wants their employees to have in the way of the arts. In their graphics department, in whatever department creates their logos and their advertising, their ideas. … We need to get their input so that our product – our student – when they leave us, they have the skills that the job market needs.”

The maximum number of students per grade level is 240. It would take about five years to reach that level. If that happens, Smethers hopes the district would be up for renovating the school. Or, another option would be to open more arts academies says Pamela Lear, the district’s director of high school redesign.

“Ideally, it would be nice to look at other school sites so there are more options for kids,” she said.

Those are questions that probably will not be addressed for several years. Until then, the focus will be on strengthening new programs like Nelson’s ceramics class.

“I want to buy at least 10 wheels, so half the class can be doing hand-building and the other half can be doing throwing on the wheel. And they’re a thousand bucks a pop,” Nelson says. “We need shelves along the back, because as you can see, the kids can’t find their stuff. It’s just everywhere.”

Still, Nelson says these problems – problems that have come about because the school is now more dedicated to the arts – are good ones to have.

“Not everybody can get into Booker T. That’s the bottom line, and we’re giving some other kids some really good chances.”

The W.T. White High School Ceramics program and Girls Rock Dallas are the two beneficiaries of this year’s Art Conspiracy fundraiser. And two W.T. White students were selected to make art to be auctioned off at this year’s event. Below is a pic of the kids in action:

W.T. White students Stephany Granado (left) and Deborah Perales will have their work auctioned off at Art Conspiracy on Saturday. Photo: Katherine Nelson