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Reunion planned to mark Miller South’s 20 years

1/17/2013 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts’ Show Choir is shown performing at the I-X Center.
Miller South students are shown studying weather by observing famous paintings.
Photos courtesy of Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts
AKRON — Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts is celebrating 20 years in existence, and to mark the event, the school will hold a reunion gala Feb. 23.

Fourth-grade teacher Amy Heffernan, who is in her 19th year teaching at the school, said all former students, staff and their families are invited.

The free celebration will begin at 5:30 p.m. with a mixer in the cafeteria, followed by a program at 7 p.m. in the auditorium.

The mixer will be an opportunity for alumni to get together and reminisce about their Miller South days and to talk about what they are doing now, according to Heffernan.

More than 200 of the school’s current students in orchestra, band, dance and drama will participate in the program that evening, said Heffernan, which will be a “peekaboo” performance showcasing what is happening now at Miller South. Art exhibits also will be displayed.

Then and now

Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts opened in the fall of 1993.

The building that houses the school, located at 1055 East Ave., was constructed in 1956 as South High School, according to Akron Public Schools’ (APS) website. South High closed in 1980. The school’s current name also honors George C. Miller, Akron’s first African-American principal.

Since it opened, Miller South has housed students in grades four through eight, although in the beginning, the goal was to expand to ninth through 12th grade, according to Heffernan.

Margo Snider was the school’s first principal, and she stayed in the position 13 years, said Heffernan.

“When I was hired to teach drama at Miller South that summer before it opened, Margo Snider said to me that the job would be for one year, and whether or not it continued would depend upon how successful we were in meeting the goals of an arts-integrated program. It was all a huge experiment,” according to Wendy Duke, who has been teaching drama at the school ever since.

“After the first year, it was very evident that we were on to something very positive in terms of our approach. There was no question that the school would continue on,” Duke added.

In 2004, the APS Board of Education passed a resolution that the school’s theater be named in Snider’s honor, noting she “had a profound impact on every aspect of Miller South from its curriculum and instruction to the lives of its students.”

Snider has been invited to help with introductions at the reunion gala, according to Heffernan.

The school’s current principal, Dawn Wilson, who was hired last winter, also may help with introductions, she said.

This year, 502 students are enrolled at Miller South, according to school staff.

In 1993, there was one fourth-grade class with 17 students, according to Heffernan. Today there are three fourth-grade classrooms, and her class has 28 students in it, she said.

Students travel from areas as far as the Kent, Twinsburg, Black River and Wadsworth school districts to attend Miller South, according to Duke.

Potential students have always had to go through an audition process, conducted by both arts and academic staff. What they are looking for in potential students, Heffernan said, is “a little bit of skill and ability,” but “more so a desire and appreciation for the arts.”

Students at Miller South each have an area of focus — visual art, vocal music, instrumental music, dance or drama.

Of the nine periods in a school day, students get two periods of classroom time in the arts every day, and they also learn academics in arts-enriched classes, according to Duke.

“If you use the arts to teach academic material, they are more likely to retain it,” and students’ test scores reflect that, said Heffernan.

“We really and truly believe they learn better through the arts,” she added.

Collaborations across the arts and academics are the norm, said Duke.

Some examples are a dramatization of the creation of Picasso’s “Guernica,” written and performed by sixth-graders; a student-written musical based on the children’s book “The Greedy Triangle”; and all-school revues on themes such as the history of Broadway, oceans and science fiction.

Miller South students also get to go on more than the average number of field trips, according to Heffernan.

Fourth-graders get to visit New York City for three days every year, and the Show Choir travels to Europe every other year, she said. Also, the Drama Department goes to New York or Chicago every other year, she said. Trips tend to involve both seeing and being seen, as students perform and get to experience the arts as well, she added.

The school also boasts a very low absentee rate, said Heffernan.

“Kids want to be here, and they are excited to be here,” she said.

There are no cliques at Miller South, according to Heffernan.

“We preach this stuff, and kids believe it — that they’re unique,” she said.

That does not mean students and staff operate with the belief that everyone who attends the school is going to be a famous actor, singer, artist or dancer, she said.

Still, some former students do achieve fame. One example is Jack Scott, who attended Miller South from 2000 to 2005 and is currently dancing and singing on Broadway in the musical “Newsies.” When the fourth-grade classes visit New York City this May, they hope to see Scott perform, said Heffernan.

For more information about the reunion gala, contact the school at 330-761-1765 or visit the Facebook page: Miller South VPA 20 Year Anniversary Bulletin Board.

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