By Michael W. Sasser
There are certain stereotypes by which many people characterize high school, not the least of which is the cliquish nature of the culture. There are the “brains,” the “jocks,” the "chorus geeks," the "band nerds," the “cheerleaders,” etc.
John Hughes practically made a career of those carefully defined roles.
However, at Oklahoma City's Heritage Hall School – perhaps better known for top-notch academics – numerous vibrant performing and visual arts classes, programs and opportunities beginning in elementary school and flourishing at the high school level bring students and faculty across those lines, enjoin students of all stripes and interests, and receive ample support from the school and community. The result is well-rounded students, well-rounded adults, and more opportunities in the arts than most other schools in the nation, particularly with budget cuts in the arts at most public schools.
"Heritage Hall offers an arts experience that you just wouldn't get at another school," said Jay Ferguson, the school's director of performing arts and Fine Arts Department chair. "Our arts programs, their quality and the support from the school itself and the community is one of the things that makes Heritage Hall distinctive. Around the country, the mantra is that arts programs are [unsustainable], whereas at Heritage Hall, arts programs are an essential part of the curriculum.
"Our administration and the community – we have a large, active, terrific group of boosters – see it as a vital part of creating well-rounded human beings," Ferguson explained.
Heritage Hall offers a wide array of arts programs and classes, from filmmaking to musical theater, drama, various musical options, etc.
"We don't have dance yet, but I hope we are able to add that," Ferguson said.
Because students can take classes instead of committing to one particular tract in the arts, all manner of students end up learning self-expression and arts techniques together – crossing all of the prototypical scholastic cultural boundaries.
"Our programs incorporate not only the committed arts students, but also any and all students," Ferguson added. "We want every student to have an arts experience. We work with coaches, teachers and the administration to make sure every student has the chance for an arts experience. We aren't the underdogs here. There isn't the usual conflict and competition as you would think in other schools."
The array of arts opportunities at Heritage Hall is particularly impressive given the relatively small size of the school. It starts at the elementary school level with daily music classes – something rare in most schools today. Then there is the selection of classes and programs. Finally, there are the productions: two full-scale musical theater productions each year, two non-musical theater productions per year, two annual giant review-type shows, musical performances, art exhibits and more.
"The idea is to give students the chance to be on-stage because it permits them to exhibit what they have learned," Ferguson said. "Project-based learning is standard at Heritage Hall, and we are all about the experience. It's challenging for everyone, but we do it. For a school our size, one wouldn't think we could offer so much."
Ferguson said there are several factors that contribute to the vibrancy, quality and scope of arts opportunities at Heritage Hall.
First, says Ferguson, is the "world class faculty."
"I've been there and back and, by far, these are the most talented and capable people I have worked with," he said. "With the faculty, our students in any discipline have one of the best in their area guiding them."
Resources – material and human – are also one of the keys to the success of Heritage Hall arts programs.
"We have a lot of resources at our disposal," said Ferguson. "Part of that is that the school has put substantial resources into the arts and arts programming. We rarely lack for anything we might need. Partially, that is because of the support of the school itself. Equally, though, it also comes from the community. We have a spectacular boosters group that is very active with us and supportive of us."
Ferguson also cited the experiential opportunities offered to Heritage Hall students and the absence of boundaries.
"Our programs are very well populated, and because students don't have to be committed to [the arts], they come from all walks of life. You don't have to be a 'chorus nerd' or 'band geek' in order to get involved."
It might not always have been that way at the school, but it didn't take long for the arts programs and opportunities at Heritage Hall to become considerable draws.
"When I first started, there was some recruiting, but once the many opportunities were known by the students, we were able to 'sell' opportunities quickly," Ferguson said. "There was so much thirst for these types of programs. I can't believe the same thirst doesn't also exist elsewhere."
While there may be demand for strong, experience-based and diverse arts programs at many schools in Oklahoma and around the country, that demand is being met every day at Heritage Hall.
For more information on Heritage Hall, visit www.heritagehall.com.